Finally, there seems to be some level of critical dialogue occurring within and about Edmonton's visual art scene in the 21st century. Breaking from our routine standard model of safe previews and moving into territories of in-depth reviews, think pieces and commentary, there is finally a multitude of voices where dialogue is actually happening across and between individuals with differing opinions.
Being incredibly conscious about generating dialogue, there is a sense that, collectively, we have now reached the arts-writing equivalent of socially awkward junior-high schoolers. Maturing from happy-go-lucky grade-school-level opinions into the beginnings of fleshed-out personalities ranging from shy and weird to the brain and the bully, arts writing in Edmonton is currently in its pubescent era. Each camp thinks they're right and completely misunderstood by everyone else. The next few years' worth of activity will be dysfunctional to watch, inane to listen to, and downright painful to experience, but these are the formative years that typically shape a being's long-term core values. Ebbing in cycles, there is certainly a charge in the air.
A recent effort by fellow Vue writer and artist Adam Waldron-Blain took up the position on Prairie Artsters that situated a potential explanation of why Edmonton artists are frustrating and frustrated from a brief historical lens. Waldron-Blain brings up some strong points: tying together converging intersections of institutional edifices and the gentle evolution of civic and aesthetic identities. Written partially as a response to my ongoing columns about the state of Edmonton's art scene, most notably in regards to the lack of context to present and create fearless works, Waldron-Blain's piece has triggered another angle to the perpetual debate of "What's Really Wrong With Edmonton."
One anonymous response has stated flatly, "There is nothing wrong with Edmonton." Agreeable in intention, I do however believe there is something wrong with every city—so long as you pay attention and care enough to try and improve the conditions. The same problems exist everywhere, just varying in degrees, and the inherent problems of our artist-run centers, major institutions and the disconnected production and creation of locally contextualized works should be at the forefront of our concerns.
Waldron-Blain steers the reader towards the history of Edmonton's artistic legacy as the major cause of why the city's next generation of artists don't seem to care. Ending the otherwise thorough essay with: "We barely expect any public or critical response, and so we tell ourselves that we don't want it. We don't treat our work as a representation of our professional selves, and as a result are unconcerned with its quality and cohesiveness. It is then no surprise that our explorations of local identity are scattered and messy and lacking in quality"
Waldron-Blain enters a dangerous position of playing the blame game. There are certainly elements that ring true, but since when did professional artists create works on the condition of engaged public response? Engagement, or respect, has to be earned. Especially for the upcoming generation of which I feel I belong to, there is a responsibility to look back at where your place comes from, but if conscious (and I do believe most artists who choose to work in Alberta have to be conscious on some level) then there is no excuse to keep defaulting to historical parameters. I do sense there is a generational tiff that keeps rippling through our respective positions on art, which in my opinion is more our different approaches to professionalization. Waldron-Blain and I are a mere four years apart in age and I view myself as an emerging arts writer nearing the end of this first arch of my career. After seven years as a freelancer, three focused solely on visual arts, I feel elated to finally have peers in my city. Discussions are starting, and we certainly don't all have to like each other, but letting go of the past legacies of Edmonton, I look forward to exchanging a more professional attitude in the shape of continuing this dialogue.
*First published in Vue Weekly, May 28 - June 3, 2009