2012 Arts Congress

Saturday, May 5

  • Kelley Jo Burke and Don Kerr Debate: Art of Clean Water?
  • Robert Enright and Dr. Vianne Timmons Talk Arts in Postseconday Education
  • Canadian Conference of the Arts Report
  • Neal McLeod on Youth Engagement and New Technologies
  • Artists Share their Stories at the 2012 Arts Congress

Jayden Pfeifer moderated a debate between poet laureate Don Kerr and Kelley Jo Burke. The question posed, “if there are people who don’t have clean water, why are we funding the arts?” Burke argued that resources should go into necessities like clean water while Kerr argued for the continued funding of the arts despite such social issues.

As an artist, Burke believes in the power of the arts, but she claimed that if one of the millions of children suffering of dysentery is in her living room requesting $10 for clean water, she is going to give it. She exampled Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to argue that such basics as clean water (bottom of the pyramid) must be met before we can move up to the arts. “You would like me to rebut poetry?”

Kerr argued Burke’s logic with poetry, citing poems of water and exampled his wife, a social worker learning piano at a late age because it gives her joy. His argument being that the arts are essential because of the joy and meaning it gives to society.

In the end, both debaters argued that artists must campaign for a society where all needs are met and valued rather than a society or government that decides which necessities are to be addressed.

President Reggie Newkirk made note of the multiple connections between SaskCulture and the cultural community throughout the province. General Manager Rose Gilks spoke to the theme of the Congress with their publication Engage, which tells the success stories of culture within the province. She also clarified about Culture Days participation, stating that although events are to be free while the artists preparing the events or performing are to be paid.

Skip Kutz of the Canadian Conference of the Arts reported that the 66 year old organization is in the middle of a funding crisis. This crisis was not unexpected as the CCA fought the government on the Copyright Act, an act widely felt as more of a consumer’s rights bill than a legal protection act for artists. The CCA’s funding has been cut in half for the following year and will have no funding from the government afterwards. They have applied for interim funding, but it is questionable whether they shall receive any. On the bright side, Kutz believes that the CCA will be able to remake and strengthen the organization as a result of this crisis.

Multimedia artist Neal McLeod inspired laughs from the audience as he spoke about engaging community youth through art. He discussed how digital technology can be viewed as both detrimental to culture yet inject possibility into it. He exampled his shared project with colleagues where they posted at least 10 Cree words a day in order to promote literacy in the language. For McLeod, Arts is a powerful tool of transformation and he believes there is a rich potential and creativity that exists within community youth.

He noted the changes he sees whenever he returns to Saskatchewan from Ontario, the growing disparity in wealth. He expressed his hopes, despite the emphasis on economic growth, that we don’t forget the “heart of art – its power and vision.”

In the 90’s, McLeod worked at a Saskatoon community centre when gangs were beginning to emerge in the province. He recollected that, at first, the young men thought he was a white person and judged him in a certain way, but once he began to engage them through art they began to “put down their bandanas and start drawing.” He posed the question “Imagine if instead of incarcerating young indigenous males there were programs that would engage them through the arts?”

McLeod concluded by reminding the audience of the long history in Saskatchewan of Indigenous writing: “Saskatchewan of all the places I’ve been to have such a strong sense of this history, of all these old stories. It is so exciting to be a part of this legacy…”

After a brief introduction where Timmons expressed her love of books and Enright confessed he came to culture by sheer accident, both expressed their concern with the changing priorities within the postsecondary world. Timmons confirmed there are huge challenges facing postsecondary arts and that federal funding agencies are leading the charge, she exampled the Social Science and Humanity Research Council where dedicated funds were given only to business. She also added that a lot of her presidential colleagues are coming from engineering and business backgrounds as opposed to the arts or humanities.

Enright challenged Timmons with hard numbers, pointing out the number of degree programs in the fine arts being cut. He believes the dean is arguing numbers are more important than structures and pedagogy, which is a fatal error. Timmons didn’t disagree, but clarified that such sentiments are coming directly from the faculty itself. However, she also admitted that there are huge pressures by the board over the rating of students, which claims that a fine arts student is the equivalent of three students in other disciplines. As a university president, despite these pressures, Timmons believes it is imperative that students learn in an environment of culture and thus has no problem subsidizing the fine arts departments.

Timmons expressed that she has pushed for a connection with the community and this connection between the University of Regina and the community has become seamless and unique, in particular with the fine arts. She shared that it is more challenging to connect with the government because, in Timmons’ opinion, they view the university as “a little too lefty,” John Gormley calls the U of R “a bunch of left wing dingbats.”

Enright asked why universities aren’t committing themselves to the promises they make and noted that in 1985 the U of S theatre department had six faculty members and had promised they’d expand the department, however today the drama department has only been downsized. Timmons answered that there are tough choices to be made and that many universities are making bad choices.

Enright pointed out that although Saskatchewan, formally a “have not” province, is now the envy of Ontario, yet the government is not investing in arts education or in culture. Timmons agreed voicing her belief that Saskatchewan is missing the opportunity of investing in postsecondary education despite being a “have” province.

Dr. Curtis Collins of the Dunlop Art Gallery discussed his television show Prairie Post Modern, co-created with Access 7 Communications. Collins explained that the show was meant as a vehicle for artists to tell their stories – about their work and their lives – and to provide the viewer with an easy and general way to engage in contemporary art. Collins showed clips artists Judy Anderson, Chad Jacklin, Martha Cole, and John Hampton.

Visual artist John G. Hampton briefly touched on belonging to the artist group Turner Prize Collective and their project of re-enacting people’s dreams, which they collected with “scientific equipment;” Hampton called it a dramatic re-staging of the creative process. Hampton’s talk focused on his solo artwork where he recreates famous minimalist cubes while looking at very subtle differences that could make large changes.

Musician Melanie Hankewich (Belle Plaine) grew up on a farm, three hours north of Regina, where there were no art classes after the sixth grade. She considers herself fortunate that her parents enrolled her in music classes and that her town asked her to sing at events. Hankewich briefly touched on the cuts to the CBC, but doesn’t believe that it is all “doom and gloom.” She believes that engagement is a means of survival and that authenticity in her work makes her more accessible to her audience.

The greatest hurdle, she believes, is breaking into the market and being told there is no compensation for her work; there is an expectation that new musicians should play for exposure, which the cynic in her says “Thousands of artists die of exposure every year.” Hankewich touched on taking advantage of house concerts, which can provide a venue when there is none. Regardless of where she performs, she is always conscious of what people take away from a show.

Dance artist and educator Misty Wensel shared her story of growing up in small town Saskatchewan and her early love of dance. In high school she found very little opportunity to participate in the arts and so took part in sport.

Wensel returned to arts education after being talked out of it by her father and eventually began teaching at LeBoldus High School where she received great support from administration. At the same time, she founded the FadaDance Company and school and the growing success of FadaDance made it clear to Wensel that she would have to leave the school system to become a full-time dance artist and educator.

Towards the end of her time at LeBoldus, the administration had changed and things had gotten harder and every class had become a challenge: “It was hard to let that go because the fight is so important and when you go – I wasn’t replaced by someone who was going to fight for that program like I did and I know that it’s dwindled to some degree.” Despite this, Wensel’s life feels more in balance and FadaDance is flourishing.