The Canada Council for the Arts believes art in Yellowknife is developing for the better, but some artists say they are frustrated by the pace and form of change.
Representatives from the council, which funds arts projects across Canada, met with Yellowknife artists on Thursday evening at the Legislative Assembly to discuss the future of arts in the Northwest Territories.
Council chief executive Simon Brault said he had seen plenty of change in the Yellowknife arts scene since his last visit in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It looks like they have had time to think about new ways of doing their work,” Brault told Cabin Radio, describing his perception of more collaboration in the city.
“What’s interesting,” said Brault, “is today, everybody we’ve met, we’re talking about projects and they were saying: ‘OK, we will do this for the next five years. And then we’ll do another thing for the next five years.’
“The last time I was here, it was all very short-term. Everybody was producing and trying to sell the work on very immediate issues.”
Wente expects many issues that existed pre-pandemic to return, but thinks Covid-19 “provided people space to imagine some solutions on their own, and also imagine the future, and we need to support that.”
However, Wente expressed concern that arts funding has “become too much part of the social safety net for artists, meaning that’s their livelihood, in a way that the grant was not really meant to be.”
He believes the council can lead change in that area.
“Artists could be free to imagine and do so much more if dinner and where they’re going to sleep was already taken care of,” said Wente.
“If we can do that, it would mean our grants would actually be even more ephemeral. It’d be more meaningful.”
Brault agreed, telling Cabin Radio: “I wrote a lot during the pandemic about what I think the post-pandemic world should look like.”
Yellowknife, he said, “is the first place I’m seeing it.”
The council travelled to Inuvik on Friday for another community discussion and will then visit Whitehorse for the Arctic Art Summit next week.
“We’re developing a strategy for the North, by the North, as opposed to asking the North to adapt to how [the south] thinks things should be done,” said Brault.
‘We have a trailer’
Some attendees weren’t as convinced of the arts community’s health in Yellowknife.
Diane Boudreau, a muralist who has lived in the city for 22 years, described frustration at the number of similar meetings she has attended over the years.
“It repeats every time we get a survey from the city, from different parts of the government, from Canada’s national programs. It’s like everybody makes money but the artists,” she said. “They are just hearing the same thing.”
Boudreau said things need to change drastically, while pointing to some fundamental barriers in the North.
Outlining the demand in many funding applications that artists exhibit “here and there and in well-known places,” she told the council’s representatives: “We don’t have this type of structure. We have a trailer … there’s such a gap in the criteria. It’s good that we have a trailer, but it’s never enough. That’s why we never fit the profile.”
Carolyn Warren, director general of the Canada Council for the Arts’ granting program, responded to Boudreau by asking her to wait just “two more years.”
According to Warren, the council is trying to remove the criteria Boudreau described, making grants more accessible for upcoming artists who don’t have access to well-known galleries.
“I know 22 years is a really long time to wait,” said Warren. “And it’s probably really hard to imagine another two.”
Once that time elapses, Warren said, artists can expect a “completely different kind of profile structure for CCA.”
Brault attributed the current criteria to a past practice of gatekeeping.
“We’re working on that very seriously, to kind-of deconstruct that and say it’s not about gatekeeping,” he said. “It’s about sharing resources, it’s about making sure that we grow the capacities of the artist and the capacities of the sector.”
Wente, an Anishinaabe writer from Toronto, tried to reassure Boudreau that change is possible, reminding everyone of the funding the council used to provide when it was first founded.
“It was a tool of assimilation,” he said, explaining that funds were given only to Indigenous artists who practised European forms of art.
“In 2017, the Arts Council introduced CKS [Creating, Knowing, Sharing], which is an Indigenous-led funding program. It now funds a whole bunch of activities that the council never would have funded previously.
“It has the ability to adapt, to do what you’re asking. We’re not a place that is forcing artists to do things we’re looking for. We’re trying to meet the artists where they are doing what they’re doing.
“I think that is the future of the arts.”
Cat McGurk, president of Makerspace YK, asked who will be involved in the funding process.
“How are we deciding who’s funded and how this is funded?” McGurk asked the council. “I think that’s a big element in all of this. Southern jurors don’t know what conditions are here. They can’t use their discretion because they just genuinely don’t know.”
Brault said the council recently announced a partnership with the Inuit Arts Foundation to co-deliver northern programs for Inuit artists. A similar partnership with the Yukon government is set to be unveiled.
“We realize that it’s very difficult to do things on the surface without knowing the conditions,” he said.
“When I go to a small community, everybody knows who the best barber is in the community, but we don’t know. But everybody in the community knows who this person is, so it’s clear to me that we need to be much closer to the ground.”
Martin Goodliffe, a Yellowknife traditional and fine arts artist, told Cabin Radio he finds the process of applying for funding so hard that “you just give up.”
Jay Bulckaert, videographer and co-director of Artless Collective, agreed that applying for grants is “complicated.”
“When I’ve applied to the arts council in the past and was denied, it often ends up feeling humiliating. You’re just left. You don’t really know why, you don’t know how you can improve,” he said.
“You’re always left with this feeling in the North of: ‘We don’t know. They’re from the south, it’s different down there. They want different things, they’re looking for different things.’ So a lot of people give up.”
Bulckaert, however, left Thursday’s gathering feeling hopeful after what he thought was “honest, genuine, and thoughtful discussion.”
“I would suggest that everybody stops giving up, and everybody picks up their pen and paper and gets applications in,” he said.
McGurk and Boudreau weren’t so satisfied.
“I do appreciate this meeting,” said McGurk. “I do, however, wish that I didn’t have to speak to them through a microphone.
“I think that if the point of the meeting was a discussion, then it kind-of cuts that opportunity away.”
Although the Makerspace YK president is hopeful for the future of arts in Yellowknife, they say it isn’t because of the Canada Council for the Arts.
“Most of my hope comes from the other organizations that I work with, who are increasingly more collaborative and excited about working together,” they told Cabin Radio.
“I heard a lot of things from Canada Council tonight that are interesting to me, and align with some of the ways that I see us working in organizations.
“I really hope that something comes of that, but my faith is really in the other organizations that I work with and in the people who are supporting it.”
Boudreau said that although she “always has hope,” she is frustrated by repeated actions each year.
“It seems that it’s a file they do. There’s their survey, they make their money, we go there, and we don’t see the race, we never see results,” she said.
“With the Canada Council for the Arts, we are the lowest in their grid. Very few people [from the NWT] receive a grant from them, so we wish we could increase the number.
“They have to change some regulations, because we cannot compete with the other provinces.”