Yellowknife moves ahead with arts and culture master plan


A new Yellowknife arts and culture master plan calls for dedicated art spaces, a city artist in residence, and a full-time arts and culture development officer.

Consulting firm Nordicity spent most of 2022 surveying residents and holding interviews with arts community members before producing the document.

The plan was adopted by city council this week, though that doesn’t mean everything it contains will necessarily happen.

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Nordicity’s Megan Lynch told councillors Yellowknife’s arts scene is challenged by a “lack of formal creative spaces,” a lack of dedicated funding and a heavy reliance on volunteers.

“But with these challenges, we see the opportunity for real, strong municipal leadership to bring the arts together for collaboration with the territory, cultural tourism, and how arts and culture can facilitate community connections,” Lynch said.

The plan calls for the recruitment of more Indigenous candidates for public service, the establishment of dedicated art spaces and, eventually, the formalization of a city artist-in-residence program.

The plan also outlines the need for an arts and culture development officer at City Hall.

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Lynch says this role would be the main point of contact for artists needing guidance, resources, and professional development opportunities. The officer would run an online arts and culture hub where artists can find contact lists, funding opportunities, and guides that help them apply.

Sarah Swan, director of the Yellowknife Artist-Run Community Centre, noted that Nordicity’s community survey and interviews found many artists, including visual artists and musicians, feel disconnected from others in their community.

Swan said the proposed addition of an arts officer would help to address that and is the plan’s most exciting recommendation.

“The creation of a position like this would ensure that the rest of the strategy can be implemented and that real change can happen,” she told Cabin Radio.

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“Without someone tending to the garden, the garden will produce nothing.”

More: Read Nordicity’s plan and report (p4-51)

Artist Terry Pamplin said a full-time arts officer would become “a go-to person who would be familiar with the various artists who are in town.”

He hopes such a position will make applying for project funding a smoother process.

“If I make an application to the city, I’m asked for two letters of reference and whatnot, and you need a little corporate history,” he said.

“With this new position, I could hopefully walk in and say, ‘here’s my project,’ and they’ll say, ‘oh, that’s excellent Terry, you’ve always responded, you’ve always reported, you’ve always finished whatever the project was,’ and we can move forward.

“That would be really encouraging to the artists in town, because right now it’s like you’re a total stranger every time you approach them.”

Swan also believes a City Hall arts officer “would be somebody who can take an invested interest in and ownership of the new gallery space,” referring to the art gallery in Yellowknife’s new visitor centre.

“Right now, there’s a big question mark over that,” she said. “This would help it be governed and run properly.”

Determining dedicated art spaces

The master plan suggests artist-run galleries, rented to arts community members for a subsidized fee, could be created at locations like the Centre Square Mall, Ruth Inch Memorial Pool and Hudson’s Bay Heritage Building.

The visitor centre’s gallery is currently the only non-commercial space in the city. Commercial galleries include the Gallery on 47th, Down to Earth Gallery, and Gallery of the Midnight Sun.

A gallery that is city-owned but artist-run could bring more tourism to Yellowknife, said Pamplin.

“The gallery at the visitor centre is an excellent start and it will go a long way toward the promotion of the city,” he told Cabin Radio. “But to have a bigger commercial space that is run by artists would allow for more artists to have their work shown.”

The need for space was heavily underlined in Lynch’s report.

City councillor Cynthia Mufandaedza told Lynch: “This is what the city needs – a small, centralized location where people can come and get information and understand where they need to be.

“There’s a lot of arts and culture in the city, but it’s all different bodies that have had a difficult time coming together.”

The visitor centre's gallery space. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio
The Yellowknife visitor centre’s gallery space. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

An artist-in-residency program, meanwhile, could help the city gain international recognition, Pamplin said.

“It’s an invitation for outside artists to come in and possibly be funded, either privately or through a Canada Council grant or subsidized by the city,” he said.

“Bring them in, give them a studio space and a living space, and they do their art and also share what they’re doing with our artists.”

Pamplin said such an initiative has the potential to develop into a program that could one day be equivalent to the Banff Centre for the Arts, allowing artists to grow locally, nationally and internationally.

Resurgence of arts in Yellowknife

Yellowknife artist Adrienne Cartwright said a plan like this has been needed for a long time.

“We’re at a moment where we have the right people in the right places at the right time,” she told Cabin Radio.

“We have people in the arts community right now who are newer to Yellowknife, bringing fresh ideas and new perspectives, joining forces with those of us who have been here for a long time and have experienced what works and what doesn’t.

“When Covid shut everything down, it gave a lot of people and organizations some breathing room to reflect and prioritize. Now that things are starting back up again, there’s some new energy and some more focused energy, and hopefully we can maintain the momentum as we enter an exciting new phase for art in Yellowknife.”

Pamplin says he is feeling “more optimistic than before.”

“You need an ongoing commitment,” he said of the plan, “and I’m feeling optimistic that this could be it.”

Councillor Julian Morse raised that point as council adopted the plan.

“My primary concern, really, is just around this plan being adopted by council but then being mostly – or at least partially – shelved after that,” he said.

“Definitely, I’ve seen this happen with a lot of the plans that we adopt. Or if they’re not shelved, it’s just a very slow process of implementing them.”

Kerry Thistle, the city’s director of economic development, said staff will need time to make recommendations, assess workloads and make budget allocations.

Councillor Shauna Morgan, said she hoped the incoming council after October’s election will prioritize the plan’s action items when approving the municipality’s 2023 budget.

Mayor Rebecca Alty agreed.

“Money’s always tight,” said Alty, but she added that territorial and federal funding, combined with the city’s grant-writing position, could mean Yellowknife can “tap into other resources to implement some actions in this plan.”

At Monday’s city council meeting, councillors voted to include the arts officer position in 2023’s draft budget.

That draft will be reviewed in December by the new council.