CAS21 – Art as a Mountain

For the last two decades, the leaders of Canada’s elite art institutions gather for what is called the Canadian Art Summit (CAS); a group whose membership requires an annual operating budget of at least 3 million dollars.  Furthermore, the task of organizing such an event is bestowed to the group Business for the Arts. In a move towards more inclusiveness, the Leadership Fellows program was born a few years ago, a move that allows twenty arts leaders from non-member organizations to partake in the summit. Even though many apply, my application was selected and, as such, I was privileged to attend CAS21 at the Banff Centre this April.

It was unavoidable that the location, the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity, and it’s surrounding Mountains, would have an impact on my experience. I don’t think it’s just because I’m a prairie boy, but I did feel like I was spending more time looking up than the norm; turns out, looking up activates the visualization capacity of your brain. Isn’t that fitting for my brain to be activating its visualization capacity as it is asked to treat the information presented by panelists and speakers at an art summit? However, the presence of the Mountains also obliged a different imprint on the knowledge being bestowed upon me. You see, the Banff Centre for the Arts claims space on one particular mountain, a Mountain that the first white western conquerors envisioned piercing through. That’s how they came to baptizing this Rocky Mound ‘tunnel mountain’. This ambitious feat from new comers to the territory was never realized and despite the lack of existence of a tunnel through this Mountain, it still carries its name. But not everyone utilizes this name. For the Banff Centre for the Arts finds itself in Treaty 7 territory, the land of the Blackfoot, the Nakoda and the Sarcee. They have a different name for this Mountain; they call it Sleeping Buffalo Mountain. When mentioning the Mountains they speak in terms of treating them with respect, not only as they serve as there grandfathers, but also because they know the sleeping power of the mountains. Should a person not give it respect, it may wake up and unleash its mighty force. It is with these two very different understandings of the Mountain that was the forever-present backdrop that the four days of the summit unfolded.

The Summit was heavily geared to guest speakers and panelists, each offering information that laid out the base for a higher conversation to be had at a later time; during coffee breaks, lunch breaks, and evening drinks. I find it telling that it’s during the less structured moments amongst art creators that are the ones that hold the most powerful insights for the future of the arts. One guest speaker challenged us in understanding what is it that not-for-profit art organizations offer that for-profit art organizations cannot? The answer lies in the relationship between the aesthetic, ethics and the economy. It would be a disservice to think that the arts is simply about the aesthetic and the economy. Those who spend much time in the arts as administrators, and even more so as artists, might intuitively know that and work from that understanding. For example, when we were asked to offer five adjectives to describe a peak aesthetic experience of recent memory, many words that speak of a code of ethics were offered up; I suspect this would be true for you too. It stems from the fact that beauty is sacred, that it’s life-saving, unprecedented and incites deliberation. As Elaine Scarry stated, “the opposite of beauty is not ugly, its injury. Beauty takes place in the particular; it lives in the realm of problems of perception.” As such, not-for-profit art organizations are uniquely positioned to be those who have the capacity to bring people together across divides on equal terms. Likewise, we intuitively believe this to be true; but still we struggle to explain it to those who don’t bask in the arts on a regular occurrence. One Newfoundland panelist used a great analogy, he said there’s a story they often use in Atlantic Canada: two fish are merrily swimming along, zipping here, dashing there, doing there thing, when they cross paths with a fish of a different species, this new fish, being the friendly type, breaks into conversation with a colloquial greeting: how’s the water? The two fish look at each, and one whispers to the other: what’s water?

Resurecting Salmon by Shinsuke Minegishi

Artspace launched a pilot project that aimed to raise the philanthropic capacity of the arts sector in Manitoba. Said differently, we wanted more Manitobans to give to the arts, and we wanted those who gave to give more. Studies seem to indicate that only 4-5% of charitable donations find their way to the arts. Despite the fact that Manitobans and Canadians, are amongst the most generous donors of anywhere in the world, their generosity is mostly targeted to health, poverty and education. During the four years of the pilot project that was ArtsSupport Manitoba, arts leaders would often lament: we can’t compete with sick, dying kids in the streets. This sentiment was also repeated at the CAS21. But maybe we shouldn’t be competing with sick, dying kids in the streets. That is to say, maybe the arts aren’t in the same company as health, poverty and education. If we look at what the current trends in giving are, the arts are in the company of human rights and the environment. Seems like that’s exactly where we want to find ourselves. And as our socially vital neighbours, we have to consistently restate the importance of having the mechanisms of our sector well lubed, and consistently activated, for the work we do can only have an impact if we are constantly producing, and not only in the cyclical interest of society. Said differently, this seems to indicate that our value is well established and would be tragic should we disappear or should our value slip. It also means we must live up to the expectations of those values. Not dissimilar to challenges and opportunities bestowed to the sector of human rights and the environment. Sectors that mixes government support (sans direction) and individual donors support. Sectors that are held to a high standards!

