What could the NWT’s arts strategy actually be doing?
The NWT’s plan to grow its arts sector just took a hammering in front of MLAs, but only two artists’ voices were heard. We went looking for more perspectives.
Ben Nind and Sarah Swan, both based in Yellowknife, said the NWT Arts Strategy isn’t good enough. Nind told MLAs the document is “unfocused, unsupported and underfunded.”
Swan said the strategy, released a year and a half ago to cover the next decade, is for the most part as “thick as a Kleenex” and, in her view, “a permission slip for the government to keep on keeping on, not changing much of anything.”
Their concerns include a perceived lack of meaningful actions, an absence of real money to back up the strategy, and a lack of clarity between the two territorial departments – culture body ECE and industry-focused ITI – who share responsibility for the arts.
Are those views shared with other artists, including those outside Yellowknife? And how does the territorial government respond to some of these criticisms? Will anything change?
Firstly, here’s an overview of the strategy as it stands.
Running from 2021 to 2031, it promises to do four things: improve programs and services, make arts education and leadership better, support more arts infrastructure, and strengthen the creative sector as a whole.
Actions discussed include developing studios and multi-use spaces, exploring the creation of an NWT Arts Association and looking at more ways for artists to engage with children.
Right away, Terry Pamplin – another Yellowknife artist – had a problem. The actions in the strategy don’t amount to much, he said.
“They made a document to say they tried, so we can’t say they didn’t,” is Pamplin’s view. “It won’t go anywhere. It needs real plans of action in it, and those aren’t there.”
Yukon versus the NWT
So let’s dig deeper into the NWT arts sector problems that the strategy tries to solve.
In 2021, the gross domestic product (GDP) of arts, entertainment and recreation in the NWT was $3.2 million. That’s less than half of 2017’s figure, which was $7.9 million.
A big part of that reduction almost certainly comes from Covid-19 – every Canadian jurisdiction suffered a big drop in arts-related GDP during the pandemic. But only the NWT saw the figure plunge to less than half of what it had been four years earlier. Nowhere else was the cliff-edge as steep.
In Yukon, arts-related GDP dropped less severely between 2017 and 2021, from $13.2 million to $9.1 million. Now compare those figures with the ones above. In 2021, Yukon – roughly similar in population to the NWT, perhaps a little smaller – had nearly three times the arts GDP of the NWT. And that figure represented a rebound on 2020, whereas the NWT’s figure had continued to drop.
What’s Yukon doing that the NWT is not?
For a start, Yukon artists are pulling in much more federal funding.
In the 2021-22 fiscal year, the Canada Council for the Arts – or CCA – provided $427,000 in grants to the Northwest Territories. Nunavut received $1.2 million and Yukon received $2.8 million. The Northwest Territories was the only region in Canada to receive under a million dollars in funding from the CCA.
Simon Brault is the Canada Council for the Arts’ chief executive officer. The council is a Crown corporation and is the federal government’s main funding avenue for the arts.
Brault told Cabin Radio more funding is given to Yukon artists in part because of the existing support for artists in that territory.
“Whenever a local government in a territory or in a province is investing more, it means that there will be more artists applying for Canada Council,” he said.
“The success rate of applications approved is the same between the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, but we get less applications from the Northwest Territories.”
Where is Yukon investing more? The NWT Arts Strategy has a goal to improve arts education and leadership. We’ll take that as an example.
Yukon has an Artist in the School program which, in 2021-22, saw more 30 artists travel across the territory to engage with students. The programming involved includes exposure to dance, singing, songwriting, filmmaking, music, poetry and storytelling. Students are offered experience in visual arts such as carving, textiles and basket-weaving, as well as artist talks and programs specific to Indigenous cultures.
“There are many fantastic ways to connect arts with curriculum, and for art to connect with kids who may not be connecting with other parts of their regular school curriculum,” Keitha Clark, Yukon’s Artist in the School program coordinator, told Cabin Radio.
“The arts are an amazing way for students to be able to express themselves in their learning, in unique and different ways that can provide a really rich emotional and social framework for them.”
Similar programs exist in 11 provinces and territories across Canada – all except the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. With 49 schools across the NWT, implementing such a program could create paid work for dozens of artists.
The NWT Arts Strategy does not identify launching a similar program as a priority.
Instead, to help artists share their knowledge with school students, the strategy promises to “foster the relationship between artists/arts organizations and schools/education bodies” and “provide assistance to Indigenous artists, Elders, and knowledge keepers to share traditional artistic skills and knowledge with youth.”
