By Chris Creighton-Kelly, June 2013

Emerging artists are attempting to thrive outside the mainstream arts infrastructure.

They are not exactly dropping like flies, so maybe it is a little early to call it a trend. About a year ago, the 50-year-old Vancouver Playhouse Theatre called it quits. In February of this year, Toronto’s Queen of Puddings Music Theatre announced it was closing in the fall after 20 years of producing new Canadian opera works. Today, I got a message that Stage West Theatre in Mississauga, one of the last dinner theatre venues in Canada, is finishing its run after 27 years. 

It is a generational thing. As new forms and new forums of art have burst on the scene—digital based; flash mob performances; DIY culture; new style home concerts; commercial shops as venues; post-graffiti street art; new interdisciplinary art practices; artist as facilitator; robotic art; new circus art—to name a random few, the old formats wither. 

These days the words “symphony,” “audience” and “declining” are often heard in the same sentence. Canada is currently home to over 40 European-derived symphonic orchestras. They suck up a huge percentage of public funding for music organizations. Is it not reasonable to ask, in a so-called multicultural society, whether 40-plus is too many orchestras? 

In one sense, this changing of the guard (and the avant-garde) is as it should be. In whatever many ways folks may quarrel about art or its cultural context, one thing is certain: cultures change, and so do art movements, art forms, art contexts and ultimately art meanings. Some die off; others emerge, fresh, trendy, keen to redefine. 

Predictably though, there is resistance to these changes within the arts milieu. The art forms that were present at the birth of “professionalism” back in the ’50s still predominate 60 years later. Yes, a few organizations are dying off as I mentioned, but in general, emerging artists are attempting to thrive outside the mainstream infrastructure. 

How did we get here? The period from the ’50s to the ’80s engendered an unofficial, cultural nation-building. There was money—and political will—to build a Canadian professional arts infrastructure from scratch. I can recall more than one formal meeting where an arts bureaucrat would say, “Well, we do not have a program for that, but if you sent us a proposal we would take a serious look at...” Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. 

The vision of a full-fledged arts system, created with government largesse, solidified the symphonic orchestras, the ballets, the regional “museum theatre” companies, the public art gallery system, and the major publishing houses. Even artist-run centres caught the tail end of these investments in something called “Canadian Culture.”

But since the ’80s, the last three decades have ushered in an ever-decreasing support for these arts investments. This has happened during a time when Aboriginal artists and their art forms have been undergoing a renaissance, rightfully demanding a fair share of attention—not to mention the hundreds of art practices and traditions that have arrived in Canada from every corner of the planet. Why are they not part of our nation-building? 

Back in the ’80s, I worked for a visionary program at the Canada Council for the Arts called Explorations. It was designed to be the antennae of the institution, looking out for new practices, innovative hybrid art and imaginative stuff that simply did not conform to standard definitions of art. 

It was risky business—some projects were seen as failures; others launched bold art adventures that jump-started art careers which continue to this day. We at Explorations were constantly suggesting to the other sections at the Council that they needed to trim a little from the budgets of the have-much organizations and pay more attention to the have-nots. The Council cut the program completely in the mid-’90s. 

To this day the whole system remains clogged. An older generation of artists feels entitled while a younger one feels precluded. 

Let’s look at a few examples from the Victoria visual arts community. First on the scene was the venerable Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. It is over 60 years old and came of age during the nation-building period. 

In 1967, Xchanges Gallery was born using the tried and tested formula of artists getting together, securing a large building, dividing it into studios but saving enough collective space to create a public gallery. Through four different location changes, Xchanges continues to exist as a successful artists’ cooperative. 

A few years later, in the early ’70s, Open Space was started, bursting into place with a combination of counterculture energy and a just-starting-to-be-aware-of knowledge that other spaces like this existed across Canada. By the end of the decade, the artist-run centre network was formalized and funding, however paltry, was found to support them. 

Flash forward two decades to the beginning of the 21st century. Forward to artist-run centres like the Fifty Fifty Arts Collective. Fifty Fifty asks artists to make a small donation which will “provide space for artists of all disciplines who have yet to be defined in the mainstream.” 

Or forward to the Ministry for Casual Living. Running on a shoestring with dedicated art volunteers, these two organizations have existed for over a decade showcasing emerging artists. 

“Of course, we would love to have ongoing funding support,” Cameron Kidd of the Ministry tells me, “but we work with whatever we have.” Lately that has been without even a formal space; currently they have a window front and part of an alley. “Ideally we would love to have a new space,” says Kidd. 

He continues, “We have always adapted to our situation. That is a part of the artist-run lifestyle,” giggling at his own pithy phrase. “We do not think of what we do in terms of funding…rather with what artists want to do, which is not necessarily selling art. If we like a project, we will find a way to do it because we believe in it as art.” 

Surprisingly, he is not cynical about organizations that already receive public financing. “If you look at a place like the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, it took them a long time to get established, to be taken seriously, to be publicly supported. It does take time and we have time. We are going to be around for a while yet.” 

It is a generational thing. An attitude that remains open-minded, realistic, yet confident about the future. An attitude that imagines new ways of organizing. Maybe every artistic vision does not need a cumbersome non-profit society to bring it to fruition. 

An attitude that re-imagines its projects in relation to its audience, that inspires a new kind of public engagement. An attitude that is more community-oriented. Maybe one does not have to be a famous artist just to get something aesthetically useful done. 

Old irrelevant arts organizations will die off. They should. Or they will be changed. And obviously, the social structures—both online and off—that surround these organizations are shape shifting as well. 

Cultures do change. And the tangible factors that sustain art practice—infrastructure, education, access to tools and venues, funding, critical discourse—are all in the process of redefining themselves. Critically, one intangible factor—the culture of how we make culture—is changing along with them. 

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is the co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today.