It was said at the CAS21 that Canadians are cultural omnivores, that we have an appetite for various art forms and experiences, as what we seek from art is experiences of connectivity. We seek experiences that are fun, but also relevant and sincere. Canadians turn to culture as it feeds a sense of community (a shared sense of experiencing something together), a sense of connection (of feeling empathy for others, of others being able to be empathetic to people like me) and a sense of discovery (to be exposed to new ideas). Doesn’t it feel like there is an empathy deficit in the world today that reinforces the why of the arts? Art can have a social imprint, thus art organizations should be pushed to think of how to democratize the arts. In that I mean how a diverse group of people have access to the tools needed to create, so that their stories, their visions, and their ideas find their way to public presentations seeking that authentic art experience. We also need to democratize our audiences; we must think how do we properly host a public seeking to engage with the art or even where we host them.

It merits stating loudly that we are in the era of post Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), with its 94 calls to action. Now, sadly, very few are directly targeting the arts. However, the spirit of the call to action, along with the very nature of what gave birth to the TRC, demands that the arts take a serious internal look at how we do things. The head of the Canada Council for the Arts, Simon Brault, spoke on this topic, as did the founders of Primary Colors, as did many others. Many conceptual statements were made on how to not only ensure Indigenous artists are at the table but on how to place Indigenous arts at the centre of the art sector. This came with many lists of musts or many affirmations that things must be different. This came with please to change, to embrace disrupters. Yet, the most impactful moment came when CAS21 attendees were given an hour and half to pick an adventure, a mental respite moment. Options included hiking a Mountain trail, touring the facilities or taking a workshop on parfleche offered by a local Indigenous artist named Darrel. I took the later. Darrel exposed us to a traditional art form, passed down from generation to generation, one that used aesthetic beauty to create something that had a very utilitarian purpose.  His voice guided the process, infusing the experience with stories and teachings he inherited, and that gave life to the art form. Before laying hand to materials, he asked to sing a song using his drum, as was done by his grandfather before he passed his teachings. In so doing, he has both honoured those who taught him, and called them to be present with us. Then, he explained the necessary materials, or rather the ones at hand today, and taught us not to waste any of the materials. Knowing this was our first experience at doing parfleche, he also shared his first parfleche, a deer skin, colored with wax crayons. He invited us to be inspired by the patterns of the Mountains and, should we be motivated by a different pattern, to listen to our gut and follow that instinct. I learned more about the importance of Indigenous art and Indigenous art practices in this hour and half spent with Darrel than by any presentation by the arts leaders invited to speak at CAS21. And the way Darrel approached his art, fulfilled all the elements we seek from art: empathy, community, connectivity, discovery, awe, fun, accessibility, freedom of expression, and respect.

It reminded me that I want to be in awe of art and its capacity of Canada and its inhabitants. And this is possible through the grand projects of spectacular artists like Montréal native Robert Lapage releasing his recent ballet / film project Frame by Frame or 887, both being presented in various Canadian cities starting this summer; or by the augmented reality tours offered by the Art Gallery of Ontario pushing our understanding of timeless pieces utilizing cutting edge technology, both possible because of healthy budgets. I’m also left in awe by a poem by Jessica Coles printed in Prairie Fires’ recent publication; a man sitting beside me at the Elk Horn Pub asks what I’m reading, between two sips of beer, I reply:

You are permitted,

and sometimes required

to mythologize your first love

to create labyrinths of fingerprints

(whether your body was touched or not)

and populate hearts with monsters to devour

the meaning of memory.

From which point, we both share a moment of awe. This brief and simple moment allowed a connectivity, a sense of community, a sense of empathy. Yet another example of the power of art that doesn’t exist uniquely in our elites, reminding me that the reach of art isn’t simply in the size of ones budget.

I walk away from CAS21 believing that I am an arts leadership fellow and, if I’m lucky, will always be! I take up the challenge of being in the service of awesome, as CBC Exec Grzyna Krupa told us to be. I will strive to be authentic, and ethical. I will keep looking up, and activate my visualization so that I may see the aesthetic. I will look down; to know there too lays an aesthetic, as beauty if not the opposite of ugly. I will frame the arts not as a charity, but as an entity capable of aligning aesthetic, ethics and economic. I will be confident in knowing I am swimming in the waters. I will be confident in democratizing the tools for the creation of art. I will be gracious in hosting art experiences and the public it calls too. I will be generous that others may be generous to me. I will seek to contribute to the birth of new structures, and allow old ones to be reinvented. I will remain aware of who is in the room with me, and who is not. I will fail forward.


Eric Plamondon

Executive Director, Artspace



NB: I would like to express a sincere thanks to the Canadian Art Summit, The Winnipeg Foundation and the Manitoba Arts Council for their financial support, without which, I would not have been able to attend CAS21.