Artists are contributing to the well-being of small communities with a sense of stimulation, affirmation, celebration, and hope.

By Barbara Klar

Arts activities in rural Saskatchewan have become more crucial and influential than ever before. Rural areas are home to thousands of cultural groups as well as individual practicing artists: painters, writers, actors, musicians, craftspeople, and others who make a living from creative work. The arts create more dynamic small communities, preserving and rejuvenating their economic and social health. And for many rural centres, the arts are a force that affects their survival.

At the root of all of this activity are the residents who live and work at the arts within their communities, making them more active, interesting, and pleasant places to live. This positive atmosphere helps encourage other residents to continue living there, and is also appealing to others who might consider relocating to these rural communities. Artists support rural businesses when they purchase fuel, groceries, and supplies. They pay property taxes which allow the continuation of basic services such as road maintenance and lighting. Artists literally help keep the streetlights on in rural Saskatchewan. More importantly, arts-based businesses and events attract cultural visitors who support an even broader range of local businesses when they purchase meals, hotel stays, and gifts. In fact, in 1998, cultural spending by domestic and foreign tourists in Canada reached nearly $800 million, a significant amount of which was spent in Saskatchewan. As many rural mayors and council members agree, any activities which attract people to their communities are beneficial. Moreover, the presence of culture is an indicator of rural Saskatchewan's intellectual and spiritual health. It helps visitors return home with a favourable impression, one which is often shared, encouraging more tourists to travel here.

Rural Saskatchewan enjoys a huge range of arts activities such as art galleries, drama clubs, music and dance groups, literary festivals, and craft production of many kinds. Amateur theatre events, such as the annual dinner theatre festival in the tiny village of Creelman, draw sell-out crowds – they are important social events and often keep such communities on the map. Because the Creelman event is run by volunteers, ticket sales not only sustain the project, but create enough of a surplus to contribute to worthy local organizations such as the Estevan Kinsmen Club. The Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company develops community and professional theatre through a variety of projects. For example, its touring network brings the performing arts to isolated northern communites such as Stony Rapids. The Company has created eleven full-time jobs and numerous contractual and short-term positions for artists.

The Carlyle HomeSpun Craft Show and Sale, now in its seventeenth year, has put $35,450 to date back into the community with projects such as facility improvement. It has also resulted in tremendous spin-off revenue for local business people, one of whom asserts that the “HomeSpun weekend” results in more sales than any other event in the year, including Christmas. The annual three-day Saskatchewan Handcraft Festival, which provides important income for many of the province's artisans, attracted nearly 4,400 visitors to Battleford in 2002, most of whom spent money elsewhere in the community during their stay. And the Saskatchewan Festival of Words, which holds year-round events and culminates in an annual summer literary festival, has created two and a half full-time jobs and generated $400,000 in spin-off revenue for the community of Moose Jaw.

Public art galleries also play a large role in the well-being of many smaller centres such as Shaunavon, Yorkton, Biggar, and Prince Albert. They attract up to tens of thousands of visitors per year, many of them from elsewhere, exposing them to local talent by lesser-known artists as well as high-caliber work from across Canada and beyond. Many galleries offer art education, allowing rural people to foster their cultural interests. Cultural education is particularly important for young people in that it helps create well-rounded individuals. Studies show that children involved in art receive higher marks, have a lower drop-out rate, and are more likely to be involved in community service as adults. And art galleries, like many rural cultural facilities, employ people as staff or instructors, and hold literary events, plays, recitals, and lectures in their facilites. All of these arts activities have a common bond: they make an invaluable economic and social impact on the communities in which they thrive.

Artists themselves are thriving in rural Saskatchewan for several reasons. The pace of rural life is slower, more peaceful, and more distraction-free than that of an urban environment, making it conducive to the production of art. The cost of housing and other facilities is extremely affordable for those in a low-income, arts-based career, an especially attractive factor to artists from other provinces with higher costs of living. Furthermore, artists often have the vision, initiative, and skill to transform dilapidated historic buildings such as banks and churches into studios, shops, or theatres. The train station in Rosthern, now the Station Arts Centre, is an example of a building “rescued” by the arts. Communities often perceived as places of abandonment are in fact places of opportunity and possibility. Many “dying” Saskatchewan towns are becoming hotbeds of cultural activity: Tugaske, Tyvan, Ruddell, and Meacham are very small communities experiencing an influx of artists. Nothing exemplifies the benefits of this better than “S.P.O.T.” – the Society for the Preservation Of Tyvan – a group of Tyvan residents who are preserving the social and economic health of their community largely through cultural events.

Community is undoubtedly one of the most important by-products of the arts in rural Saskatchewan. Togetherness is particularly crucial in places with fewer people, gathering places, and social offerings. Residents risk isolation if they do not gather their energies and skills to create stimulation, and arts events encourage people to work together. For instance, Prairie Fire, a recent kiln-firing event in Ruddell, required the contributions of a wide cross-section of the community: a welder, a sawmill operator, and several farmers provided a wide range of products and services, working with potters toward a common goal. The arts are often a catalyst for inclusion, an opportunity to connect at a deeper level than the wave from the vehicle or the brief conversation at the post office. Through community-building, cultural activities help to break down social barriers and create a more tangible appreciation of the work of practicing artists.

The arts are a substantial force in rural Saskatchewan. Artists are contributing to the well-being of small communities with a sense of stimulation, affirmation, celebration, and hope. They are spreading what Kim Houghtaling of the Art Gallery of Swift Current calls “the valuable, ancient, universal language” of culture, a language that helps us survive challenges and define our rural identity against the context of the world.

Barbara Klar is an award-winning poet living in rural Saskatchewan.

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