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Growing Culture on Your Home Turf: How Local Artists Can Impact Cultural Planning at the Municipal Level

by Tara Mazurk For those, like us, who have committed to the arts as both a passion and profession, we are no stranger to the intrinsic merit of the sector. Yet, in recent years, there has been increased policy pressure to articulate the value of culture with quantifiable data and qualified detail. Rural municipalities are beginning to see the benefits of developing cultural plans, that is, strategic documents which map out cultural centres, set priorities in place for the growth of arts in the region, and articulate the current benefits of art for community engagement and economic vitality. For a municipal government, these plans pose an objective way to measure sustainable growth. But what does this all mean for the artist? What resources do these plans provide? How does one become aware of these initiatives, engage proactively, and still retain an individual voice? The already-artistic community is the beginning and the core; that in which artists thrive in their own studio and among their peers. In addressing a region without any explicit cultural planning, I spoke to Pat Fairhead, a painter who currently resides in Bracebridge, Ontario. Falling in love with Muskoka’s scenic environment, it is only natural that Pat has a strong relationship with the good people surrounding her. She spoke about the value of teaching art classes and building a strong network of artists: “I’ve been teaching a class for 11 years; a wonderful group of adults who are mostly women and mostly without previous art training. They learn from each other, from me, and I learn from them. The group has shown in Bracebridge and there are plans for more exhibitions.” Pat’s involvement in her community signifies a rich culture which is consistently growing and expanding. While Bracebridge has yet to place the visual arts as a policy priority, they had developed an “Art in the Heart” program for artists to display in the region’s Business Improvement Area. While Pat recognizes that many artists have benefitted from showing their work in this area, she notes that “too often the second focus is the artists” (the first being commercial shopping along this strip). This issue was reaffirmed when Pat offered to volunteer for the program, and never received follow-up with the organizer. The ultimate priority for artists in this region, according to Pat, is the concern of exhibiting space. To her knowledge, no one has approached the municipality, but “more artists are renting spaces to showcase their work. [Pat] would like to see more art galleries up here and municipal funding going towards making new spaces for art”. It is clear that initiatives with a grass roots approach dynamically benefit a community, but Pat notes how a clear plan for culture would create public visibility and perhaps lead to more venues for art. To gain an understanding of the artist’s role in developing these plans, I spoke to Greg Baeker, the Director of Cultural Development at Millier Dickinson Blais Inc. Greg has been consistently active and integral for communities through the cultural planning process. In relation to Pat’s community networking approach, Baeker notes: “Up until five or six years ago, a lot of thinking about cultural planning was ‘community culture planning’. This was often an initiative by arts councils or artist groups. Now, it is mainly municipally-owned. Throughout the process, it is a matter of trying to get municipalities to understand that culture is a priority and a responsibility. It is impossible to implement these plans without community engagement.” With many rural municipalities, often there are little to no departmental designation for culture. Yet, getting the attention of a staff member who may be interested in your ideas is a crucial start. “When artists approach the municipality with clear and realistic expectation, they are planting a seed. The artists can help establish best practices for how communities can undertake commissions or competitions and provide the right knowledge and expertise. By being proactive, artists help municipalities embrace, adopt, and endorse culture by signalling there is adequate knowledge within the community.” (Baeker). Even if the municipality is undergoing a cultural planning process, being proactive may also lead to involvement on a steering committee which is often “made of up municipal staff and cultural organizations/workers from the community”. Being persistent in the development of these strategies

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provides the right direction for a municipality in valuing culture and to foster a heightened level of commitment. Of course, Greg mentions that these plans rarely offer any new grant programs for regional artists due to fiscal pressure, but these “documents mostly reposition how people think about culture”, which could potentially lend itself to future priorities in budget allocations and cultural staffing. When these plans are implemented, “the most consistent outcomes of cultural planning often are in the areas of public art and urban designs. The Ontario Planning Act moves municipalities to allocate funds to invest in public art projects and communities often build these initiatives into their Official Plan.”(Baeker). While the act of ‘beautifying’ a city can often be an objective way to attract visitors and to lower crime and industrialisation, at the fundamental core is the art and the artist. Municipal staff in charge of setting public art policies can gain a wider range of expertise in working directly with artists in choosing, commissioning, and creating the work. Cultural planning is often critically assessed as both something politically tense and culturally transformative. The complex nature of consultation and mapping omits an unavoidable level of exclusivity, but being involved opens up a broad network and gives artists the opportunity to put forth ideas which have idled for too long. Whether proactively or indirectly involved, every artist’s practice has a stake in the outcomes of municipal cultural plans. For home-grown artist networks exemplified through Pat

Fairhead, planning can provide awareness within the community and an advocacy tool to address artists concerns. And for Greg Baeker, it shows the “arts and culture in all forums is important. It shows us that THIS matters and that YOU matter”. §

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