Since starting up Prairie Artsters two years ago, I've been consistently asked two things: "When are you going to Toronto?" and "When are you going to Winnipeg?" Refusing the concept that I have to be in Toronto to be an art critic, I have also never felt compelled to visit the other end of the prairies. Until last week. A very pretty town with a sense of history in its buildings and a cooperative approach towards nearly everything, Winnipeg, as I had been informed on countless occasions, really does harbour one of Canada's most vibrant arts communities.
With a great reputation for quality-controlled programming, or more accurately, cooperatively shared programming and mentoring, Winnipeg just keeps on humming along by generating their own work rather than relying on imports and exports for new people and their ideas.
Arriving at the beginning of the Winnipeg Fringe, it appears that this is a town where the strange is the norm and that the norm is both a bargain and a surprise. With a Giant Tiger store as the only grocery store in its downtown core and some of the best sushi I've ever had, comparable to anywhere in the world, Winnipeg is not a place that is obvious, or even logical, but there is clearly something worthwhile that directly translates to the arts scene.
Highly regarded for its ballet company, Winnipeg also has the longest history of contemporary dance in Canada. With a history of vaudeville still apparent in the theatre houses still standing and one of the best folk festival reputations going, it's also notable that Winnipeggers support and create their arts and culture in a way that hasn't involved corporate sponsorships, nor looking elsewhere for model inspiration.
With large spacious studios still going for a couple hundred a month, storefront galleries in centrally located areas and affordable quality housing seemingly everywhere, Winnipeg—I can only imagine—is what Edmonton could have been without the boom and bust cycle.
On the surface, there remains a lot of buildings from the turn of the century that still stand, even though some have long been abandoned. With no capital to demolish and rebuild, except for the MTS Centre on the site of the former Eaton's building, Winnipeg looks and feels like an earlier era, and that informs how we engage with the place and its identity. Lacking any desire, or ability, to be, for the lack of a better word, cool, all that's really left is the quality and content of the work and the people.
Hitting up the artist-run centres and institutions last weekend, I was led through the downtown cluster of media and digital arts (Cinemateque and Platform), a mentorship programming space (MAWA), national contemporary work and focus on Aboriginal art (aceart and Urban Shaman), and the spawn of it all, Plug In, which is in the process of constructing its own building in partnership with the University of Winnipeg on a site just beside the tyndall monolith known as the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
The arts scene in Winnipeg seemingly appears to be a very small and friendly community that is both socially engaged, contemporary and non-cynical. Perhaps they just have nothing to be cynical about: with emerging artists being supported and mentored rather than placed in direct competition with established artists, and with the lineage and history of the place not overshadowing or trying to dominate contemporary practices, there is a lucid sense that there is both room to grow creatively and professionally while being held up against accountable standards. Not quite frontier, not quite metropolitan, it's a place known for quirks and rebels, and although I maintain no plans to move across the prairies, that sentiment is no longer an improbable consideration.
*First published in Vue Weekly, July 23 - 29, 2009
- A.F. Edmonton