2018 Arts Congress: Making Art in Dangerous Times

Congress Summary

With over one hundred people in attendance, the 2018 Arts Congress explored the theme Making Art in Dangerous Times. The event touched on current issues facing the Saskatchewan’s arts community; these issues included artist resiliency and responsibility, public engagement, Reconciliation, and Decolonization.

Congress opened with celebrated poet, Louise Halfe whose words spoke to the hardships and resiliency of Indigenous people. Halfe later shared her poems to jumpstart the second day of the Congress.

Spoken word artist Janelle “ecoaborijanelle” Pewapsconias presented her work, Inscribed with Honour: Stories from Treaty 6 Territory. She spoke of the recent controversy around the death of Indigenous youth, including Colten Boushie by a white farmer who was then acquitted.

On the Ground: A Roundtable brought together representatives from five key funding bodies: Rose Gilks of SaskCulture, Michael Jones of the Saskatchewan Arts Board, Andrea Phelps of Heritage Canada, Greg Magirescu of Creative Saskatchewan, and Steven Loft with the Canada Council. Each representative spoke to the changes in granting programs and future direction for funding. All agencies have undergone a review of their granting programs:

  • The SAB initiated a ‘micro-grant’ to encourage emerging and underserved applicants.
  • SaskCulture spoke of the steps they have made to become more inclusive and representative of the people of Saskatchewan, making mention of its diverse board and staff.
  • Heritage Canada clarified that it works with organizations, not individuals, and has focused on supporting the creation of ‘creative hubs’.
  • Creative Saskatchewan distinguished itself as a Crown Corporation formed by the government with the mandate to invest in the commercialization, marketing, and distribution of Saskatchewan Art. Magirescu asserted the need for art to validate itself in economic terms, with what impact it makes in creating jobs, and income.

The breakout session In the Air encouraged delegates to participate in discussions around issues arising from four alliterations: Bold and Belligerent, Slow and Sustainable, Friendly Futures, and Radical Risk. These conversations continued the next day. Delegates moved between the four alliterations, having less time with each to discover the core important points.

Friday night kicked-off with a performance by sound artist Melissa Gan, aka Respectfulchild (??). Gan created ambient and ethereal soundscapes by electronic manipulating the sound from their violin.

Keynote speaker Andrew Hunter told of his family history, his research, curatorial work, and his performance art where he inhabits the character of Prof. William Starling. Hunter explained that he chose the starling, for its characteristics as an “invasive species,” a metaphor for white colonization. Hunters’ research disrupts the rosy view of Canada as the safe haven at the end of the Underground Railroad. He explained that after slavery was abolished many African Americans returned to the US as it was less racist than Canada.

Saturday, May 5

Louise Halfe opened the second day of Congress with new works of her poetry. The speaker’s series Resiliency: Artists in Conversation followed with three sets of artist presentations and conversations.

Michael Peterson talked about founding VOID an accessible commercial gallery that evolved into a creative hub to meet the needs of the community. Chris Morin joined the conversation to discuss new initiatives of Void with the goal to move people from being passive consumers to active producers.

Joel Bernbaum directed a reading of A Prairie Project, which included actors Joshua Beaudry, Lancelot Knight, Krystle Pederson, and Anna Seibel. This work was created using interviews with people about the death of 22 year old Indigenous youth, Colten Boushie. Diverse voices (young & old, Indigenous and nonindigenous) were heard providing multiple viewpoints and feelings about the tragedy. Afterwards, in conversation with Linda Duvall, they spoke of the need for personal responsibility of giving voice to those who do not, on their own terms.

Krystle Pederson was joined onstage with the incredible and hilarious Tomson Highway. They emphasized the importance of bringing the Cree language back to their people and are working on a musical in Cree to aid in this mission. The artists performed songs from their upcoming musical.

Adrian Stimson, interdisciplinary artist engaged Congress delegates with a performance.

Many delegates were moved by the powerful short film by Shane Belcourt and Yvette Nolan, A Common Experience. The film is a poetic exploration of the multi-generational effects of Canada's Indian Residential School system, based on the personal trials of Aboriginal playwright Yvette Nolan.

Moderated by Jen Budney, Saturday’s Resiliency panel asked the question So What Now? The panel featured Ruth Cuthand, Adrian Stimson, Steven Loft, Felicia Gay, and Jeremy Morgan. Questions asked during the panel included: How do arts institutions come to terms with the need for decolonization and reconciliation? Stimson cautioned that “reconciliation is fragile, the mood can change quickly. So, it is important to remember that reconciliation will not happen quickly or on a broad scale, but rather slowly, individual by individual.”  The panel commented that while there is a lot of talk, there is not the same commitment to action. Ruth Cuthand challenged the audience to declare their own racism aloud to the room. Panelists were discouraged by the lack of vision in our government. Too often any gains benefit only a select few, and the question was raised, “where is the vision for all?” Where is, or can we create the political will to consider universal income, and free education? How can we address the malaise around the issues of getting politicians to listen to the voices of the Arts? How can we motivate and elevate the status of the artist, not the legislation, but the “status” of artists as valuable contributing members of society.

The 2018 Congress explored ideas around artist resiliency and the urgent social, political and funding conditions affecting Saskatchewan and Canadian artists. With many members of the arts community participating, this year’s Congress was a great success.