What those statements will actually mean in practice is not clear. Asked if an Artist in the School program would be beneficial, a GNWT spokesperson did not directly answer the question but said in part: “ECE works with education bodies to ensure arts and culture are reflected in the curriculum in a way that reflects the diversity and richness of the territories’ history and traditions.”
‘That’s how you lose people’
Without identifying and striving to create a focused, formal program, Pamplin thinks students are being denied the opportunity to prepare for a life in the arts beyond high school.
Most students he talks to, Pamplin said, have never heard of Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Alberta University of the Arts, and other Canadian art universities.
“They’re not even really aware that the arts exist once they finish high school,” he said, “and if they are, they don’t have the portfolios to apply, because they were never given the opportunity to create them – because we don’t put the effort into teaching the arts the same way we do math and science.”
Meanwhile, the NWT offers essentially no post-secondary arts programming of its own, the only Canadian jurisdiction in that position.
Nunavut Arctic College provides programs like fur design and production, while the Qaggiq School of Performing Arts offers Inuit-focused performing arts courses. Yukon has a school of visual arts created through Yukon University after the territory saw a need for more education in the arts.
The words “post-secondary,” “college” and “university” do not appear in the NWT Arts Strategy. A GNWT spokesperson said student financial assistance in the territory is “one of the top-rated programs in the country,” allowing young residents to pursue their arts goals elsewhere.
Deano Dei, a Dene performing artist, spent time in Yellowknife before finishing high school in Edmonton.
Even at her athletics-focused Edmonton school, she said students learned stage management, sound and lighting, “and we had professionals come in to teach us … real human beings who were devoted to uplifting youth.”
That experience left her in two minds about returning the North.
“When your young people leave and you don’t offer them any support, no incentive, no tangible kind of reason to come back to the North, why would they?” Dei said.
“That’s how you lose people. That’s why I live in Edmonton. Not because I don’t love my friends, not because I don’t love my family – I miss them every day – but I needed more opportunities, I needed to do more.”
A few years after high school, Dei moved to Edmonton permanently due to the lack of arts infrastructure in the NWT.
“People have the right to music. People have the right to hide tanning, to sewing, to theatre. People have the right to art,” she said.
“But without the space to experience it, they can’t access those rights.”
An artist-led, Indigenous-led gallery
Infrastructure is a key pillar of the NWT Arts Strategy.
The document states that the territorial government will “support NWT communities to develop more multi-use spaces/studios,” ask people working on big projects to consider incorporating space for the arts, research ways of creating affordable spaces to promote and sell art, and “raise awareness of federal programs that could be accessed to support the creation of cultural spaces.”
There is no money in the strategy to directly support the creation of arts infrastructure, nor is any specific project identified as a priority.
The NWT does have arts infrastructure. There are nine museums or heritage centres across the territory and various commercial galleries, plus two non-commercial galleries: a non-profit’s trailer that serves as a mobile gallery and the new gallery at Yellowknife’s visitor centre.
A territorial art gallery has been the number-one request from some NWT artists for years, but that ambition has not found its way into the strategy.
Siku Allooloo is an Inuk and Haitian Taíno writer and artist who was born and raised in Yellowknife. Her work has appeared in galleries across Canada, including the Quamajuq-Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Western Front in Vancouver, and an exhibit currently taking place at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
For NWT artists to be successful, Allooloo says, visibility matters.
“Having your work in a show, at a reputable institution, really helps advance your standing as an artist, especially as an emerging artist,” she told Cabin Radio.
“It can open so many doors.”
A common requirement for artists applying to federal funding programs, such as the Canada Council for the Arts, is experience showing their work in a professional exhibition. These galleries must be “recognized by a professional curator, gallery owner, art dealer, collective of professional artists, or jury of professionals in the field,” the Canada Council for the Arts’ funding grants guide states.
In the NWT, the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre is the only space that meets this requirement. The Yellowknife-based museum hosts two non-commercial shows a year, meaning opportunities to have your work displayed there are extremely limited.
When those shows do happen, the effect can be tangible.
Tsiigehtchic artist Margaret Nazon had her work displayed at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in 2019, which prompted a magazine review that in turn led to her exhibiting at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, then speaking at the Manitoba Museum’s beading symposium.
Some artists maintain that a territorial art gallery would offer many more opportunities for NWT residents to enjoy a similar progression in their work.
Without that space, art created by northerners can often end up being exported south. Allooloo says that does a disservice to NWT residents.
“The rest of Canada gets to see this art in big city centres, and a lot of time northerners have to travel,” she said. (In 2022, Allooloo’s father had to travel from Nunavut to see her work in Winnipeg. If he hadn’t travelled, she says, he would never have seen her exhibit.)
“The common theme, circumpolar, is that we need more infrastructure,” said Allooloo, calling for spaces designed in collaboration with Indigenous artists and run by the arts community.
