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Everyone is a Lot of People

(This essay was originally written in my role as an outside consultant to the city of Calgary's cultural plan. You can read all of my contributions to that process here.)

For my second essay responding to the #yycArtsPlan process, I thought I would focus on the last paragraph of the “Summary of Vision Statements from the January 26 Summit”:

The vision of our attendees is that by 2023, Calgary will be a major artistic centre in Canada, in terms of the work it creates and the training it provides, promoting both excellence and access. It will be a city where everyone understands the true value of the arts as an essential part of a well-rounded life—where the arts include everyone, and everyone includes the arts.

It’s a beautiful sentiment, expressed with impressive concision. But the central insight I’d like to offer here is that everyone is a lot of people. Are arts supporters in Calgary truly prepared to extend the olive branch of creativity and expression to every single one of their neighbors? And is it even possible to do such a thing without radical changes to the status quo?

Let’s separate the statement into its component parts. What is needed for the arts to include everyone? As noted in my previous essay, this inquiry will be helped enormously by first asking who is not currently served by the arts, and why. I don’t know the local context in Calgary well enough to answer that question definitively, but if things are at all similar to the situation in the United States, we can guess that relatively underserved populations might include poorer Calgarians, recent immigrants, people without a university degree, and people with disabilities, to name a few. This is not to say, of course, that nobody fitting those descriptions is active in the arts, but rather that if we’re looking for people who are not included by the arts, those are probably good characteristics to start with. Remember, the mandate here is to include everyone, not everyone in theory or everyone as long as it’s convenient for us.

The good news is that it’s likely there are already organizations in Calgary and environs with a specific mission to serve these populations and expand the audience for the arts. And again, if things are anything like they are in the States, they probably aren’t getting the kind of support that higher-profile organizations designed to position Calgary within the national and international arts community do. Which makes sense, in a way: after all, one of the basic realities of a market economy is that it is easier to serve some consumers than others, and so if efficiency is a goal, the consumers that are harder to serve (because they live far away from everyone else, for example) will be more likely to get left out.

At the same time, switching focus to include everyone need not require all arts organizations to change their missions or think only of the lowest common denominator. Just as a complex orchestral program or abstract expressionist art might be intimidating to someone with no previous exposure to these art forms, an introductory dance class is likely to feel limiting for someone who has professional training in ballet. A healthy and truly inclusive arts ecosystem affords opportunities to participate and get involved at various levels that are appropriate to the wildly diverse interests and capacities seen in the population as a whole. I would submit, however, that the efforts of a government-funded “backbone” organization such as Calgary Arts Development might be most productively focused on filling the gaps left by the market economy and private philanthropy in providing said opportunities, whatever they may be.

It seems to me that the second part of the vision, that everyone includes the arts, is rather more difficult to realize. Because now you’re not just talking about reallocating some resources and perhaps creating some new programs, but a wholesale attitude adjustment on the part of an entire population over whom artist, organization, and government alike have limited influence.

You may recall that I talked about ArtsWave in Cincinnati in my previous essay – remember, this was the community-funded grant-maker that re-envisioned its grant-making in response to research revealing a new way of framing the arts as a public good. ArtsWave has supported this strategy not only through funding, but also by taking a central role in communicating the value and relevance of the arts to the general public via this new frame. Besides placing media stories in mainstream sources like local television and newspapers, the organization regularly sponsors both ongoing and special events designed to be visible, extremely accessible, and highly participatory. Two examples of this kind of programming were a Paint the Street event near the ArtsWave office and a flash mob-style “Splash Dance” in the central business district. Both of these events offered citizens opportunities not only to witness the final product (in a centrally located, public place), but also to participate directly in its creation. And with no admission charge in either case, of course.

But these kinds of efforts can only take one so far. Ultimately, we can’t rely solely on democratization of access to change attitudes, because if attitudes are already set, the opportunity to participate in something in which one has no interest in is not going to mean much. Instead, we need to dig deeper to understand the motivations and experiences of people who aren’t especially friendly towards the arts, the people who currently act as a barrier to the desired reality, and make some inferences about what could catalyze a shift.

We can start to get a clue to this by reading the bios and statements of the participants in the Citizens’ Reference Panel. It’s probably a stretch to call this a truly random sample of the population, even though great lengths were taken to reach outside of the traditional arts community, since the process represented a significant time commitment and there was likely substantial selection bias observed in the people who chose to participate. Nevertheless, we can pick up clues from the participants’ stories as to how “regular people” can and do relate to the arts in their lives. For example, take a look at these profiles:

Chris Pryce

I’m a firefighter for the City. I am originally from Ontario, where I went to the University of Western Ontario. My father has been a professional artist (he’s a painter) since I was born. I have been involved in martial arts since childhood andhave started taking acting classes over the past few years. I also pencil sketch and study psychology and sociology in my spare time.

