• Uncovering Hamilton's Art History - The First Steps

    April 23, 2014 by Stephanie Vegh

    Some of the most significant work we do at the Hamilton Arts Council is brought about by hearing recurring concerns in our arts community and responding to that need. Our recent gathering to discuss Hamilton’s art history from1950 to 2000 is a significant example of a conversation started by voices that were previously unconnected but shared the same concern about a significant period of our local history that is at risk of going undocumented.

    The publication of Climbing the Cold White Peaks: A survey of artists in and from Hamilton 1910-1950 by Stuart MacCuaig in 1986 began the important work of preserving the history of Hamilton’s visual arts community. However, Hamilton’s art history from 1950 onwards exists only in partial records and the memories of artists from this era, some of whom have already died without passing on their stories of this pivotal time. For this reason, the HAC’s Visual Arts Committee partnered with the Hamilton Public Library and Centre3 for Print and Media Arts to gather together interested individuals for a panel discussion and open forum on how best to approach such a monumental task.

     J. PetteplaceGeorge Wallace (1920-2009), Self Portrait with Dark Glasses, 1995, etching; working proofs; gifts of the artist, 1998. photo: J. Petteplace. Source: McMaster Museum of Art.

    We were fortunate to have a great deal of passion and expertise on our panel, which included Tobi Bruce (Art Gallery of Hamilton), Victoria Long-Wincza (Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts), Laura Lukasik (Hamilton Public Library), Colina Maxwell (Centre3 for Print and Media Arts) and Jim Riley (HAC Visual Arts Committee member, who also spearheaded much of the planning for this discussion). Collectively, they offered many valuable perspectives on how we preserve knowledge through archives and the reasons why we value our art history – the need to connect with our artistic predecessors and honour the work of past artists who helped forge the path we walk today.

    Another key theme to emerge from the discussion was about form as much as content. All agreed that whatever shapethis art historical project might take should prioritize making the information open and accessible. A book like Climbing the Cold White Peaks may not be the best or only form for telling the story of Hamilton’s art since 1950; a digital archive that includes video and audio interviews with artists from this era would provide a more complete resource for future researchers to develop a definitive story of this era.

    Among all the participants, we identified many possible sources of information from this time period, from the anecdotal memories of living artists to institutional archives to the hidden wealth of private collections. With so much information available, and much more waiting to be uncovered, the group discussion quickly turned to the problem of how best to spearhead an organized effort to collect these disparate pieces as a useful resource.

    With so many stakeholders invested in the preservation and promotion of the visual arts in Hamilton, a steering committee was proposed as an immediate short-term solution that could collect both organizations and individuals with skills and knowledge to contribute to the project. This collective would have the ability to establish priorities and, as was repeatedly noted as an ideal solution, apply for the funding needed to hire dedicated researchers. Many in attendance readily volunteered to serve on this committee, which was a greatly encouraging sign to all present that the issue is both increasingly urgent and one for which there is great collaborative goodwill among organizational partners.

    While the work of writing a new history of Hamilton’s art scene since 1950 will no doubt be years away, the steps for laying its foundations emerged clearly from the discussion:

    • Gather existing archival material
    • Create new material where history has been undocumented (e.g. artist interviews)
    • Combine these sources as a functional and accessible archive

    A core steering committee has already stepped forward from this meeting but the door remained open and welcome to any who were unable to attend last week's conversation and would like to get involved - please get in touch by email if you'd like to be included in future planning on this initiative.




  • Leveraging Our Assets

    April 15, 2014 by David Premi

    We are experiencing an ongoing crisis in Hamilton. The arts are desperately underfunded.

    Art enriches our lives. Whether you are an artist, a consumer, or an admirer of art, it helps you and your community thrive. While art can be entertaining, entertainment is usually not its primary goal.

    Art provides cultural nourishment for society. It strengthens our communal immune system, making us more resilient as a community and better equipped to cope with life's challenges. Art makes us healthier.

    Art helps in giving form and expression to our vision and aspirations. It provides a vehicle for a powerful form of communication about our collective identity. The language of art cuts across racial, cultural, social, educational, and economic barriers. Art connects us.

