The Future of Saskatchewan’s Arts Ecosystem: Rebuilding a Community

glass art with blue circles - one large and many small. Right top corner covered with blue triangle and rose gold sparkles

The Future of Saskatchewan’s Arts Ecosystem: Rebuilding a Community

by Jeremy Morgan

At the 2022 Sask Arts Awards I had the chance to make a few remarks about my experience in Saskatchewan since coming from Nova Scotia in 1989.

I want to take the opportunity that the Arts Alliance Opinion Editorial program provides and expand on my remarks just a little. I hope that my comments, while arising from my own experience and career, might resonate with you.

Let me open by quoting from Troy Gronsdahl’s remarks as he accepted the 2022 Arts Award for Leadership and spoke of his experience on the Board of Directors of BlackFlash Magazine and of the publication itself:

as expansive and implausible… supported by a volunteer board of directors and also an advisory committee, editorial committee, community partners, artists, writers, and designers whose work radiates outwards from an unassuming little office to reach a readership across Canada and beyond our borders. And this is how it works in organizations and collectives all across the province.

This interconnected system of artists and audiences, practitioners and professionals, writers, musicians, educators, volunteers, collectives, organizations, institutions, and funding bodies create a teeming life force that supports and sustains art.

Since coming to Saskatchewan I have seen this ecosystem up close, been part of it in various guises and seen it grow. The world itself has changed in so many ways since 1989 and these changes – demographic, climatic, political, social, cultural, technological – have all affected and often been affected by the arts.

Without attaching any particular importance to one thing or the other, let me touch on some of the changes I have seen in the Saskatchewan arts community, in our own ecosystem as Troy aptly characterises it.  I arrived when the Province itself was in throes of political change and at the relative highpoint of lottery funding for culture, a small amount of which was then supplementing the Provincial Government’s allocation to the Arts Board. The School of the Arts at Fort San was about to close; the provincial Arts Strategy Task Force was being established and would release a report calling for a single arts agency. It appeared that the 1980’s and early 90’s were a time of significant rethinking of the mindset and culture of the province, including the troubled and complex relationship of government and citizenry. The climate for the arts themselves in the late 80’s and early 90’s was volatile and fostered justifiable anxiety and apprehension in the community.

Many arts institutions were struggling for a variety of reasons including:

  • the province’s inability to recognize the legitimate ambitions and aspirations of the community and what it takes to create, produce and present art: to work as an artist and to function as an arts organization;
  • unstable relationships with both the incoming and outgoing provincial governments;
  • a flawed and inconsistent approach by the community in our advocacy for public and private support;
  • a fragmented and disconnected approach to support for the arts;
  • difficulty in establishing effective board governance in our organizations; and,
  • a relative lack of emphasis on the importance of donors and sponsorship.

I’m not sure that we aren’t bedevilled by some of these issues yet today.

The existence of the Arts Board and its lengthy and unique history promised much, but Arts Board funding was increasingly unable to match the growth of the arts community, the expanding understanding of what art is, what it can be, and all the costs associated with this. I don’t see that this has changed all that much. The infrastructure supporting the creation and presentation of art has increased and become more complex and expensive, partly the result of technological and regulatory change. On the other hand, creative independent arts practitioners have provided opportunities for artists and made art more accessible to the public while working with quite limited resources. I’m thinking of the Creative City Centre in Regina and On the Boards in Saskatoon, two quite different but valuable parts of the ecosystem.

In Regina the MacKenzie Art Gallery was established in 1990 as an expanded and public, volunteer-led institution while the City of Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery metamorphosed into the Remai Modern just over 5 years ago.  Other municipalities such as Swift Current, North Battleford and Prince Albert have seen older buildings refurbished and new arts centres, artists’ studios and performing venues established. These and more are all signs of a growing sense of the importance of the arts in the lives of communities. Donor and sponsorship support appears to be increasing, substantially in some cases, but these benefits are sometimes not unalloyed for the recipients themselves.  Often they aren’t available for individual artists and experimental or research-oriented organizations, artist run centres and venues in smaller communities. The Henry and Cheryl Kloppenburg Award for Literary Excellence and the Saskatchewan Foundation for the Arts are two shining examples in the world of individual donor support for artists, but they are the exceptions.

Much has changed on the local scene and in the global environment since 2010 when the Provincial Government enacted The Arts Professions Act and released the Provincial Cultural Policy. The establishment of Creative Saskatchewan in 2013 has placed a greater focus on the career and commercial prospects for artists and their place in the provincial economy, a positive move that, one hopes, was taken in full awareness of the agency’s unique place in ‘the cultural supply chain’ and the overall continuum of the arts in the province.

As it has for many years, SaskCulture continues to support the arts through increased direct funding to eligible cultural organizations as well as to a number of Arts Board initiatives.

More profoundly there has been increasing recognition, sometimes halting, of the importance of the Indigenous cultures in this land and the many roles that artistic creation plays in the lives of Indigenous people. Indigenous artists and Knowledge Keepers make a major and unique contribution to the understanding of this land’s history and of the lives of Saskatchewan people. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the adoption of UNDRIP in some jurisdictions have raised our consciousness, but they are simply first steps.

Meanwhile, challenging the status quo and adding to the richness and diversity of our society, are art forms not derived from western European aesthetics and cultures and that do not always speak to what the dominant society has considered as art. We need to acknowledge their presence and make room for them, ensuring that the artists have access to the infrastructure and supports available to the rest of the community and that their work is judged on its own merits, practices and histories.

There is also an increasing awareness of the work of 2SLGBTQ+ artists and arts organizations and the ways in which they alter our perceptions of our society and culture, of ourselves.

I was intrigued and encouraged by the Sask Arts 2022 Awards Panel’s recognition of Peace Akintade’s practice, of Michelle Grodecki’s work with the arts and deaf students and of Listen to Dis’. This is all happening right here, right now, and causes us to keep rethinking our view of what constitutes art, especially in peoples’ daily lives.

In closing let me return to Troy’s outline of the arts ecosystem. We need a better public discussion and understanding of that ever-changing ecosystem. For example, what do we know about the complex impact of what appears to be the declining state of publicly-supported arts education in Saskatchewan? I ask that rhetorically since I don’t believe we know nor have we addressed this. We are a small and generally tightly knit community with all the positives and negatives that this can entail.

I believe the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance and its members have a major role to play in leading this discussion, along with Sask Culture and the provincial and municipal government agencies responsible for supporting the arts in Saskatchewan and public access to them. I’m not arguing for a monolithic approach to the future of the arts but one that is fully informed of and animated by the relationships and impacts necessary for all the arts to thrive in Saskatchewan. For everyone’s benefit.

I would like to talk more about this arts ecosystem next time and of course welcome your comments and suggestions.

Jeremy Morgan ~ A public advocate for the arts and artists, Jeremy has served in many roles since coming to Saskatchewan from Nova Scotia in 1989. He began his career here as General Manager of the Saskatchewan Council of Cultural Organizations and subsequently served in a number of other senior positions, including founding CEO of Wanuskewin Heritage Park and then as the longest serving Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Arts Board.

Since retiring in 2010, he has maintained an active cultural consultancy with a wide range of clients, two of which resulted in roles as Interim Director, the MacKenzie Art Gallery, and then the University of Saskatchewan Art Galleries. He has served in a volunteer capacity with a number of non-profit organizations, locally and nationally, including the Saskatoon Open Door Society.

He has received a number of municipal, provincial and national honors, most recently an Honorary Award at the 2022 SK Arts Arts Awards.