Friday, 27 February 2015

After the Artery - 6 ways Edmonton's arts community can continue to survive and thrive

Source: John Lucas, Edmonton Journal
If you're a member of Edmonton's arts community, you're probably ready to slouch down on the nearest park bench for a good long cry right now. That's assuming you haven't already done this. We're not even two months into 2015, and the year has thus far, for a lack of a better term, sucked balls. It all started with the heartbreaking demise of the venerable Roxy Theatre in an early morning fire on January 13. And now artistically inclined Edmontonians are reeling from the loss of yet another iconic art space, The Artery, which yesterday announced it would be closing its doors for the last time at the end of March.

Both of these occurrences would be heartbreaking enough in isolation,  but the sad fact of the matter is that it's nothing new in this town. The list of performance and visual arts spaces that Edmonton has lost, or is on the verge of losing, has begun to resemble a list of names chiselled on a war memorial. Last year saw the demise of the Avenue Theatre. In 2013 the Haven Social Club, a jazz-focussed basement dive much loved by MacEwan University music students, bid the city farewell. Further back in time, the legendary Sidetrack Cafe, which once upon a time played host to the likes of Canadian icons k.d. lang, Colin James, and Blue Rodeo, bid the world adieu in 2007.

The list of dead venues in Alberta's capital city has become so extensive that the Edmonton Heritage Council has recently embarked on a Dead Venues Project as part of its Edmonton City As Museum initiative, an admirable attempt to keep the city's indie/alt-rock heritage alive. While tributes are always welcome, such archival projects are cold comfort to Edmonton's artists who continue to see venues yanked from under their feet. No area of town has been harder hit than Old Strathcona, the once-spirited heart of bohemian Edmonton, which, thanks to skyrocketing commercial real estate prices, has seen much of its arts scene migrate to more economical pastures, with the Catalyst Theatre (soon to be relocating to the Maclab Theatre at the Citadel) being its latest economic refugee.

All this, of course, is happening at a time of great economic uncertainty in the province as a result of plummeting oil prices and a bewildering budgetary Chicken Little sky-is-falling performance on the part of our newly minted Progressive Conservative Pharaoh. (For the hammiest theatre show in town, just pop into the Alberta Legislature when the house is in session.) For people immersed in the arts community, as well as in post-secondary education (and I'm eyeball-deep in both - lucky me), this means cutbacks. Yes, that Alberta speciality. All this in spite of the fact that the government somehow, inexplicably, seems to have come up with a budgetary surplus (because, you know, we're broke) and that cutting funding to the arts to balance the budget makes about as much sense as shaving your head to lose weight.

The irony, of course, is that Edmonton's arts scene has never been more vibrant than it is at present. On any given night in this city there's a bewildering array of performance and visual art on offer in the city, albeit in a slow but steadily contracting constellation of venues. Edmonton is well known for its big-name festivals - FolkFest, NextFest, the Fringe, the Street Performers Festival, the Poetry Festival, and so on, but that scarcely scratches the surface as to what's going on. As a relatively new Edmontonian (a resident here since the fall of 2008), it's taken me quite a few years to fully appreciate the quality and quantity of artistry in my adopted hometown - even in the middle of winter when it's an uphill task to persuade winter-weary residents to trudge through minus-twenty temperatures to check out a poetry slam or a modern dance spectacle.

Yes, Edmonton's arty folk are a stubborn, tenacious bunch who can probably survive anything. But why must their existence always be such a perilous one? The problem is an economic one (as well, let's admit, of economic priorities on the part of the city's mandarins). Regrettably, artists get screwed in both good and bad economic times. In bad times, funding for the arts invariably gets cuts. In good times, real estate prices inflate to the point where theatre companies, club owners, and other artistic stakeholders can no longer stay above water.

So what can be done to support the arts in this city so as to curb the tide of venues going under? I'm no expert, but here are a few ideas.

1) Go see more shows.

This might sound flippant, but seriously, go see something cool. On a random Tuesday evening, even. Edmonton may not have the prestige of Paris or New Orleans, but the flip side to that is that artists in this city are far more accessible than they are in larger centres. There are improbable art galleries run by medical doctors who really love the arts. There's a devoted (and I mean VERY devoted) heavy metal scene. There's typically three nights a week of wild electronic music at Bohemia. And there's no shortage of theatre, dance, and whatnot. Go to yeglive,ca and find something cool - and go to it! C'mon, you're too young to spend every evening crocheting scarves and taking Instagram photos of your cats!

2) Get to know your local community league.

Edmonton's outsized artistic scene owes a large debt to the city's longstanding network of local community leagues. While not an exclusively Edmontonian phenomenon, Edmonton's community league system is, as far as I know, unique in its extensiveness and civic clout, thanks in no small part to steady funding from the municipal government. If you're an Edmonton-based artist, volunteering for your local community not only gives you the opportunity to lobby on behalf of your fellow artists at the neighbourhood level (i.e. where it really counts), but also gives you affordable access to community league facilities, whose purpose it is to serve as a local venue for stuff the community wants. Not an opportunity any artist would want to pass up.

