Burlington artists now know where the cookie jar is – can they get their hands into the thing?

October 24, 2013

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON.  You know that culture has some traction in Burlington when city council members ask what a Poetry Slam is and when Councillor Jack Dennison suggests the he might even drop by the Black Bull on Guelph Line and hear how Tomy Bewick, a construction worker delivers his message.

Bewick runs the Burlington Poetry Slam, an event most Councillors knew absolutely nothing about; yet it is an organization that has been given a Canada Council grant to bring together Slam poetry artists from across the country.  In Burlington, whoda thunk?

After a close to brutal session at the Regional offices in Oakville where council members took part in a vote that marked the beginning of the end of the Beachway Park community, council met in Burlington to discuss the basics of a Cultural Action Plan and then decide what they wanted to do.

Teresa Seaton, center, organizer of the Art in Action Tour, thinks through a response at one of the Cultural Action Plan sessions. She is one of 250 people organized as an Arts and Culture Collective in Burlington.

They didn’t make any decisions – it was far too late and everyone was far too tired to be able to make sensible decisions, but Burlington did get to see the outline of a community that few really knew existed.  The Arts and Culture Collective, a group of more than 250 people organized on-line,  didn’t really know each other but they have become a voice and they want a seat at the table where the decisions are made.  Nine of their members delegated and laid out their aspirations for a Cultural Action Plan.  They have certainly “informed” the plan the city wants t create but there is still some distance between the bureaucrats and the artists.

The Collective had done their homework – they knew what they wanted – now to actually get it – that’s their challenge.

The delegations were listened to, heard and engaged.  This is not something that happens for many delegations at our city hall.  All too often Council members sit there close to mute as people take their case, their concerns and their hopes the city’s leaders.  That wasn’t the case Wednesday night.

Organized as the Arts and Culture collective in July the thing grew from some 20 people who took part in the first meeting to the 250 people who exchange thoughts and ideas on-line and have learned how to deal with city hall and bring about changes.

The process began a couple of years ago when the city hired Jeremy Freiburg to prepare a report on just what Burlington had and didn’t have going for it in terms of culture.  Everyone knew about the newly minted Performing Arts Centre and everyone knew about the Burlington Art Centre but few of the many ever went to the place to look and see and feel the art over there.

Freiburger’ s  report dug up all kinds of data on where Burlingtonians spent their cultural dollars – far too much of it gets spent outside the city.  He mapped where people go and how much they spend.  He told us what people wanted in terms of culture.

What he revealed was a city that really didn’t have a solid cultural tradition.  We saw a city that chooses to go elsewhere for its culture and entertainment, partly because, they feel, there isn’t anything they like here.

Some thought Freiburger was going to deliver a set of recommendations on what the city should do next – but he chose not to do that.  Instead he gave them the data they needed to begin to figure out what they want to do.

And that is when the Collective began to form.  The people who met, first wanted to be able to do their art here in this city and not have to go to Hamilton or Toronto – but there was no place, no space, nor any expectation, that there was indeed a local arts community.  The city didn’t know they were there and they didn’t know each other.

The group – the Collective – had surfaced and is telling the city that they are here and they want to be involved.

The artists came from every possible discipline. They met to talk through what the city should include in its Cultural Action Plan – then they had to figure out how to actually control that plan once it’s established.

Artists don’t march to the same drummer that the rest of us do – schedules and rules aren’t their strength and it was difficult for the collective to pull together a large number of people.

Because many of the artists were working by themselves they didn’t know many of the people who were doing the same thing.  Trevor Copp, who ended up being the leader/spokesperson for the group came up with the idea of holding a Speed Dating event at a local pub.  The idea was that people would gather and sit with others for a couple of minutes and then move on to another table and meet someone else. Such is the state of relationship building in this world.   It was a good idea, novel and it had the potential to work.  But very few people showed up.  Copp didn’t miss a step – he chose to see the upside, the bright side and pulled together a meeting that saw less than a dozen people talk about what they wanted in the way of an arts community.

That conversation will get reported on at greater length at another time – what we saw was a group that is thinking this through and while the plan is still in the formative stage city hall now has to work with people who are the arts community – we just didn’t know they were there.

Bureaucrats being bureaucrats they decided to have Copp become part of the Steering  Committee that was to fashion a plan out of the data the Freiburger report provided and once a plan is in place,  put together a schedule and time frames to implement it.

One of the major beefs the artists had, was that there were no artists on the steering committee.  The addition of Trevor Copp and Rosanna Dewey to the Steering Committee that had people who administer funds but didn’t “do” art was a significant step.  The challenge now is to ensure that Copp and Dewey don’t get co-opted and turned into bureaucrats.  Power can be very seductive.

Dewy is an artist in her own right and part of the Burlington Fine Arts Association, which has a temperament quite a bit different from that of many of the members of the “collective”.

That there is a change taking place in the cultural temperature of the city is evident.  Freiburger maintains that the change began with the unveiling of the Spiral Stella outside the Performing Arts Centre – debatable. One of the occasions that signaled the change was the “No Vacancy” event that took place at the Waterfront Hotel.

This was “avante garde” for Burlington and while the event lasted less than four hours and experienced a small loss it brought out people who hunger for depth and maturity in their cultural menu – the No Vacancy – which will take place again next year, showed that it can happen in Burlington and is happening in Burlington.

Performing Arts Centre Brian McCurdy makes a point with the Mayor. He is making points all over the city as he brings about a different working relationship with the Centre and the city.

City Hall and the Tourist people see the arts as something that could perhaps attract people to the city.  The Executive Director of the Performing Arts Centre has been in town long enough to have figured out what we have and don’t have and has already shown that his institution is able to be flexible with the performance community.

All good signs – but like a great recipe, there is something to the way you flick the rest to get that meal on the table and make an occasion to be remembered.

Council will meet early in November to get down to the nitty-gritty of spending money – and at the rate this council is spending the artists had better move quickly or there won’t be any left.

With a little luck the artists will be at the table helping people whose experience is in parks and recreation learn how to move beyond swimming schedules and volleyball games to events that stir the soul.  Mind you, watching Maurice “The Rocket” Richard put another one past a Toronto goal tender is certainly something to stir the soul.



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