Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Winnipeg is more than just breathing*

Some may have forgotten already, but Edmonton was Canada's Cultural Capital in 2007. After some controversy in allocating the prize money into individual artist funds rather than supporting organizations for heritage or legacy projects, the year came and went with projects and speakers, and the only visible lasting affect has been a continuation with supporting a culturally diverse community arts program now under the Edmonton Arts Council's granting program.

The designation of a "Cultural Capital" means almost nothing, but it's clear it's all in the action of what you do with your time in the proverbial spotlight. It differs across the Prairies, of course. Wandering through towns like Red Deer and Moose Jaw, who have also been designated Cultural Capitals by Heritage Canada accordingly to population size, they had put up flags throughout their township that were left to billow years after the fact. These tattered and faded flags were the only physical emblems left from their designation, at least the only apparent signs that there was a sense of culture through the empty streets and boarded-up buildings. Looking back, the execution of how a city displays their cultural capital status has proved to be the most interesting aspect of this federal initiative.

For 2010, Winnipeg was declared a Cultural Capital of Canada. Long known for its fiercely independent arts scene, the city is now in the early stages of devising a cultural plan and developing its waterfront. Organizing a conference to discuss and extrapolate issues of arts and the city, The Winnipeg Art Council and principle organizer Mary Reid (whose day job is the Curator of Contemporary Art and Photography at the Winnipeg Art Gallery), programmed a phenomenally engaging lineup and poignantly titled the four-day symposium, "My City Is Still Breathing."

The line is pulled directly from a song by The Weakerthans called "Left and Leaving." The sentiment for someone coming from Edmonton resonated, as the urge to leave and the pull to stay are of constant contemplation. The main difference, however, was one of motivation.

The conference was less a networking conference than it was a mighty think tank, pulling in people from around the world who have basically improved some aspect of their city and or community through artistic initiatives from the community level to the policy level.

The thread throughout the conference could be quickly summarized by its opening guest speaker, John Waters, who without even taking off his coat gave a Vegas-style stand-up routine that ranged from a lot of things that can't be printed here to the recurring concept of celebrating everything that one hates about their city, or at least everything that tourist officials would try to hide about the city. Highlighting your city's difference from other cities is what keeps the place a place, and not some homogenous cookie-cutter echo of every other place in the world.

Winnipeg invested their Cultural Capital funds under the umbrella of This included artist-led projects and festivals, but also projects that don't have an immediate, quantifiable return value like educating through workshops and symposiums.

One of the resounding points I took away is that Winnipeggers have no desire to turn their city into a world's city, as it is truly a place for the locals. Winnipeg has no qualms about its status as a small to midsize Prairie city. Its artists fully recognize their isolation and aren't crippled by it. A three-hour modernist architecture tour was enthusiastically led with no signs of lamentation, reinforcing the notion that Winnipeggers embrace their city with a love that is not apologetic, but unconditional and blinding. It is also a city that has not gone through an onslaught of development and makeovers, losing a few buildings here and there, but retaining enough of its landmarks for its citizens to remember this place as their home.

*First published in Vue Weekly

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