Mark Sutter

I am family man and father of two young children. Professionally, I am an Alberta Land Surveyor and the manager of an office in Calgary. I have a great love for the outdoors and enjoy escaping to the mountains at any time. Although the arts do not play a prominent role in my life I see value and opportunity for my family. Although very small, I wish to leave an imprint on helping make this city great for all citizens.

Pamela Hansen

I was born and raised in central Alberta. My parents were mixed farmers, raising livestock, hay and grain. My first school was Happy Hill, a one-room school where the teacher taught kids from grade one to grade nine. I got to school riding a pony called Tarbaby. My mom offered me a chance to attend Banff School of Fine Arts, but I did not feel I could make a living as an artist. I chose business machines training instead. In 2002, I came to Calgary to start a new life with my daughters Jessie and Adrienne and granddaughter Shea. While caring for aging relatives, I became isolated, with few connections beyond my family. It is my intention to expand my relationship to art and begin painting. I greatly appreciate this opportunity to connect with and be of service to my community.

Stephen Kohan

I am the father of two boys in elementary school, live in the suburbs, coach minor hockey, and own a minivan and two motorcycles. I’ve been married to the same wonderful woman for 17 years and she still can’t properly explain how I managed to pull that off — so I’ve wisely stopped asking. My interest in the arts likely stems from a musical upbringing — I play guitar (somewhat, and rarely) and took drama in High School (in classes and outside the 7-Eleven along with everyone else) and ended up with a degree in English literature from the University of Calgary. I’ve worked in the Litigation Management Branch of Aboriginal Affairs Canada, in varying capacities, for 20 years.

What strikes me about these peripheral connections to art is how often they involve a) relationships with other people (whether existing or aspirational), b) the direct practice of art (not just appreciation), and c) sustained exposure at a young age, in approximately that order of importance. How well is Calgary’s current arts infrastructure set up to support these kinds of connections?

To inform this inquiry more broadly, I believe it would be instructive to study the plentiful research literature on social movements. While not an expert in that subject, I can’t help but note that in the United States, we are in the midst of one of the most dramatic societal shifts in recent memory: the rapid drive towards widespread acceptance of gay marriage over the past 10 years. This movement will likely be analyzed to death in the coming years and decades, but speaking as an observer, it seems that a few key factors have been crucial in leading to social change:

  • Popular conception of marriage and the wedding as a joyful event – specifically, an event in which we are happy for someone else;

  • The lived experience of seeing the country “experiment” with gay marriage, first in Massachusetts and later in other states, and the lack of obvious harm to heterosexual marriages as a result;

  • The enormously successful “It Gets Better” campaign, which took full advantage of viral platforms and social networks to put a human face on the struggles of gay teens;

  • Acceptance and advocacy on the part of Hollywood, starting with Ellen DeGeneres and continuing with gay characters written into popular sitcoms like “Modern Family”;

  • The increased visibility of gay and lesbian individuals encouraged, in part, by the previous factors: more teens and adults coming out sooner, to more people, in more social contexts;

  • And finally, and most importantly, the impact of the above in helping more people to realize that someone they know is gay and that they want good things for that person – like the “warm glow” of a wedding and marriage to the person they love.

There are a lot of potential lessons in the above, but two stand out to me as particularly important:

  • The need to integrate the unfamiliar into the familiar: people were motivated to support gay marriage when being gay became something they could fit into the context of their daily lives and existing relationships, habits and identity. Christine Cheung’s observation that Alberta “spent more than half of its cultural spending ($1.8 billion) on ‘home-entertainment services and equipment’” is perhaps relevant here.

  • The power of the younger generation to motivate change: realizing that one is gay is something that typically happens during adolescence, which enabled gay marriage supporters to take advantage of the separate social networks that exist among that age group. Consistently, polls in the United States find that support for gay marriage is highly stratified by age group, with young adults overwhelmingly in favour. And in turn, the adoption of gay marriage as a cause célèbre by young adults has influenced attitudes among older generations, at least if anecdotal evidence is to be believed. Universal arts education is often cited as a potential salve to the arts’ ills, but I think it needs to go beyond that – indeed, the arts need to be seen as an integral part of a healthy society by this critical group of young adults in order to motivate real, long-lasting change.

Expanding the frame of the arts to include everyone is a challenging goal, to say the least. But I do believe it is achievable, if accompanied by the right strategies and a willingness on the part of arts advocates to be somewhat flexible about the real meaning and essence of “the arts.”