- Photo by JEFF STOKOE/Advocate staff

Investing in the arts

Hockey-town Red Deer can stand to get more artsy. I call Red Deer ‘hockey town’ because this city has a fanatical hockey following. It’s fair to say the local hockey audience is a legion times bigger than the modest audience for the arts. This devotion is, no doubt, reflected in the 71 indoor and outdoor ice surfaces the City of Red Deer operates.

Hockey-town Red Deer can stand to get more artsy.

I call Red Deer ‘hockey town’ because this city has a fanatical hockey following. It’s fair to say the local hockey audience is a legion times bigger than the modest audience for the arts.

This devotion is, no doubt, reflected in the 71 indoor and outdoor ice surfaces the City of Red Deer operates.

By comparison, Red Deer does not have even one municipally-operated arts centre, or sizable art gallery — even though demand exists for both. And local artists have noticed the disparity.

Concerns have been expressed that community theatre is floundering because of a lack of affordable, accessible performance venues and rehearsal spaces for small theatre groups.

At the other end of the spectrum, the successful Red Deer Symphony Orchestra that regularly sells out the 600-seat Red Deer College Arts Centre sees its growth being being stymied by Red Deer’s lack of a larger, acoustically excellent auditorium.

Since taking over Advocate’s arts and culture beat in 2009, I’ve learned that, despite strong hockey associations, the Red Deer region has also been home to dozens of artistic, highly talented people over the years.

Let’s start with our movie connections. Did you know Red Deer-raised digital artist Karl Sisson helped create the moving picture wall above the staircase at Hogwarts for Harry Potter and the animal cages in Life of Pi?

Sisson, as well as Central Albertans Ron Miller and Mark Pullyblank (who worked at the New Zealand animation company started by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson), collectively have credits on Twilight, the Narnia films, The Incredible Hulk, Avatar, Night At the Museum, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Blades of Glory, The Adventure of TinTin, The Hobbit and other films.

Stettler’s Michael Lomenda was one of Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys, while Red Deer College film instructor Larry Reese has appeared in Oscar-winning films Brokeback Mountain and Unforgiven. RDC film and theatre grads are succeeding all over the place: Ponoka’s Shaun Johnston is on CBC’s Heartland, and others appeared on Malcolm in the Middle, The Pinkertons, Aliens in America, Stargate and more.

Lacombe’s Jantzie sisters — Kristin, Lisa and Alison — are kicking up their heels as Radio City Rockettes in New York City.

Central Alberta also boasts authors like Kimmy Beach, whose The Last Temptation of Bond was long-listed for the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award and chosen one of Top 5 poetry books by Quill & Quire. A couple of local playwrights are so successful their works are being turned into independent movies.

On the music front, once we could lay claim to k.d. lang … now we’ve also got Gord Bamford, fellow country artists Shane Chisholm and Duane Steele, jazz singer and CBC personality Tim Tamashiro. And Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson ranches near Red Deer.

Up-and-coming local blues rocker Charlie Jacobson gets Grammy and Juno-Award-winning veteran blues musicians to back him on his first album — he’s that good— so it drives me crazy when people think they have to leave town for their entertainment.

The Red Deer Symphony performs with fabulously talented young local soloists and RDSO conductor Claude Lapalme is one of Canada’s most sought-after music arrangers. He’s been hired by orchestras all over Canada. We also have the award-winning Red Deer Royals marching band and other talented groups.

As for theatre, the excellent Ignition Theatre is on hiatus, due in part to a lack of appropriate, affordable performing venues. But we still have Prime Stock Theatre’s Bard on Bower productions, Against the Wall Theatre’s near-weekly Bull Skit sketch comedy and improv shows, as well as community theatre.

More people really need to check out local exhibits, since we have some exceptional artists in this city — including Jim Westergard, one of Canada’s most esteemed wood engravers and glass artist Darren Petersen. Both have exhibited across Alberta and beyond.

Red Deer’s creative reach is long. Last summer, in the National Gallery’s book store in Ottawa, I saw an entire book on the works of Red Deer-raised, Toronto-based Kim Dorland, considered one of Canada’s most gifted contemporary painters. Right across the river from the National Gallery was the Museum of History … of course, created by Red Deer-reared architect Douglas Cardinal.

So if we can agree that Red Deer can be proud of its arts and culture contribution, then how come some local groups are struggling to find venues, as well as audiences in this city of 100,000?

Anyone who thinks it’s due to the economic downturn and our cultural obsession with getting entertained without leaving our couch would be right on both counts — but it’s also due to our mindset.

Although a new performing arts centre made No. 4 on the public wish list for new infrastructure, city councillors pushed the debate about building a new theatre to replace the aging Memorial Centre (which is operated by the non-profit Central Alberta Theatre) — to at least 2017 in the last budget discussion. This, despite the fact that many smaller communities (Medicine Hat, Camrose) already have performing arts centres, or are working towards building them (Sylvan Lake, Lacombe).

I realize some folks feel “character-forming” sports are somehow more worthy than the “frivolous” arts. I don’t understand this kind of thinking. Fortunately, plenty of others appreciate the emotions and insights that can be stirred up by a concert, play, book or painting.

As one of my readers (a staunch Red Deer Symphony Orchestra supporter) recently emailed: the arts are NOT a luxury, and should not have to struggle for recognition in our community. Artists have held a mirror up to society since ancient times, sometimes causing us to be necessarily critical — and sometimes to marvel at what humanity can achieve.

These are the philosophical reasons to support the arts. Practical ones are based on economic diversity.

Besides capitalizing on the huge wealth of imaginative talent and creative skills that already exist within this community, wouldn’t we benefit from having richer cultural options that could draw tourists to Red Deer from Hwy 2?

Let’s get behind our local artists.

The City of Red Deer has the right idea by supporting outdoor music events and allocating one per cent of construction budgets for art installations in municipal projects. So does Red Deer College, which continues to offer some great arts programming and operates some impressive performing art spaces. Too bad the latter remain too expensive for most local non-profit groups to rent.

Couldn’t the city and college get together, as some artists have suggested, to see what can be jointly done to solve the shortage of accessible, affordable theatre venues and galleries? Certainly, many creative people in our community believe more should be done to expand the local arts scene and ensure that it continues to thrive as our community grows.

Red Deer has a big enough sports following that everyone can choose a different sport, or team to cheer for. I’m not sure this city’s arts crowd is big enough for us to be overly selective about what cultural activities we support — so I’d like to throw out this challenge: If you like music, why not also check out some local theatre and visual arts? If you like pictures and sculptures, why not see some music or sketch comedy? You might be surprised by what you like.

Isn’t it possible the huge local interest in hockey is fuelled by our sizable local investment in hockey infrastructure?

When there are ample rinks, affordable skating lessons, and hockey teams to join, why wouldn’t more and more kids grow up playing hockey?

It makes me wonder: What could be accomplished by kids who grow up in a city full of artistic opportunities — art galleries, theatrical and dance performances, a museum that’s more central to the community, abundant street art and music festivals?

Maybe hockey-town Red Deer could then become equally well known for its spectacular arts and culture scene.

(Based on a speech Michelin recently made for a Friends of the Public Library fundraiser.)

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