From Arcade Fire to lost Indigenous art, Socrates Project seeks to elevate arts scene

McMaster University is going all in on a $2 million investment in culture to bring a barrage of innovative arts programming to Hamilton in the coming months — and all for free, or very close to it.

New $2M initiative to bring a wealth of new arts programming to Hamilton

Wolostoq musician Jeremy Dutcher is kicking off McMaster University's Socrates Project performances on Wednesday night at L.R. Wilson Hall. (Matt Barnes)

McMaster University is going all in on a $2 million investment in culture to bring a barrage of innovative arts programming to Hamilton in the coming months — and all for free, or very close to it.

It's all part of the Socrates Project, a two-year pilot intended to strengthen the relationship between the school and the city, and add another building block to Hamilton's increasingly robust arts scene.

It's a case of right place and right time for both the city and the school. The university is looking to broaden its horizons and place an emphasis on liberal arts, and finds Hamilton at the perfect juncture to do so with the city in the midst of a cultural upswing.

It's a shift in focus that a school historically known for its hard science and medical research is pivoting to an ambitious arts project, but the time is right for the school and city, said Patrick Deane, university president.

"In the moment, Hamilton is just in a wonderful kind of arts renaissance," he said. "The arts scene in the city is now so vibrant … Socrates seeks to take this to another level."

All this week, CBC Hamilton is presenting a series of stories about the city's arts scene — where it has been, where it is going, what's working and what isn't. The Socrates Project is McMaster's attempt to carve out its own niche in the arts community, and contribute to a city that is looking to new ideas to shape its identity.

Level up

The Socrates Project will include cultural events like concerts, theatre productions and art exhibits, as well as academic debates, lectures and outreach. The school says it was all made possible thanks to a $2 million investment from chancellor emeritus Lynton "Red" Wilson.

The project, named after the classical Greek philosopher, kicks off Wednesday night at the concert hall inside the school's new L.R. Wilson Hall, with a performance from Jeremy Dutcher, a singer-songwriter of Indigenous Wolostoq heritage.

Jeremy Dutcher’s new album reaches across generations to a nearly forgotten history and brings ancestral voices back to life. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, or Our Maliseets Songs, started as a seed planted by one of his elders more than five years ago. 13:12

His debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, is a reimagining of wax cylinder recordings performed by members of the Wolostoq community in the early 1900s — a time when the Canadian government had essentially banned Indigenous people from passing on their traditions.

Dutcher is a classically trained tenor and pianist, bringing a level of true fusion to his performances.

"That moment when I first heard these recordings was a pretty profound one. These recordings aren't really known in my community except for by the very few people that are the song carriers," Dutcher told CBC Radio. "I had never heard these songs growing up at all and most people in my nation don't even know about them."

The project's programing then continues on Oct. 14 with a performance by the Art of Time Ensemble, which strives to blend "high art" and pop culture. The group is performing its Hosted by Glenn Gould program, in which the celebrated pianist's perspective is presented, via screenings of CBC's Glenn Gould on Television, as introductions to live performances of chamber music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Beethoven.

Then on March 6 at First Ontario Place, acclaimed Canadian dance artist Peggy Baker is bringing Who We Are in the Dark to Hamilton. It's a contemporary dance show that includes live music performed by Jeremy Gara and Sarah Neufeld of Arcade Fire fame. 

Popping the 'Mac bubble'

You'd be hard pressed to find a more eclectic mix than indie rock alongside live dance, and mash-ups of classical music alongside pop culture and Indigenous voices — and that's by design.

Project director Rina Fraticelli told CBC News that she hopes the project helps return liberal arts to its rightful place as a pillar of post-secondary education.

"We want to reverse the tide of the last generation or so that sees the university solely as a place for people to come and train specifically for professions, as opposed to just generally become part of a community, a national community, an international community," she said.

University President Patrick Deane, right, says the Socrates Project owes its creation to a donation from chancellor emeritus Lynton "Red" Wilson. (McMaster Daily News)

On top of entertaining, the university also hopes the program serves another purpose — to pop the so-called "Mac Bubble," and connect the university and the city in a more concrete way. For years, McMaster has been insulated in it's own corner of Westdale, as a kind of entity onto itself. 

Dean says it has long been a priority of his to bridge that gap. 

"Definitely, Socrates seeks to take that to another level," he said.

Rejuvenating the downtown core

It was a conscious decision to build L.R. Wilson Hall with its main entrance opening out toward the city, and not inward to the campus itself, Dean says. The intention was to send a message that this will be a building where anything happening is open to the entire city.

"I think bridging the gap between the university and Hamilton is really critical. It's really important," Fraticelli said. 

"I find it striking how separate the university and the town are. That has to change."

Ward 2 Coun. Jason Farr told CBC News that he's "extremely excited" about the project, as McMaster's increased involvement would help bolster an already robust arts scene. 

The program also bodes well for one of the city's goals: getting higher numbers of McMaster students to stay in the city once they graduate.

"I think Mac students add a tremendous amount in terms of the vitality and rejuvenation of the downtown core," Farr said, pointing to initiatives like the David Braley Health Sciences Centre near city hall as proof.

"I can only imagine how much better our chances would be at increasing our numbers … [with McMaster] having been even further established in the city and outside of campus."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

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