Who is Jeremy Freiburger and what does he want to do to us? And will it hurt?

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  March 11, 2012  Jeremy Freiburger is the Founder of the Imperial Cotton Centre for Public Art that was very recently renamed CoBALT Connects  and is responsible for overseeing the implementation of Burlington`s public art program.  He is working away at the recently announced competition for the art work that will be placed on the exterior patio of the Burlington Performing Arts Centre.

With the new name Freiburger made one of his best connections ever by convincing the city of Burlington that he was the best person to develop the Cultural Master Plan which his group immediately renamed the Cultural Action Plan.  The objective is to establish a pro-active and collaborative approach to cultural development in the city.

Jeremy Freiburger will lead the search for a cultural identity and the development of a cultural action plan.

A McMaster University graduate with a degree in Drama and Comparative Literature, which usually gets you a job driving a cab, Freiburger chose to dive even deeper into cultural studies and took classes at the American Music and Dramatic Academy.  Added to that were numerous workshops in stage performance and direction, arts administration, grant writing, human resources and volunteer management, branding and marketing for the arts

As founder and Executive Director if ICCA Freiburger developed four facilities in Hamilton that are home to more than 100 creative workers and artists.

Freiburger is “not sure if it’s an advantage being trained in the theatre”,  but has come to the realization that being creative and entrepreneurial were symbiotic.  “For the better part of my life” he explains, “I’ve been exploring combinations of business and art as both an arts practitioner and administrator.”

The man who is going to guide the thinking that gets done to produce a Cultural Action plan for the city has “found himself  gravitating towards scenarios that aim to answer the questions that go beyond the immediate need of the cultural  industry (beyond the survival skills); and look more closely at those that are emerging and require resources and attention to flourish.  These are also areas often mired in semantics, conflict, communication nightmares, as well as incredible opportunity, energy and reward.  It’s at this point of friction and exploration that I find the most compelling work.”

Almost every project Freiburger has taken on provided him with an opportunity to learn the language of another industry, required entrepreneurial risk, partnerships and an open approach to project management.  All  skills and characteristics, that will be needed to complete the project,  has to be in the hands of the Ministry funding the project, by the end of March 2013.  As an aside, Burlington has a slew of events that are due to be completed during the first quarter of 2013: art unveiled in front of the Performing  Arts Centre, the Pier officially opened and now a cultural action plan.  And you know who is going to take credit for all this come the election in 2014 don’t you?

The project is an Ontario government Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport project funding 60% of the $100,000 contract and the city coming up with 40% that is a mixture of cash and in kind contributions.

Prior to taking on the oversight and management of the public art program for the city Freiburger managed the Imperial Cotton Centre for the Arts (ICCA which he founded in 2004 and is now called the CoBALT Connects.

Before founding the ICCA Freiburger did a basic needs analysis for Hamilton and Region Arts Council, which focused on the studio needs of local visual artists and the organization’s interest in starting a  ‘collocation facility’.  Despite the overwhelming need, availability of property and soft financial commitments from local funders, the organization decided not to pursue the initiative.  He quit.

That failure to follow through and fund the arts was the final signal Freiburger needed to move on and become a full scale entrepreneur.  Much of his entrepreneurial goal was based on the ability to “keep dreaming”.  “After months of   scanning  the countless vacant properties in Hamilton’s downtown core, calling  agents asking for tours and listing details, all the while having no clue what we were really planning to do with the information” Freiburger pressed on.

“While working in Oakville managing the Festival of Classics was a phenomenal position,” explains Freiburger,  “I was still surrounded by fellow artists and friends in Hamilton who wanted to see the concept we presented come to fruition.  With absolutely no resources (no money, no organization, no contacts of great influence) we continued our pursuit.  It was discouraging but we were determined, a fair bit idealistic, and young enough to not think too much.  Finally in the summer of 2003 our persistence paid off when we met the owners of the 270 Sherman complex.  It was a spark moment for both parties.  They had a massive property that needed animation and we had the energy and ideas to push it onto the community’s radar.”

Within days of meeting, Freiburger and his team were renovating space, hosting open houses and connecting the property with City officials, arts organizations and the general public.  “All things we had no experience in – all things we had been collectively wanting for years together” said Freiburger.

Freiburger signs the cheques and changes the light bulbs; part of being a cultural entrepreneur

“This is the point at which I realized I was the entrepreneur and the others were just dreamers.  The team dwindled quickly as the labour got harder.  The team completely disappeared when it was time to talk contracts with the building owner and  brownfield remediation with staff from Economic Development.  It very quickly became clear that it would be me that would keep this idea alive.”

