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Arts
Economy

New arts strategy requires ‘real action,’ NWT creatives say


Last week, the NWT government released a strategy to grow and bolster the arts over the next 10 years. Those in the sector say that needs to be followed by proper action and funding.

Writer Sarah Swan said she was “optimistic but, at the same time, pragmatically cynical” about the strategy’s publication and its likely consequences. “Will the government follow through, or will it use government-speak to gloss over lack of real action?”

The strategy, released last Thursday, includes priorities such as supporting opportunities for artists to engage with children, improving access to funding, and increasing spaces to create, exhibit, and sell art.

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The document is a joint effort between the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment and the Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment.  

Swan is a longtime board member of the Yellowknife Artist-Run Community Centre, a group that operates a mobile art gallery from a trailer.

She said she was happy to see mention of revamping existing GNWT arts programs, forming an arms-length arts association, and creating mentorships between emerging and established artists.

Mentorships are “an excellent way to provide education when other forms aren’t possible,” Swan explained, citing a lack of higher education for the arts in the territory. “It’s proven to be very effective in other parts of Canada, so I’m really happy to see that word used.”

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However, Swan expressed concern about some of the document’s language.

“I can kind-of see how, if they don’t want to assume real responsibility for some of the issues, they don’t have to, because the language is vague enough that they can slip out of commitment,” she said.

What’s more, Swan added, the third goal – supporting infrastructure such as arts spaces and the availability of materials and technology – is “thin.”

Sarah Swan, with the YK ARCC, prepares the gallery for visitors in Peace River Flats in May 2020.
Sarah Swan prepares a mobile art gallery for visitors in Yellowknife’s Peace River Flats in May 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

‘An investment, not an expense’

The lack of a formal territorial art gallery has long been a complaint among the NWT’s arts community.

“Certainly, we’re probably the only capital city in Canada that doesn’t have an art gallery,” Yellowknife artist Walt Humphries told Cabin Radio.

Humphries said the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, a museum based in the city, did “very good work” but could only showcase one artist at a time.

“If a tourist comes up here,” he asked, “where do they go to see a representative selection of northern art?”

Humphries said this points to a larger issue within the NWT – more often than not, space and funding for the arts are relegated among government priorities.

“They’re hardly valued at all,” Humphries said.

“The territory is looking at it as an arts-and-crafts type thing, and they aren’t looking at art for the true value that art is worth, and what it brings to the community – a sense of identity, a sense of place, an image that resonates with them.”

Marie Coderre – executive director of the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, or NACC – said the territorial government needed a fresh perspective on arts funding.

Coderre cited her home province, Québec, as an example.

“They started to invest in the arts big-time since the late ’70s,” she explained. “They don’t see it as an expense, they see it as an investment. As a result, there is return on investment with the arts over there. You’ve got Montreal, one of the most artistic cities in Canada.

“The MLAs need to do their work. If they start seeing people call this place home and are not moving away back down south after three or five years, they will understand that the arts have a big role to play.”

According to Coderre, NACC has experienced major funding reductions over the past 15 years. She said the organization had to make up nearly $110,000 as local, territorial, and national funding programs reduced their contributions.

Walt Humphries' Life's Like That exhibit is on at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre until June
Walt Humphries at his Life’s Like That exhibit at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in January 2020. Photo: Bill Braden

“They don’t realize that we rely on all those little grant programs so, if they cut here or there non-stop, it adds up,” Coderre explained. “We see the arts growing, but … it’s not sustainable because it’s on a project basis.

“There is no possibility to have a five-year plan when you work in survival mode every year. This document needs to be matched with a real political desire to make real change.”

Looking at the current landscape

Trevor Sinclair, executive director of Music NWT – which advocates for the territory’s music industry – said he is happy the strategy is out but wished there were more specific plans for music and a more thorough analysis of the NWT’s music landscape.

He wants to see an economic benefit analysis, a scan of recording and music facilities that are operational, and a survey of musicians within the territory.

“It doesn’t take a really good look at our current situation,” he said. “If we don’t even know how much the NWT music industry contributes to the Canadian music industry, we have no idea or concept of how we’re performing.

“How can you build a strategy around something when you don’t even know where you’re at?”

More needs to be done, Sinclair continued, to connect the NWT’s industry with the rest of Canada.

Yellowknife-based band The Housemen. Trevor Sinclair, executive director of Music NWT, is the drummer. Photo: Ray Chiasson

“I see there are discussions around branding in the strategy, which is great, but we need to tie that in with these national organizations,” he said. “We have to look at both the national and international markets.”

As it stands, the strategy does not include budget information but states existing funding programs will be scrutinized.

GNWT staff will also be “collecting information” on the NWT Arts Strategy each year, with plans to publish performance reports in 2026 and 2031.

Swan called the lack of a budget “very telling.”

“We need more money given to the arts,” she said. “Money talks, and money makes things happen.

“I’m glad to have this document in my hands, because now I can use it to hold them accountable.”

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