Karen Close: The Art of Engagement
Show me. Inspire me. Teach me. Include me. These words on the cover of each Okanagan Arts magazine have intrigued me since its first issue. Later, as I began writing for the magazine I could hear their echo as I wrote articles. To me they are indeed a mantra for the arts in any community. They reinforce my understanding that the gift of creativity was given to humanity so that each of us can share our talents with each other and together we'll grow in understanding and wisdom. Honing my understanding of the role of arts in a culture has been a lifelong pursuit: first, as a child eager to please others with my drawings; as a teenager studying art throughout high school and contributing my decorating ideas for school dances; as a young adult training to teach visual arts, and then guiding youth, to discover themselves and learn the history of art, for 27 years as an art teacher, while being an active volunteer in the art community; in retirement, seeking out senior artists to write their stories; finally deciding to speak out as an arts advocate and finding a platform to express my views through the Okanagan Institute. It is a group of artistically involved individuals who have gathered around the goal of providing events, publications and services of interest to enquiring minds in the Okanagan. The mission of the Okanagan Institute is to contribute to the quality of creative engagement in the Okanagan through publications and events. We partner with individuals, organizations, institutions and businesses to achieve optimal creative and social impact.
I am a believer that when you're on the right path, synchronicity happens. In this magazine's last issue I read about octogenarian Ruth Schiller, past member of the Canada Council for the Arts and recipient of the Order of BC for her tireless work on behalf of the arts. She inspired me with her conviction that: "The arts need to be like the Olympic torch creative expression is a sacred trust that needs to be passed on from generation to generation." She told me about a vibrant time for arts in the Okanagan during the 1970s. Highlighted was Okanagan Image, a cultural event co-ordinated by OMRAC, the Okanagan Mainline Regional Arts Council, in 1976. A vigorous committee of arts volunteers working together throughout the Okanagan Valley presented a view of the Okanagan as reflected through the arts. The event featured the works of talented Okanagan artists working in theatre, music, dance and visual arts. It travelled for two nights each to Kamloops, Vernon, Kelowna and Penticton. A wonderful quote from the program of the event comes from then Kelowna mayor, John Hindle:
"The Okanagan has long been a place of great natural beauty and it is only fitting that this beauty be translated into the various art forms presented here this week. It is a mark of maturity when a city recognises a need for and a delight in the arts. And further ... to recognise it in our own midst. Too often we feel someone must be removed to possess great talent and ability. I wish Okanagan Image great success and hope it will be only the beginning of our own small renaissance here in the valley."
I wonder if he would be disappointed in our progress. I contacted the mayor's widow Jennifer Hindle. Our discussion about the current state of the arts in the Okanagan was animated and Jennifer shared with me a copy of the program from Okanagan Image. She had been saving it all these years trusting it would find a place in our community's cultural evolution.
This summer the Okanagan Institute began a series of inquiries at Thursday Express. It is titled Past Is Prologue. Its intent is to review the past four decades of cultural history in the Okanagan and to introduce those individuals whose passion for the arts made them the advocates and patrons to help fund facilities and opportunitiesfor those citizens of all regions of the Okanagan with talent in the performing, written and visual arts.
While the series honours the past, its focus is the future. Those citizens among us who value the arts are urged to step up, accept the philanthropic mantle of culture and work together to evolve the future of culture in the Okanagan. Fundamental to this urging is the belief that government agencies at all levels can assist a community's cultural growth by helping groups and individuals to access available funding, maintain offices that are open to community input, and help in the administering and delivery of arts programming. However, never should these departments be in a position of leadership above the general community.
If a community's culture is to be reflective of its citizens' ideologies, interests, strengths and talents, citizens' voices must be the strongest in determining cultural policy and programming.
The Okanagan has been rich with individuals who have been willing to make the arts a volunteer commitment for a focused period of time. Vernon has had active individuals for the past 100 years. From Osoyoos, Ruth Schiller spoke passionately that it is only as a volunteer that one can speak freely and say the truth. She also recalls fond memories of how those she worked with on arts programs found involvement enriched their lives and brought the community together. "People would come for other people creating, caring and sharing together it's about being involved with your soul. The arts make you laugh and the arts make you cry and they make sure you don't turn to stone."
From my perspective, it seems wise patrons of the arts have been plentiful in Canada and I have been privileged to meet many who have been dedicated, and for me, very positive role models on how to be a strong volunteer in the arts, and give private arts patronage. They taught me to support individual artists whose works I valued, through purchases and sometimes forgivable loans; how to organise successful fund raisers and appropriate ways to offer my own talents in working with professional staff.