“I wasn’t paid a penny for the first two years of running the ICCA” states Freiburger.  The work was tenuously balanced in evenings and weekends for the first year while he  managed the theatre in Oakville, but eventually he gave notice there in order to make a serious commitment to the ICCA.

It was a grind and Freiburger found that after being featured in the Annual Report of the City of Hamilton Economic Development Department for three years, yet not having received a dime in financial support, he decided he needed  a new relationship with the municipality.  He tends  to like heading into the lion’s den – so he intentionally chose not to set his sights on the Culture Department,  but focused on Economic Development.

In 2005 Hamilton endorsed a clusters approach to economic development and ‘film and culture’ was one such cluster.  Freiburger explains:  “By 2007 the City had done plenty of work in the other clusters but very little in the one of most importance to me.  So instead of waiting for them to get interested we invested $30,000 of our own money to conduct a basic industry impact study.  The thought was that instead of coming cap-in-hand to the City, we would flip the relationship and approach them with investment opportunities and resources to help focus their efforts”.

With research partner Centre for Community Study and inroads at City Hall to gain key statistical information Freiburger embarked on studying the basic economics of the cultural sector. This immediately brought intense criticism from the arts and culture community.  The ICCA and its partners developed the database of creative industry organizations and business, and  authored the final report.

Since completing the study the information has been utilized by Hamilton to inform its economic strategy. Other organizations have used the data to justify and guide programming decisions, and it has become the foundation for the ICCA’s organizational plan.  The dedication to an alternative relationship resulted in paid consulting contracts that far outweigh the costs of the original project, and has framed our relationship in a completely unique way with the municipality.

So, what is Freiburger going to do in Burlington?  Well for starters he wants to see a community engagement process that has people “doing” things more than “talking” about things.  “When we engage with the community we will have them doing things” – which is difficult to explain but for Freiburger “pushing the line” is a large part of the way he does business.

The project has to be completed by March 31st, 2013.   Burlington picked up on an opportunity to have a project funded under the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport`s  Creative Community Prosperity Fund.  The city got $61,550 to, as the Ministry put it “to build on the successes of the 10 year Cultural Strategy, Public Art Master Plan, Parks and Recreation Cultural Asset Plan, and earlier cultural mapping and economic impact studies.  The city will update and enhance these tools to provide the municipality and cultural community with an integrated Cultural Plan.”

Freiburger, who will report to Director of Parks and Recreation, Chris Glenn, has broken the work into five sections: 1) the cultural producers, these are the people who “make” art; ; 2) the cultural industries, the people who support the cultural producers in a myriad of ways; 3) youth; 4) citizens and 5) education.

Kim Selman, Stephanie Seagram and people from Kitestring will be working with Freiburger on a close to daily basis.

By the end of it all Freiburger expects to be able to tell Burlington: “This is where we think you are going” and add to that where the city might best go in terms of developing its cultural industries.

Burlington’s city council recently turned down a budget request for $20,000 to cover the cost of a one year pilot project in Cultural Collaboration between the Heritage people and the Cultural crowd with the Royal Botanical Gardens folks thrown in for good measure.  The presentation made to Council was a little disjointed and there was apparently some confusion as to who was to do what in terms of behind the scenes work.  It looked as if that link wasn’t made and that the project didn’t even get talked about at the “pre-meetings” your Council holds before most of the public meetings.

Director of Parks and Recreation Chris Glenn, on the right, will be the city's point man for the team developing Burlington's Cultural Action plan

Barbara Teatero, Director Museums Burlington, didn’t manage to convince anyone on Council that the idea had legs and when Councillor Sharman asked them what would happen if they didn’t get the funds they were asking for – they didn’t have an answer.  That brought a quick end to that request.  Council got themselves off the hook by suggesting the idea was perhaps premature and should wait until the Cultural Master Plan delivered its findings.

We now know a lot more about Jeremy Freiburger, the man behind the task of helping Burlington figure itself out culturally.  With a single public art collection – The Burlington Art Centre;  a pitiful little museum;  a part of a historical farm and a Performing Arts Centre that is in the start-up phase of proving itself  plus a library that struggles to keep up with demand but nevertheless offers wide, varied and popular series of programs – Freiburger has his work cut out for him.


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