What's the future of the arts? The pandemic is giving us some clues
Novelist Bridget Canning contacted some leading artists for insights into keeping the arts vibrant
Last year I was fortunate enough to win the Emerging Artist Award with ArtsNL, the provincial agency that formed four decades ago as the Arts Council of Newfoundland and Labrador. "Emerging" is an interesting term; it makes me think of rising from water, waterlogged, but ready.
I didn't expect to win, but the award felt like a recognition of both my successes and failures, and of working through both. I was out of the water and walking on two feet. Maybe that should be encouraged when something good happens: consider all the depths that happened before it.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the experiences and perspectives of some of the people who won ArtsNL awards over the years, and the importance of that peer recognition.
I also wanted to know how they are looking at the future, and what needs to be done to sustain the arts in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Here's what they had to say.
Ruth Lawrence is an actor, writer, director, producer and filmmaker. She talked about how her experiences of growing up in rural N.L. influenced her work today — and what we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I remember reading an article and the writer said, 'I could never deign to call myself an artist,' and it struck me because that's how I've always referred to myself. The artists I knew were from here — the first place that I saw Gerald Squires's work was in my schoolbooks, the first time that I read poetry, it was by N.L. writers, a lot of the first shows I saw on CBC were local productions. When I look back to my younger days, [I recall] this really precious, glory time of N.L. art.
"I felt so privileged to be growing up at a time when it was so accessible to me in books, on TV, on radio. WGB — the Wonderful Grand Band — visited the club near St. Jacques and I got to meet them. I looked at all those things as part of the same thing, I looked at the visual art of Gerald Squires as connected to the writing of Ray Guy and Tom Dawe and the music of Ron Hynes and the WGB – all that as part of the whole, part and parcel. Now that I'm a filmmaker, I see how all those things work together, the story, the visuals, the music.
"What I would like to see [in the future] is adequate funding for the arts, obviously. We've made some great strides in the past couple of years — we've had various governments that have acknowledged the value of the arts, for sure.
"The pandemic is a perfect example of why the arts are so important. Just think of the number of people in lockdown and what they did was read books, watch television series and films, listen to music — it was art that sustained people. That to me is the best lesson we have been given in 2020, these are things that keep us mentally and emotionally well.
"All the time when we checked in on each other, we talked about what we were watching, what we were listening to, what we were creating. The increase of funding to the Arts Council is partly an acknowledgement of that — yes, this is important and they've made a commitment and they can see just how vital it is to have artistic creation.
"If we think back to all the major shifts of the past 300 to 400 years — when it's been a devastating thing like the depression or like a pandemic or a war, out of that a whole revelation in art has happened. I'm really interested to see what comes — now, we're in a pandemic frame of mind, but what's going to come in a year or two from now? It really takes distance. Because we've all changed as a result of it."
Andy Jones is an actor and writer, a founding Member of Codco, and an Order of Canada recipient. Along with his many accolades, he has won the Neil Griffin Award for theatre and the BMO Winterset Award. He told me about how arts, trades and craft intersect and influence each other, and how funding and preservation are important for the province.
"We all seem to work together a lot — which is kind of a tradition in a way. When we started out in the early '70s, you knew everybody who was in the arts, really. That tradition has kept up pretty well — trades, craftspeople, we seem to work together really well. Like that boat down at 351 Water St. that's designed by Will Gill and the boat was built by Jerome Canning, when I saw that, I remember thinking it said 'Artist Will Gill, Boat Builder Jerome Canning' and I thought, well, they're both artists.
"I feel bad for saying we need more funding, but so often I find myself saying, 'I would love to do this but I can't find someone to help me because I can't afford to pay them.' That's a constant thought I have, which I do think in some ways holds me back although I have been supported so much.
"I also wish there was more work done for preservation and dissemination of the past. I'm working at my brother [Mike]'s film archive now and all that early film from the N.L. filmmakers should be available and seen — it's our art and my fear is that it will all die.
"We cannot discuss supporting the arts without a conversation about finances."
Laura Winter is a musician and an educator. She is a member of the Juno-winning Swinging Belles, and teaches at Bishop Feild Elementary. She offers first-hand knowledge on the importance of promoting the arts in schools.