Most importantly they taught me that a community needs a vital arts sector where there are givers and appreciators. Each of us has a responsibility to one's own creative spirit. This spirit needs to be nurtured by developing personal talents and by honing one's abilities to appreciate the works of others. This requires learning, sensitivity and compassion. Artists are symbol creators who tell stories, create images and give performances that bring meaning to our lives.
Noted Canadian philosopher Marshal McLuhan called them our DEW line because they offer Distant Early Warning signs of areas where society should give attention. I was taught that the role of art is to show us beauty and evil.
Through metaphor, narrative movement and sound, artists expose and challenge the status quo. They are the individuals who have the courage to speak of unspeakable wrongs. They express what is complex, controversial, contested and timeless. And they also have the ability to help us envision a better world. These are lofty ideals and sometimes the work falters, but without individuals striving from a sense of personal commitment to uphold the ideals, we risk losing what previous centuries have built. I was strongly affected by a paper on art and life goals written by John Ruskin (1819-1900). He asserts that the arts are "Truth, nature, purity and earnestness ... a visible sign of national virtue. 'Life without industry is guilt," he said, "and industry without art is brutality."
The role of volunteers in the arts has changed significantly over the past four decades. The business side of the arts and the hiring of professional staff to administer them and co-ordinate events has become the norm. These assumed professionals are earning the precious dollars a community spends on the arts while the creative side those who labour to give artistic expression to the truths humanity needs to consider are receiving fewer and fewer of the monies spent on the arts.
We have moved to a perspective that those who have paid tuition to colleges and universities that offer degrees in arts administration are better equipped to create a community's culture. That arts operations have become too bureaucratic was recently discussed in a New York Times article and the parallels with our community were evident. The article referenced the economist Ann Markusen, and her studies of the arts labor force, art centers and regional economies:
"The sector depends on discounted labor by artists. The human capital they invest, by working other jobs to support their creative work, is never fully compensated. Flagship institutions' costs, both the bricks and mortar and their ongoing operations, might be adequately supported by civic and philanthropic sources with the Herculean efforts of elaborate and specialized staff. However, the community dividend doesn't make it into the pocket of most artists and certainly not the edgy, the grassroots, the hard to define or the locally based ones. This system of non-profit arts organizations dependent on contributed support is an invention of the 20th Century ... Some people apply a supply and demand model and say the attrition of nonprofit groups during tough times is a necessary adjustment. We have all heard someone sometime say: "if these artists can't earn enough from their work then nobody wants it and they should just give up." This free market logic denies the intangible, priceless value of the arts to society. It perpetuates the abuse of human capital that artists contribute to keep art alive and available. And it provides little or nothing to effectively replenish the collective well of human creativity ... We'd be better off taking a portion of taxes and public money to fund art. Because the amount of bureaucracy that it takes to fundraise for an organization is a gigantic effort. And it takes away from the work, from the purpose of the work, and the results. Nationally right now the business is more important than the art, and that's wrong ... If we don't start treating the arts differently who will be the risk takers and visionaries tomorrow?"
In pondering the Times article and my Okanagan community
of Kelowna, I began to consider the positive economic exchange
that has developed with the growth of the wine industry and the
culinary arts in the Okanagan. We are big supporters of our local
wineries and their gifted wine-makers. We are increasingly moving
towards support of the notion of a 100 mile
The natural splendour we live in inspires each of us to seek enjoyment and exploration. My mind travels further to consider visitors to this valley. Don't they want to see how its inhabitants have been moved to artistically express gratitude for its splendour? Within the nature of this region and its inhabitants lies our uniqueness and the essence of what we have to share. I again think of the words of John Ruskin who a century ago reminded us "that artists had a calling to be inspired as prophets and teachers. He demanded a freely accessed expression grounded in love of nature and mankind." Surely our public funds should be spent on those from our region who respond to this calling. Those of us who help organize events at the Okanagan Institute invite you to gather with us at Thursday Express where we explore arts issues and discuss cultural issues and concerns. We want your input into formulating a regional arts policy and promoting local culture. Public art is still but never silent. It tries to create civic space for contemplating values. It is my hope that you will invest in what is created. As individuals, we need to learn from the past, to give of ourselves and to express the values we want to be our artistic legacy. Show me. Inspire me. Teach me. Include me.
Karen Close is an artist and writer, a former choolteacher, the author of Unfinished Women, and the editor of Spirit of Kelowna.