“The groundbreaking Indigenous exhibitions that I’ve been lucky to be part of have been community-led and [have taken place] through really sincere relationships, over a longer period of time, with gallery spaces that are seriously looking at their role in reconciliation and truly in decolonization and restitution,” said Allooloo.
“They’ve opened up their institutions to really think deeply and work closely with Indigenous artists, to ask” ‘What are our main concerns? How can the gallery support the work that we need to happen?’
“In the North, people need more places to gather and apply energy to grassroots initiatives and concerns such as protection of water, land, culture, environment, water, caribou, Dene laws and governance. An artist-led, Indigenous-led gallery can provide those avenues.”
On his last visit to the NWT, the CCA’s Brault says he was “surprised by how urgent the needs are for infrastructure” and is now spreading that message to “other departments” in Ottawa.
“It’s a very serious issue,” Brault said.
“If we want to see a promising future for the arts sector in the Northwest Territories, serious investment needs to be made in the infrastructure.”
A GNWT spokesperson acknowledged the importance of exhibiting in an accredited gallery to some application processes.
“Until additional infrastructure can be realized, another option might be for funding bodies to consider amending their eligibility requirements for northern residents as these accredited spaces are so limited,” the spokesperson wrote.
Arts programs reviewed
Other major themes of the strategy are economic development – promising, without any money attached, to keep promoting the arts and finding ways to drive more revenue toward artists – and a revamp of programs and services to better meet needs.
The accessibility of funding has long been criticized by NWT artists. In October last year, Vancouver consultants Qatalyst produced a review of NWT arts programs that found “significant perceived overlap, and resulting confusion, in terms of who and what is funded by different programs.”
Ultimately, the review urged ECE and ITI to develop “more of a collective approach to implementation” of their separate programs, an issue routinely highlighted by artists who complain that the two departments get in each other’s way or fail to communicate.
Artists like Gail Ann Raddi, a sewing specialist from Inuvik, rely in part on funding from the departments.
Raddi says accessing ITI funding has become easier over time, but went on to describe that as a double-edged sword.
“You used to have to go in to get the funding. You’d have to show proof of your work, how many years you’ve been doing it and everything,” Raddi told Cabin Radio. “Now, you can go in there and show a few pictures of somebody’s work. It’s not even your own work.
“I see so many people getting the funding that haven’t even started yet, and then they turn around and message me. ‘Oh, I got approved for ITI. Where can I order this? Where can I order that? How can I price my work?’ That’s not right, that you’re getting it when other people that have been sewing for years have a hard time getting it.”
Increased competition means people are stealing each other’s designs, Raddi alleges. She described turning certain people away from her sewing classes because “they’re there just to try to get my pattern, my design.”
“I want to teach people who I know are interested in learning and they’ll appreciate it,” she said.
How the GNWT responded
Raddi’s situation, navigating a changing funding environment, illustrates the complexity of the task facing the GNWT: try to create a rising tide that will lift all boats in the arts sector, without any unforeseen consequences.
But a consistent criticism from NWT artists is that the territory’s strategy doesn’t really feel like it’s trying.
Last month, the territorial government provided written responses to a dozen questions from Cabin Radio about the strategy and its attempts to match the kind of success seen in Yukon.
Asked why Yukon’s arts sector seemed so much healthier than the NWT equivalent, a GNWT spokesperson acknowledged that “the Yukon’s arts sector is one of the strongest in the country” and said the GNWT had “extensively researched the functioning of the Yukon arts sector and programs,” but did not provide specifics about which aspects of the Yukon system seemed to be the key.
Asked if the awarding of some Yukon lottery funding to the arts might be part of the reason – only sports and recreation projects receive lottery funding in the NWT – the same spokesperson wrote: “Any sector will benefit from additional funding and will, similarly, struggle when their funding is reduced. Any change to this approach would need to address both sides of the equation and would require a change to the legislation, which is not anticipated at this time.”
More broadly, the GNWT said it had “heard what the sector has to say” and was working to expand supports. But the territorial government also defended its record.
“It depends on your perspective,” the spokesperson wrote, asked if the territory could explain how some artists feel their sector is overlooked.
“From the perspective of economic development, the arts and crafts sector is, depending on the year, the highest funded economic development sector funded by the GNWT.”
The territory says art sales are on the rise, a development it attributes in part to artists “pivoting to selling their work online.” The strategy calls for training to help more residents do the same.
In the time between receiving written questions from Cabin Radio and providing answers, the GNWT launched an online progress tracker designed to demonstrate how the NWT Arts Strategy is being implemented.
As of April, the GNWT says all 13 actions are on track.