"I'd like to see [the arts] valued more — people think it's a frivolous pursuit. It's not, it's necessary, it's needed — I see it every day."
"When children feel they can express themselves through art, their facial expressions change, their body language changes. Whenever kids make art for me, I tell them how wonderful it is and how wonderful they are and it changes everything about them. Their whole demeanour — their posture changes, they glow from the inside — it's really an experience I wish other people could have, to have a child draw you a picture and for you to tell them how beautiful it is and ask them what it means.
"That's what keeps me going as a teacher, when children tell me these kinds of things. And it shows that art is not a privilege; art is essential."
Creative opportunities are essential where we live. Visual artist Jordan Bennett told me about the importance of home: how it informs creativity and vice-versa.
"I think that can be said for any place; Newfoundland and Labrador is no exception. Place can really inform an artist's practice, how they create and what they are talking about in their practice, be it through painting, writing, theatre or song. Ktaqmkuk has an unparalleled effect on its creatives to do this. You can be born and raised here, a visitor for a short time or have moved here and now call this place home, inspiration is rooted deep in this land we now call Newfoundland and Labrador.
I would like to see more spaces, venues and opportunities for artists to exhibit their creativity in conventional and unconventional ways.- Jordan Bennett
"I would like to see more spaces, venues and opportunities for artists to exhibit their creativity in conventional and unconventional ways. Ultimately, I would love for our future artists to have opportunities that I didn't have growing up, like community art programming, art education and resources all influenced and led by creatives in all communities across this amazing island."
With the pandemic forefront in our minds, interdisciplinary artist Pam Hall reflects on how our own profound losses influence art.
"I think there is a huge amount of great shit to be created here about us. We could turn us upside down and shake to see what comes out.
"The arts and arts histories can't be lumped into the same bag — it's too complex to plot a single path. And I don't think we can talk about the future of arts without talking about the pandemic, nor should we.
"Really, the cod moratorium of 1992 was our own plague upon the land and the water. You can't speak about the arts outside of those huge upheavals, wars, revolutions, because the arts operate as either distract and deny everyday life, like let's make more Netflix shows that people can watch, or they react to heighten, provoke, and trigger change.
"You can see this with writing — will writing ever be the same with the resurgence of Black Lives Matter? I don't know anybody without an ant-racist reading list — that's a big change along with Idle No More, and the wonderful birthing of First Light."
As we consider our past and future, engaging with art helps us know ourselves, individually and collectively. For Calla Lachance, executive director of Neighbourhood Dance Works, a community that values art is a rich community.
"I wish that more people understood and connected with the broader value of why the arts are important because it really is what makes our community rich and interesting.
"When you have a lot of people who value the arts and support it, that collective appreciation fosters growth in other ways —whether it is how a city develops its urban planning or community programming in a centre or in a library.
"When you heighten the level of artistic appreciation across the board, you have a more discerning public who expect more from their community and make it more vibrant, more colourful, more lively, more engaging, more thought-provoking, more curious, more surprising. When we elevate the very mindset and awareness and appreciation of work — and I don't mean if you even like the work, even when you don't like something, your brain is still engaged with making sense of it — that in itself is a creative act. It's how we make associations and create an awareness of these very complex systems that we live in."
Writer Lisa Moore told me of how ArtsNL funding helped her and how support is vital for artists across the province.
"When I began writing, I applied for Arts Council funding. I couldn't have become a writer without that funding. Once, I received a travel grant that let me go to Toronto and see a production of a play I'd written, an adaptation of my novel February. I was so grateful for that opportunity.
"I would like to see more funding for the Arts Council so that more artists get the support they need. I'd like to see more funding that would help create stronger connections with artists across the province and in Labrador. The Arts Council has this as a priority and I know, from being on the board, they work hard to foster those connections. But that kind of connectivity requires financial support. There needs to be robust support for the arts."
A final thought
After the ArtsNL Award ceremony last year, I drank Prosecco in an Eastport efficiency unit and looked at the evening stars. The next day we strolled around Sandy Cove, and stopped for a feed at Goobies on the way back to town.
As we drove through the isthmus, I thought about how Newfoundland and Labrador is a place where we can see the landscape begin and end and how it can create an awareness of both our isolation and our connection to each other. Something that currently feels like a precarious safety: something to treasure, foster, and uphold.