You, me and a lot of momentum
'The times may be good or bad for the arts, but the arts are always good for the times'
July 09, 2008
The Hamilton Spectator
(Jul 9, 2008)
You often hear it said in the arts that the times are bad, to the point where it seems the times are always bad for the arts. I heard that said in Hamilton in 1996 when council scrubbed the sesquicentennial public arts project destined for the front of City Hall.
Council didn't like the decision of the jury that the city itself had impanelled. Maybe the art professors who were elected to represent the city's various wards at that time were expecting a big mural in bright detergent box colours. Maybe a pastoral, with morning mists, skipping deer, and a split rail fence, Stelco tower in the distance.
It's 12 years later, and now some are saying these are good times for the arts in Hamilton. And they are. With a big but (later).
There is more energy than there has ever been, says Bryce Kanbara, of whom more in a minute. Along James Street North, Locke Street, Dundas, the Pearl Company in the Lansdale neighbourhood, Barton Street, Sherman Street, the Beach strip, Stuart Street, Bay Street (Gallery on the Bay) -- west to east, and in the middle. Don't forget the looming institutional presence of the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the McMaster Museum of Art, with their vast collections.
What you're reading now is the first volley of a new, weekly column on the arts. I'll be writing it in place of my usual second column of the week.
The impetus behind the column is a recognition of the startling growth, vigour and versatility of our current visual arts "scene," and the need to keep readers abreast of it, guide them through it.
In turn, part of the impetus behind that growth is Kanbara, the subject of our first column.
Kanbara is a natural candidate for that distinction. A bridge of continuity with Hamilton's art past (he helped found Hamilton Artists Inc. in the mid '70s), he is also a trailblazer of the new, though it's hard to think of him "blazing."
There's not an ounce of "hurry" in Kanbara, not that you can tell, and yet -- appearances can deceive -- he gets a great deal done.
Serene, laconic, with an agreeably rumpled, mischievous good humour, Kanbara was the first in on James Street North, with his you me gallery.
He has also been a strong political force for arts advocacy and outreach (he has led arts projects for inner city kids) over the years, though no cheerleader. When the arts do something wrong, he is quick to point it out.
Now James North is lined with art spaces. Art is transforming the neighbourhood. And, as mentioned, it's not just James North.
"The momentum seems to be keeping up," says Kanbara, cautiously. "The real change is that there is a critical mass interested in the arts. When they do the art bus and the art crawls, we don't have to worry about lack of attendance.
"But financially none of us is making any money. People think we're making tons, but there aren't really that many galleries, and if a couple go under, the trend starts to reverse, like a house of cards."
That's the next step, Kanbara says. Finding a way to make a living income at the arts, even in good times. It's a little like the Internet -- how to translate the excitement into commercial viability.
"We're (the arts community) not prepared, in a business sense," says Kanbara.
It's a riddle complicated by a paradox. Art is inherently conflicted about its own popularity. It needs a business plan that allows as much for spitting in the eyes of fools as for churning out decor accents for the bourgeoisie.
Yes, it needs to sell, but without selling out, or such is the myth.
In the past year, the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce has become very interested in the downtown arts -- the arts are seen as a key to revival, a la Richard Florida's "creative class." It's a promising liaison, one fraught with challenges, but good ones.
"First," Kanbara says wryly, "they wanted to meet with us at 8 a.m. They thought the arts could benefit from rebranding, a new slogan and a publication that we could all pay $80 a month into.
"It was well-intended but I think they think we're doing things for the same reasons they are. Because we're not successful financially doesn't mean we're failures."
Not that the chamber thinks that, but there's a learning curve for both. They must understand each other's models of operation, a process that's already started.
In the meantime, here's a challenge for the city (I'm whistling in the dark, but I'll put it out there). Restore the sesquicentennial art project. It was only $50,000, but full of symbolism about how we value, or don't, the artists, who have never abandoned downtown.
There are many stories in the local arts that we will try to tell in this column. I wanted to start with a list of the key players (all the Toronto transplants, for instance) and key issues (can just anyone be an artist?) but there'll be time for that.
I would like to leave this first column with a thought that I hope you will take to heart.
The times may be good or bad for the arts, but the arts are always good for the times. They remind us to deal with the past, thrust a mirror against the face of the present, and point a telescope at the future.
Every achievement we've made as a society -- our progressive tolerances, "shifts of paradigm" and "first black candidate" milestones -- was foreseen, scouted out, and absorbed by the arts community long before the slow, careful stage coaches of civic life crawled up to them.
Something to think about. And act upon, next time you're trying to decide between supporting a local gallery or buying some lottery tickets. The arts are always good for us. Are we good for the arts?