Saturday, February 07, 2015

ARTS & CULTURE (7) by Dan Appell

Coffee with Suzanne

I had a very lively and interesting talk with Suzanne Samborski yesterday. Suzanne is the head to the culture and heritage department at city hall. We did an overview of the cultural scene in Nanaimo, a little speculation on the trajectories of the arts community, and she expressed some thoughts on next steps her department is taking.

Both Suzanne and myself come from other cities, so for both of us the culture of this place is revealed through comparisons. Compared to other centres around this size and even larger, Nanaimo has a large number of talented people involved in a broad range of creative endeavours. However, compared to similar sized talent pools Nanaimo seems to have less access to the provincial, national or international stage. Truth is, the big money is somewhere else. Somewhere else is where an arts community becomes sustainable. One great internationally acclaimed festival of anything can turn a struggling arts sector into a tourism cash cow, a Camelot for the talented, and a deep source of pride for the whole community.  But we are not there yet. We're not even close. Now is the time for baby steps that nurture local talent towards a level of excellence that can be both exported and attract people to our city. Both of us agree, now is a time of building over the long term. This is a project that might take a generation of effort to bear fruit, but it is worth the effort, and will pay back in spades as the arts community increases in skill and stature.

Over the last few decades the development of the arts community in Nanaimo has suffered somewhat. I believe this is because the city invested too heavily in a conference centre and then proceeded down the wrong track to revitalize our downtown. Because many of our generation’s advocates for the arts backed the Conference Centre and a misguided revitalization project, their advocacy for the arts lacked credibility. Both Suzanne and I are on the same page, agreeing that one of much needed baby steps is to find new voices to speak for our sector. Younger voices such as Amanda Scott from the Vault, and Valentina Cardinalli from AEIOU, would go a long way towards bridging a divide between the arts community and its potential audience.

Suzanne surprised me with the idea of a Chamber of Commerce like advocacy group for the arts sector. If the arts sector could put together a coalition of individuals from various groups to increase support for the arts and improve policy for the development of the arts, there may be some positive results. We do need to improve planning policy for this sector and doing this from inside city hall is awkward. If a larger group representing the diverse segments of our sector could advocate on our behalf we might improve our ability to develop infrastructure and programming support. It’s something for our groups to consider.

While Suzanne came to head this department from a position within Parks and Recreation, and represents a civil servant’s dedication to her role, she does have a keen interest in the problem of culture in the development of cities; for that I am grateful. My view is that the department will be both resilient, sensitive and responsive under her leadership. My hope is that as the department matures, artists will be able to take over key positions and those with a more particular understanding of the kinds of support artists need can start to transform the culture of city hall from the inside.


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