Calgary and Its Independent Artists: Lets Be Realistic
by Rosanna Terracciano
I am an independent dance artist in Calgary. There arent many of us. We often struggle to have our voices heard.
The following thoughts come from a personal place.
I was invited to write this piece after a strong reaction on my part as I tried to make a heartfelt point at the recent Arts Congress in Calgary: I started to cry as I spoke. I was probably more surprised than anyone else in that particular session that day, but my reaction made very clear to me just how frustrated I am by the lack of support I feel for independent artists in this city.
I am a born-and-raised Calgarian who genuinely believes in the calibre of independent artists living and creating in this city. Local artists go against the flow of this city more often than not; the obstacles they must overcome in pursuit of making art here are often manifested in the quality of the work, which I believe to be comparable to that of any other major centre in Canada. Culturally speaking, I consider Calgary a clean slate, a place where artists have the space and freedom to define their own paths and be bold and unique about their artistic practices.
So, whats with all the frustration? Creatively, I belong to Calgarys independent dance community; a community that lacks many important resources to sustain the growth of its artists, is often misrepresented and misunderstood by those outside of it, and that struggles to engage even its own members. However, beyond these factors that may also apply to other disciplines, there are important issues impacting the broader independent arts community in Calgary as a whole: mainly, there is little support for independent artists here and the potential of their work often goes unnoticed. What incentive is there then for emerging independent artists to choose to stay in Calgary instead of leaving for a more culturally saturated and supportive community?
There seems to be a strong focus right now in Calgary on the need for artists to engage the community beyond their own individual practices. I dont really believe that all artists can or should take on the role of community builders, as they already work tirelessly and add value to the community by simply creating and presenting their work. Community building is a whole other skill set. In the independent dance community, for example, it is challenging enough for dancers to stay committed to their practices with such a lack of resources, that this additional responsibility of helping to build community can be overwhelming. Its not impossible. I have seen other artists do it. So, if artists are partly forced into this position as Calgary is still learning to find its way as a cultural city, cant there at least be more support to help make this task less daunting?
It is not my intention to present independent artists as victims, and I know that just complaining about a situation is not going to solve anything. Us artists, we are a stubborn and resilient bunch. We will creatively find a way to make a project happen, taking on the role of arts administrator, presenter, marketer, accountant, scheduler and grants writer, in addition to art maker. However, this repeated process of singlehandedly having to fight to make an artistic work happen becomes isolating, exhausting and overwhelming. It isnt sustainable. Artists burn out. They leave Calgary in search of a community and culture that offers more support. Or they decide to stay in Calgary and stop practicing their art all together.
There has been a certain optimism in recent years regarding arts and culture in Calgary. While I think it is important to be positive about the obvious cultural growth of the city, I worry that this optimism is a bit shortsighted and somewhat dangerous for the artists themselves, neglecting the actual reality of the difficulties that independent artists here face. I think it is crucial to be realistic about the fact that many independent artists here are frustrated and struggle to find a healthy balance between their art practices and the practical sides of living and making a living.
So, cmon Calgary, lets put this optimism to use, so that artists here can spend less time overcoming frustration and dealing with burnout, and more time honing their crafts and contributing to the cultural vitality of the city. On the infrastructure side of things, lets work to finally create funding opportunities at a municipal level for individual artists. Lets try to find solutions to make cost of living and studio space more reasonable for artists, to create incentives for artists to stay here and to genuinely value the artists that consciously decide to stay. Organizations and presenters, seek out ways to pool resources with independent artists. Members of the media, try to promote more independent work and help ease the competition for media attention between independent artists and more established organizations. Recognize your role in critiquing works presented here, as these constructive reviews are essential for artistic development and are currently almost impossible to attain for independent artists. Audiences, be thirsty, be curious, dare to dig deeper to discover work beyond what is most popular, be open to what you see and be bold about forming your own opinions about the work. As a city, lets better support the potential of the many talented independent artists here. Lets give them more reasons to stay.