YK ARCC's mobile art gallery in May 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Some NWT artists say a strategy designed to improve the sector misses the mark and is a licence for the territorial government to preserve the status quo.
Two committees of MLAs met with artists on Thursday to discuss the NWT Arts Strategy, released a year and a half ago to cover the period from 2021 to 2031.
The strategy includes priorities like helping artists to engage with children, improving access to funding, and increasing the number of spaces in which artists can create, exhibit and sell art.
At Thursday’s discussion, MLAs heard from artists Ben Nind and Sarah Swan.
Nind said the strategy is “unfocused, unsupported and underfunded.”
“You can’t manage what you don’t know. With this strategy, I can guarantee you with 100-percent certainty they cannot put on your tables a detailed breakdown of who, what, where, when, how and why” for the arts sector, Nind said.
He said the strategy’s first goal – to increase internal GNWT awareness of the strategy itself, and to “improve alignment” of GNWT services – had little to do with artists.
“Goal number one is not a goal for the sector. It’s a goal for two wandering government departments and it has no place in the strategy and should be removed,” he said, referring to the Department of Education, Culture and Employment and Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, which share responsibilities related to the arts sector.
To artists, Nind said, the strategy’s first goal makes clear that the document does not support the creative sector, but rather is an attempt to fix the “inefficiency of government departments.”
Addressing the strategy’s goal to strengthen education in the arts, he said Aurora College had “failed miserably” to provide post-secondary arts opportunities.
Swan, director of Yellowknife Artist-Run Community Centre, said the strategy does not acknowledge the breadth of education that is needed.
“It is such a shame that we have zero post-secondary education opportunities,” she said. “We can teach each other how to felt till the cows come home, but that doesn’t help move growth upwards.”
She presented Venn diagrams intended to represent the current NWT arts sector and how the future could ideally look.
In her Venn diagram for the present state of the sector, she said, the NWT’s academic art community is almost non-existent.
She called for more focus on the academic art sphere, where she said artists can earn money by being paid professional fees rather than having to “hustle” to sell their work.
“It’s where people think about art,” she said. “It’s where they ask questions like: what’s the history of art in the NWT? What are the contexts that have shaped art here? How has it shaped our various northern cultures? What’s the relationship of art to healing, to identity, to the themes and values and ethics of art and craft in the NWT? Is there such a thing as a northern aesthetic? If so, can we change it? Should we change it?
“Professional growth in arts doesn’t just mean learning how to brand and sell your artwork at craft sales or expos, and it doesn’t mean setting up a table when there’s yet another conference in town, it means the chance to exhibit and work with other artists.
“It means to have your art be part of a dialogue about what is going on culturally and politically and philosophically. It means the chance to build relationships with curators, with researchers and publications. And it means being invited to the table to contribute to or participate in broader national conversations.”
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby added that the territory was “missing the boat” if it did not also consider the role of the tourism industry in its arts sector.
“We all see the tourists wandering around the streets of Yellowknife during the day, because they’re here for the aurora, but we haven’t presented them with anything culturally significant,” Nokleby said.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity to do that.”
‘A clown with two personalities’
Nind said the strategy appears to overlook crucial resources to enrich arts in the territory. He gave the example of the absence of a grant-writing team.
“You have to have the ability, the knowledge and the wherewithal to be able to actually make those applications, and yet nowhere in this strategy is there a grant-writing team that goes community to community to work with arts organizations and artists to be able to strengthen arts grant writing.”
ITI and ECE jointly offer a range of arts grants in the NWT. The separation of the two departments is unclear and confusing to many artists, a problem raised both by Nind and in a report released by the GNWT in November.
Nind gave the example of an NWT author having to apply to one department “to actually do the writing” and then to another department for help covering publishing costs.
“It’s interesting that the government, which is totally unorganized and confused in its support, wants the NWT arts community to organize into a single unit,” said Nind, “instead of doing what is best for the sector and rolling departments into a one-stop shop where everyone can come and do business.
“They’re asking the sector to solve the problem that they themselves are suffering from.”
Nind described this as the arts community being treated like “a clown with two personalities … the happy one that everybody pulls out when they want a celebration, and then the sad one that they stuffed into the closet, that they give absolutely no support to. They give it hope, they feed it with a little spoon, but there’s nothing that is really serious.”
He added: “There’s no identified money for this strategy, and that tells you how serious the strategy is to the departments, and this committee needs to be able to step up to make it happen.”
Nokleby said her own experience as minister of ITI in 2020 had taught her “how difficult it really was, within the department, to get money out the door.”
“Artists aren’t getting rich off these little pity grants that are coming out,” she said, “and I think the red-tape piece is mind-boggling.”
Swan called the relationship between ECE and ITI “a very dysfunctional marriage.”
“The sooner they can figure out their relationship and implement the new rules of engagement, the healthier all of us will be in the arts,” she said.
The NWT Arts Council, which helps to decide who receives grant money through a board representing all regions of the territory, is barely mentioned in the strategy, Nind said.
“The council is independent. It knows what’s happening on the ground, it’s made up of community members … and the fact that both departments have totally ignored the council as a one-stop shop option, to me, shows that the departments are navel-gazing,” Nind said.
Swan said that when the NWT Arts Council sought new board members last fall, she went looking for that information and could not find it anywhere.
“Oh wait,” she said. “They don’t even have their own website.”
Is it too late?
Swan described the overall strategy as a “permission slip for the government to keep on keeping on and not change much.”
In a Venn diagram showing her ideal view of the NWT arts world, a much larger academic art sphere plays a central role, offering space for artists to exhibit, teach and learn.
She told MLAs to “get more art going on at the only institution we have in this territory that can actually leverage its professional status to help artists: the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.”
Responding to concerns raised on Thursday, Nokleby said she would advocate for the NWT Arts Council to become an independent body.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said there “might be one surprise coming” for the arts community, a statement about which he did not elaborate, “but it’s probably not enough. It’s too late. I think it’s too late for this assembly to do anything.”
He told artists dissatisfied with the strategy to make it “a priority for the next government.”
Nind did not agree and questioned where accountability lay.
“Where is the leadership at the table?” he asked.
“Where is the leadership that actually stands up and says arts and culture are central to our identity and need to be supported?”