3) Think outside the box in terms of venues.

Capital A "Art Venues" may be in full-tilt contraction mode in Edmonton, but with anywhere between 18 and 22 cranes punctuating the city's skyline like boreal giraffes, buildings are most definitely not. Moreover, with more per-capita green space than any other Canadian city and a larger land area than Toronto (with about a third of the population), the city is not lacking in places to perform. They just might not be traditional performance spaces. Edmonton's perennially overachieving modern dance scene has, out of both necessity and ingenuity, turned the city's great outdoors into its venue, with the undisputed masters of this being Mile Zero Dance and its artistic director Gerry Morita, whose venues have ranged from Churchill Square to the river valley park system to the delightfully trashy Aurora Motel in the city's unloved industrial west end.

Others are doing the same thing. I myself have had the honour of being invited to contribute a spoken word component to the latest instalment of Jen Mesch Dance Conspiracy Takes Over The Science Building. Dancer/choreographer/science nerd Jen Mesch is another Edmonton artist with a penchant for improbable locations, ranging from Edmonton's river valley to actual caves. And the University of Alberta, with its picturesque cliffside setting atop the river valley and its motley assortment of fascinating structures, is a cornucopia of potential performance spaces - including some actual performance spaces like the amusingly toilet-shaped Timms Centre.

4) Forge stronger ties with arts communities elsewhere in Alberta.

Edmonton is essentially an island city. At least that's how it feels much of the time. But while it's a relatively isolated city, it's not really that far from other pockets of civilization. Calgary is a three-hour drive to the south, and is no slouch when it comes to the arts. And it's a treasure trove of great venues. Edmonton's once vibrant underground punk scene may be history now, but Calgary's still has quite a bit of life to it thanks in no small part to places like Vern's Tavern, a venue that helped launch the careers of bands like Sheepdogs and Marianas Trench, and continues to provide an open stage to the weirdest, most obnoxious acts around - bands like "witch punk" Riot Grrrl revivalists Hag Face, my current YYC faves.

Even closer to Edmonton is the increasingly energetic live music scene in Red Deer, which, thanks to Alberta's explosive population growth in recent years, now has a population close to that of Reykjavik, Iceland. It's not a scene I know well at all, but reliable sources tell me that it's getting steadily better - at least on the musical front. Even further south in Alberta is the oddball town of Lethbridge, where heavily bearded and headscarf-clad Hutterites and Mennonites rub shoulders with heavily bearded and keffiyeh-clad hipsters from the University of Lethbridge who frequent events like the Lethbridge Electronic Music Festival and more regular arty happenings at Owl Acoustic Lounge.

Anybody who thinks of Alberta as simply Edmonton, Calgary, and a hillbilly hinterland needs a Lonely Planet update. The problem, of course, is that the province of Alberta has a larger land mass than France and a far worse transportation infrastructure, which means that unless you plan on sleeping in your car (which is only a viable option half the year in this province, and even then not a very attractive one), you need lodging in whatever municipality you find yourself in - particularly given that your typical artsy event ends after the last Red Arrow of the night leaves the station for Edmonton. A network of dedicated artist crash pads on either end,in said cities, perhaps modelled on New Orleans' Musicians' Village, would solve this problem.

5) Forge stronger ties with communities within the city.

Edmonton is distinctly unlike places like Vancouver and Toronto in its relative lack of distinct ethnic enclaves. With the exception of the South Asian community in Mill Woods (an area also replete with new Canadians from elsewhere around the globe) and the East African community on and around 107 Avenue (forever the starting point in the city for whichever immigrant community is the most recent), Edmonton's multicultural population is a true salad bowl. There is nearly as much Ethiopian food in Edmonton's Little Italy than there is Italian, and the city's Chinatown is decidedly more Vietnamese than Chinese. And given China and Italy's past predilections for invading Vietnam and Ethiopia respectively, it's poetic justice in a way.

That said, Edmonton's artistic mainstream (i.e. white people) could all do a better job engaging with the city's many and varied ethno-cultural communities. The spoken word/slam poetry scene is excelling on that front thanks in no small part to Titilope Sonuga and her heir apparent Ahmed Knowmadic of the Breath in Poetry collective - slam poetry at its least obnoxious and most inclusive. Edmonton is also home to what may now be the country's largest urban Aboriginal population, and with it one of Canada's most energetic Aboriginal arts scenes - ranging from Métis country music to raw rez hip hop and stand-up comedy. It's out there. You just need to seek it out.

6) Fight the power.

Yep, put on your best gold Flava Flav teeth, hang a clock around your neck, and fight the power that be. But in all seriousness, the city of Edmonton would have far fewer historic buildings standing were it not for its citizens' willingness to get organized and fight the forces of organized redevelopment. Much of Old Strathcona would have been razed back in the 1970s were it not for the grim determination of its residence to save its innumerable architectural gems. Today the city's venerable McDougall United Church is the latest historic building on the chopping block, and while its future remains very much in doubt, a campaign to save the building has recently shifted into high gear.

Sometimes you just have to be like Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker books and lie in front of the bulldozer. And call it a work of art. Because sometimes it is.


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