Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Fort McMurray, Where the Highway Ends*

Fort McMurray boasts well-produced theatre, but an abandoned visual arts program

The first thing I noticed as I arrived in Fort McMurray is just how thick the trees grew together. Nestled within a valley and existing amongst the trees, this is the real Northern Alberta—five hours north of Edmonton, which if you looked on a world map, is already pretty far north and removed.

As a quick survey: there are no sidewalks to follow. A series of parking lots with more pick up trucks than I could keep count of connected back onto the highway. Brand names and smells I have only ever associated with Canadian airports lined the town, and small independent businesses and grocers from around the world dotted the rows of strip malls. I would be told it’s beautiful in May, but by mid-summer, the june bugs are large and aggressive. Same goes for the ravens. By my third day, the air quality offset an allergic reaction I never even knew I had, and this is after having lived in the smog of Hong Kong for a number of years. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s actually the bush out here, and while the aerial viewpoints of the open tar pits and tailing ponds is an image burned in many a mind, being in the actual town of Fort McMurray where people live a day-to-day existence is a far more peculiar situation.

If you remember a few years back, Syncrude pulled their funding out of all arts organizations in Alberta with the intention to direct their philanthropy to improve the quality of life for the people (and their employees) in Fort McMurray. Focusing on health and wellness, there are now several new fitness complexes paid for by various oil and gas companies, including one which housed a brand new library, gym and soon-to-be indoor waterpark. As for culture, if you will it, there are definitely resources available, as the theatre inside Keyano college has the budget to bring in the Moscow Ballet to perform in their deluxe auditorium theatre with some of the most advanced sound and lighting technology available.

Invited up to view the premiere production of High School Musical, I too was wowed by the production values available. The material, which is basically an updated version of Grease, may not necessarily be up my alley, but I cannot deny that this production went above and beyond the genre of musical theatre and provided an evening of sensational entertainment. Theatre often fails for me in the clashing of egos outshining one another and actors simply going through the motions, but under the direction and choreography of Julie Funk, each and every single performer in the 20-plus ensemble moved, and I mean really moved together under a sweeping singular vision.

And while the only theatre was full on its first night of a week-long run, the only art gallery sat empty below, shut down several years ago—but not due to the lack of activity. Roaming the halls of the college and glancing up at a series of posters lining both walls, there had been an active lecture/residency series between 1995 and 2005 featuring visual artists from Monica Tapp, Alex Janvier, Peter von Tiesenhausen and many U of A art professors. After asking around, the general consensus was that the program and gallery have been shut down partly due to the lack of personnel to administer the space (which translates to lack of interest in hiring for the position), and partly due to the lack of visible (i.e. quantifiable) value for the community. The gallery, which in and of itself was already a small space, now simply sits empty save for the odd occasion it is used as coat check. As an empty space in a town riddled with the lack of space, the value of having a visual art gallery is unfortunately undervalued, as the theatre, which is also able to generate revenue, remains heavily programmed with an artistic director.

Spending a morning with Garry Berteig, who laid the foundation for most of Keyano’s visual art department some 20 years ago, I walked away with the sense of how isolation affects how we live, but also how we maintain inspiration. Having lived and traveled around the world from Toronto to Greenland, Berteig is somewhat of an anomaly, maintaining a friendship with Bill Viola and increasingly turning more inwards as he investigates the environment as an expression to our inner conditions. Having to give up his studio when the last boom forced rent to double, the Saskatchewan-born artist has had to return at least one major grant due to the lack of studio space to complete the project. Running the lecture series until it ended, Berteig is well aware of the potential for the visual arts department, but also after 20 years, I don’t get the sense that he believes things are going to change anytime soon.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Photo credit: Amy Fung, 2010

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