Keyano Art Gallery, the only gallery and exhibition space in town, has shut its doors for the summer and will not be reopening this fall. Studios remain out of the question in a city where thriving stores and cafés can’t even keep up with rent, and for the first time in their lives, professional artists will have to give up the idea of a studio space.
There is really no place in the world quite like Fort McMurray. With a recorded population of 80 000 and growing (not including the temporary camp populations), the common ground for everyone is that they are not from there, and that they are here on a temporary basis. Set against an expanding small town backdrop, Fort McMurray has become one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Visitors are always surprised by how beautiful and picturesque the city really is, shedding mental images of drainage and derricks for a pretty little town that’s increasingly busy, but with not much to do. There are long line ups everywhere to do everything from banking to grocery shopping, which sums up the majority of activities between work and sleep.
With the conflation of sports and culture into one civic focus, there are currently three multimillion dollar sports and leisure complexes underway; but even with long empty corridors and major funders from the oil and gas industry looking to retain citizens and employees with an enriched level of life, the artistic portion of community wellness slips through the cracks once again.
The college provides one access point to finding an artistic life. Keyano Theatre has grown into a popular local outing, with rising interest in dance and visual arts. There are pockets, not quite communities, of people trying to get things started, but when almost all of all of the daily conversations are about making money and moving back to wherever you came from, how do you build a community around that?
Not that there isn’t interest; an amateur photo club called an inaugural meeting and over 50 people showed up. But with shift work, a regular weekly or monthly meeting is impossible to keep.
Doubling as the Gallery Director of Keyano Art Gallery—the only art gallery in Fort McMurray and the most northern gallery in Alberta—last year, Schwab programmed local shows as well as exhibitions and lectures by visiting artists like Dana Claxton, Sky Glabush and the premiere exhibition of recent Allen Ball paintings. As one of three visual art faculty members, people who move to the boom town turn to them for suggestions and resources, from professionals who were established artists elsewhere to people who just want their kids to participate.
“People pick our brains on how to start up something, but we’re all running in circles,” shares Schwab, who originally hails from Morinville, just north of St Albert. “Everyone is focused on infrastructure and housing. We know culture should be happening for various reasons, like professional retention, but nobody knows how it’s started. There’s no resources, no space, no regularity in people’s day-to-day schedules. Nobody knows how to support it and sustain it.”
Seemingly bleak, Schwab notes it can be very inspiring. “The students are great. They would rather take an art class than make $40 an hour. They’re in an art program and they really enjoy it. They could be making their parents really happy, but instead they are in school for something that won’t guarantee them a job in one of the most employable cities. Now that’s very inspiring.”
With more cultural interest, or curiosity, coming in from outside of Fort McMurray than within, Schwab is among a small handful of people working towards creating something, anything beyond a giant hole in the ground. The gallery was a space devoted to more than exhibiting art: it was a place for artists to reach out to the community and a destination point for artists from beyond Fort McMurray. However, with the closure of Keyano, there is only so much momentum that can be created. The closure is certainly a blow, but the future of the space remains up in the air. Reticent and reserved, Schwab will just have to take her students out of town more often, but firmly believes that it’s easier to maintain a local space than to let go and start all over again.
*First published in Vue Weekly, August 21 - 27, 2008