Losing our cultural edge

Whither go the arts in Red Deer?

Whither go the arts in Red Deer?

Eight years after being named a Cultural Capital of Canada by Canadian Heritage for our “strong and active cultural community,” that cultural community has taken a number of body blows.

It could be simple economics: in many households, when belt tightening becomes necessary, cultural pursuits are cast aside or curtailed. Never mind the ripple effect: loss of income or employment for the 2.0 per cent of the total local workforce (about 1,000 people in Red Deer) in cultural occupations, or the dumbing-down of the populace in general from diminished cultural activity.

But it could be something more deeply rooted, in both the community’s conscience and the fiscal mindset of various levels of government: that culture is becoming less fundamental to society. And that’s a far more troubling perspective, because it suggests that imagination, creativity and freedom of thought have somehow become less important.

In the spring of 2010, the bilton contemporary art gallery in downtown Red Deer closed after three years of operation. It offered original work for sale by artists from across the country, including Central Albertans, but the public support couldn’t sustain the business.

In the spring of this year, The Matchbox theatre on the edge of downtown closed its doors. The 120-seat venue was the home to Ignition theatre, and also brought in a variety of musical groups and performers. A lack of government funding and public support spelled the end to what had been an innovative and progressive project. It offered a home for a variety of performance artists who otherwise wouldn’t have reached a local audience.

This fall, the principals of Gallery IS in downtown Red Deer announced that they would be closing their commercial gallery on Dec. 24, after six years of operation. Business had fallen sharply in the last 18 months, artist and part-owner Jeri Lyn Ing told the Advocate. Only a handful of people a week were even walking through the gallery’s doors.

There are still viable galleries, or at least display areas, in Red Deer, supported at various levels by public funds. And there are a few brave souls still displaying original art as part of their business model.

At the same time, Central Alberta Theatre has taken a bold leap, with municipal government support, by retooling the old Uptown movie theatre into a performing arts centre. How the project is embraced by the public, and how the theatre space acts as a catalyst for a greater variety of performing arts remains to be seen.

But in general, financial support for culture seems to be diminishing in this city and elsewhere.

This has also been felt by the demise of the 11-year-old Waskasoo Bluegrass Society, which folded this fall because of dwindling public interest in the concerts and a small pool of overworked volunteers.

And public engagement in art in its various forms seems also to be waning; a small, dedicated cultural community seems to sustain a variety of works, while the greater population goes blithely about its business. It takes great dedication, and a tremendous amount of time, and we all know that human resources are not infinite, particularly when you’re dealing with a small pool of workers.

Even library use in Red Deer falls short of the circulation per capita volumes in most Canadian communities. And many schools in the city have been forced to turn their libraries into classrooms because of overcrowding, which means it is increasingly difficult for students to access books.

Certainly the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra has a tried and true audience, and perhaps enough potential to fill a larger performing arts centre in the future (they now perform at the Red Deer College Arts Centre).

CAT has always thrived, primarily by staying true to its dinner theatre/popular comedy formula.

And Red Deer College has encouraged the arts on four fundamental tracks through its programs: theatre, film, music and visual arts. Those programs, in turn, reach out to the public through performances and exhibits.

But the second tier of art, from creation to performance, seems to be falling into greater disregard.

In addition, diminishing aid for cultural endeavours from both the federal and provincial governments is not likely to turn around any time soon. Two years ago, then-provincial Culture and Community Spirit Minister Lindsay Blackett toured the province to gather input for a new Cultural Facilities Plan; where it sits now, gathering dust, is anyone’s guess.

We’re not talking about huge expenditures here. It is not the right time, for example, to push for the much-discussed Red Deer performance art centre/gallery/museum project. As the chorus of support for a new aquatics centre shows, even when public backing is strong, money will not magically appear for a project.

But we are talking about the need for a renewed commitment to the arts by the city and its citizens, who must decide how cultural they want their community to be — and then to act.

Three years ago, a new Community Culture Vision was adopted by the city. It was intended to help frame the cultural growth for the next 10 years. Obviously, circumstances have changed and the vision needs to be sharpened.

It is time to review that community vision. It is time to reassert the values that made Red Deer a cultural icon in 2003, because we are no longer a Cultural Capital.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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