Into the Future Wild: Taking Charge of Change

This picture provides insights into the system’s current health and longer term sustainability and, in particular, the capacity of artists to adapt to challenges and changes from inside and outside the system.

Allen McWilliams

Mary Blackstone is a freelance dramaturg, cultural historian and educator. She is Professor Emerita in the Theatre Department at the University of Regina and Director of the Centre for the Study of Script Development, a research centre devoted to alternative approaches to the development of new dramatic work for stage, screen and new media. She served as the first Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Regina, as well as the President of the Canadian Association of Fine Arts Deans and member of the Executive of the International Council of Fine Arts Deans. She publishes in the areas of early modern cultural studies and dramaturgy. She has worked dramaturgically for theatres such as Regina’s Globe Theatre, Edmonton’s Northern Light Theatre and London, Ontario’s Grand Theatre; and with with playwrights such as Gail Bowen, Kelley Jo Burke, Dan Macdonald, Natalie Meisner, Ken Mitchell, Colleen Murphy and Sharon Stearns.

We could be poised on the crest of the most momentous change the arts have experienced in Canada since the wake of the Massey Commission in the 1950s. Because Canadians elected a majority government with a platform of “real change,” Canada Council’s funding has suddenly doubled and together with its redesigned funding model created the potential for transformative change through what CEO Simon Brault has called an “historic rendezvous with our future.”

As an aspirational mantra, “change” can be a powerful force, but change is inevitable in all living ecosystems. It happens regardless of human agency although not necessarily with the desirable outcomes often associated with it: “improvement,” “progress,” and “growth.” Such outcomes vary with the perspectives from within an ecosystem—growth for one component of the system may mean decline for another in the food chain—but the future belongs to species capable of adaptation for their own survival and the vitality of the system of symbiotic networks that supports them.

Within the social networks of human ecosystems, players who take charge of change with a plan for affecting it and a vision of the future it should create may not necessarily get all they envisioned, but they stand a better chance of future change that equates with improvement. Organizations like the Creative City Network of Canada cite the “arts and culture” as “powerful tools with which to engage communities in various levels of change”—but what about change within the arts themselves? Increased funding can create change, but what about the role of artists, members of the community and others in the arts ecosystem in effecting systemic change that generates growth and a stronger, more vital future for the arts in Canada—as well as healthier communities?

Saskatchewan artists need to participate in that rendezvous with the future, and on the occasion of its 30th anniversary the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance (SAA) is inviting them to the table. Arts Congress 2016: Into the Future Wild will bring together all participants in the provincial arts ecosystem to take charge of change. This is not a new role for the SAA. Over its 30 year history it has created a common forum and guided important improvements in funding and the status of artists (eg. The Arts Professions Act). Additionally, the SAA has placed an emphasis on research and championed the importance of evidence-based changes to programming and policy.

By approaching the arts as an ecosystem, the Congress will profile the work of the Saskatchewan Partnership for Arts Research (SPAR), an initiative of the SAA in conjunction with the Saskatchewan Arts Board, SaskCulture and the University of Regina. SPAR’s mandate to study Saskatchewan’s arts ecosystem from the perspective of artists and the general public addressed the lack of research specifically concerned with artists and focused attention on how artists and their connections within the ecosystem had been affected by recent changes (eg. new technologies, the economic boom, a rising cost of living, more culturally diverse newcomers, elimination of the film employment tax credit). It also examined whether the system’s networks were genuinely symbiotic and inclusive. Through the development of a database of professional artists, the first comprehensive surveys of provincial artists and the public, and follow up interviews and focus groups, a picture of the arts ecosystem is emerging along with a sense of its connections—or lack of connections—with broader provincial and national systems. This picture provides insights into the system’s current health and longer term sustainability and, in particular, the capacity of artists to adapt to challenges and changes from inside and outside the system.

The research revealed systemic strengths (eg. the cross-disciplinary character of creative practice, the connectedness of artists, their embeddedness within their communities, and the importance placed on their contributions to society by the general public) and weaknesses (eg. low creative income; more than half of artists working outside the arts and only 57% devoting 20 hours or more a week to their creative work; long work weeks; lack of diversity among artists and public respondents; limited connections beyond the province; and a lack of critical mass and critical discourse in some disciplines).

What better way to celebrate 30 years of effecting positive change and growth than for the SAA to showcase its most ambitious research endeavour to date and engage individuals from across the provincial arts ecosystem as well as key cultural professionals from elsewhere in Canada and the UK in addressing issues arising from the research? SPAR’s artist respondents were not only glad to be asked for input but also forthcoming with copious and valuable insights. Not satisfied with their currently high level of networking, 44% of artists called for more networking opportunities at the provincial level and beyond, and their extraordinarily high level of education (over 70% with a university degree) combined with their creative and innovative capacity cry out for them to be more engaged in shaping their future.   

The Congress will create a forum for productive engagement by featuring John Holden, who released a 2015 report on The Ecology of Culture for the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK; Simon Brault, Director of the Canada Council; representatives of Canadian Heritage; local city councillors; educators, researchers; artists and arts administrators. The resulting conversation regarding the value of the arts and strategies for change should contribute to a more diverse and robust arts ecosystem.

Are you one of the 43% of artists who earn less that $5000 from your creative practice a year? Do you have to work outside the arts to support your creative work and/or your family? Are you an arts administrator or other cultural professional who wants better professional development opportunities and greater appreciation for the role you play in the the system? Are you an educator who senses an erosion in the symbiotic relationship between artists and education from early childhood through to university? Are you a member of the public who values any art form and the artists who create it? Do you feel disconnected from the creative ecosystem and want your voice to be heard? This is a birthday party for you. The best gifts you can bring will be a passion for celebrating the growth and successes of the past 30 years and creative ideas for effecting positive change for the next 30 years. It is a rendezvous with ‘the future wild” not to be missed.