For the past several months, I’ve served in my Fractured Atlas capacity as a “consulting critic” to Calgary Arts Development (CADA)’s Arts Plan process, also known as #yycArtsPlan. Calgary is a fast-growing oil and gas boomtown in Canada’s western region that has been characterized to me by more than one person as the “Texas of Canada.” I had the opportunity to visit in November of last year for the ArtsSmarts Knowledge Exchange, and besides being blown away by how cold a place could be in November, I was blown away by the hospitality and energy of the people I met there, including CADA’s outgoing CEO Terry Rock. Terry subsequently invited me and former Metcalf Arts Policy Fellow Shannon Litzenberger to participate in the Arts Plan process by writing three extended responses to the plan as it was developing.
The entire process has been pretty fascinating. First of all, it’s completely transparent, with all relevant materials posted to the dedicated website for the cultural plan. Second, and more radically, a crucial portion of the Calgary Arts Plan was developed by randomly selected ordinary citizens who formed what was called a Citizens’ Reference Panel. I really encourage you to click through to that link and drink in the incredible diversity represented by those 36 individuals.
My first contribution to the conversation included a fair amount of process-specific insider baseball, so I won’t go ahead and reprint it in full here. But there are a couple of excerpts that I thought readers might find of interest:
I have a confession to make: I’m in love with the Citizens’ Reference Panel. Just reading the bios of the 36 participants in the Phase II final report was almost enough to bring a tear to my eye. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but you have to understand: it’s so rare for the professional arts community to get real, sustained, substantive feedback from the citizenry in its community. In my experience, most arts organizations’ idea of “outreach” involves opening dialogue with audiences, which already limits the conversation to a small and non-representative slice of the general public. I think Calgary Arts Development, as a publicly funded institution, was exactly right to think bigger than that and open up the gates to people whose experience with and interest in the arts was tangential at best. It is incredibly valuable for those who strive to make a living in the arts to hear from this constituency, and I am jealous that you have that very, very special opportunity. Please savour it.
While I don’t mean to discount the importance of dreaming big, the reality is that making change in any social context is not an easy process, and depends on the cooperation of many factors beyond any single individual’s control. I could be wrong, but I suspect everyone will be happier in 2023 having made real progress on a few well-defined fronts rather than halting steps in a variety of directions.
I will close by reiterating how lucky Calgary’s arts community is to have had the opportunity, just as Cincinnati’s arts community did, to hear from members of the general public about how the arts relate—or could relate—to their lives. I strongly encourage Phase III participants to pursue further refinement of the visions and strategies in a way that fully respects and honors these citizens’ contributions and the values that they have identified as important to them. I say this because I recognize that there will likely be areas of tension between the public’s and arts producers’ visions for the arts. For example, the Phase II report indicates that “representatives of leading arts institutions, community organizations, festivals, as well as independent artists…were less supportive of recommendations they felt might limit the independence of artists or arts organizations,” such as increasing programming for underserved demographics and partnering with public schools. These concerns are completely understandable, but if one ambition is to grow the resources that the public makes available to the arts community, the arts community must be responsive, at least in part, to the public’s desires. Not only is that necessary to ensure broad-based buy-in for the Arts Plan, but indeed to ensure the long-term sustainability of public support for the arts in Calgary and elsewhere.
Over the next few weeks, I will share the full text of the second and third contributions to that process here.
One final note: in late June, Calgary was besieged by terrible flooding which caused almost Superstorm Sandy-esque havoc. Displaced from its downtown offices, Calgary Arts Development is now focusing its efforts on helping the arts community recover from the disaster. If you feel so inclined, please consider supporting their crowdfunding campaign.