    In addition to the community benefits, most of us have experienced an enhanced sense of self when interacting with art. It challenges, pleases, disgusts, delights, and titillates us. The way that we react, the emotions that we experience give us an opportunity to learn something about ourselves. Art promotes self awareness.

    It boosts our confidence when the rest of the country takes notice of the remarkable advancements that a city like Hamilton has experienced in its now famous arts scene. Art makes us proud.

    The arts provide many jobs and stimulate economic activity. It helps us attract and retain new residents. In a country like England where the arts have benefitted from robust public funding, culture has created 700,000 jobs and contributed over $40 billion dollars to the national economy annually. It has been demonstrated that for every dollar invested in the cultural sector, up to six dollars are generated for the local economy. Art helps us prosper.

    So, investing in the arts is smart business. The City of Toronto is now working to increase their support of the arts to $25 per capita to catch up to other major Canadian cities like Montreal and Calgary that invest twice as much per capita in cultural spending. Meanwhile, in Hamilton we invest a little over $3 per person, trailing behind other mid-sized municipalities like Winnipeg and Ottawa who invest between $7.26 and $10.10 a head. We are even behind much smaller places like London, Windsor and Waterloo in funding levels.

    Recent recommendations by the Arts Funding Taskforce, established by the Arts Advisory Commission, suggest an overall increase in arts spending of $1,000,000. If accepted by council, this will bring the City’s annual arts investment up to $4.50 per capita. It’s a good start, but still below where we should be.

    As a municipality with ongoing economic challenges, we simply cannot afford to foolishly miss out on such opportunities. Especially in Hamilton for heaven’s sake, where we have gained a national and even global reputation for our arts scene! We must leverage this remarkable asset. If we hope to reinforce and ensure the sustainability of our current renewal, we need to turn this funding crisis around now.



  • Lessons Learned at Market Value

    March 20, 2014 by Stephanie Vegh

    From the earliest planning stages, we knew that Market Value was going to be something a little bit different - part exhibition, part arts advocacy, part field laboratory in a combination that had no road map or organizational precedent. As the idea grew and evolved through planning with Andrew Lochhead and Brian Kelly at the Workers Arts & Heritage Centre, we remained committed to our central vision of raising awareness of the value of artistic labour, but found ourselves unprepared for the other dialogues Market Value would hatch open around public space, audience engagement, and artistic authenticity.

    These were some of themes we touched upon at the After Party & Panel Discussion at the Workers Arts & Heritage Centre that concluded our six-market-day demonstration of artistic labour at the Hamilton Farmer's Market. All the artists in attendance were open and generous in sharing their experiences of making art in a public setting and some of the interactions that lingered after the fact.

    For an artist like Trevor Copp, whose physical theatre practice has always been presented to a live audience, working in public view came very naturally. In his case, the appeal of Market Value was in exposing audiences to the process behind a polished performance, complete with all the starts and stops and multiple takes needed to develop the story of an engineer longing to fly through physical movement alone. While he admits people appeared frustrated when his performance would stop mid-motion for a chat with his on-site director Richard Beaune, holding true to this part of the creative process was vital to Trevor's experience at Market Value. "What we do is often glamourized," he noted at the panel discussion on Saturday, along with the difficulty he's faced getting audiences to attend open rehearsals and other theatrical efforts to make the process more visible. The Farmer's Market, by contrast, placed this work in a public setting where people encountered this work in action by chance.

    As a video artist who normally creates his work in a private setting, Jim Riley was more keenly aware of his working environment at the Hamilton Farmer's Market. Following an hour's filming in and around the Farmer's Market itself, Jim applied himself to the long process of editing digital video, complete with technical difficulties and a phone call to a friend for tech support. Whereas Jim's average day in the studio would include walking away from the computer for multiple breaks, the Market Value environment switched Jim into what him and other artists on the panel came to refer to as "self-sacrificing mode" when the demonstration's concentration of time and focus created a pressure to keep working for as much of the seven hours as possible.

    Printmaker Laura Bromwich took full advantage of that time and focus, as well as what she found was exceptionally good light for working in the market's community space, to finish a completely new pieceduring her Market Value shift. Even while working methodically to mix ink colours for three silkscreen prints, pull those prints, selectively cut the negative spaces in their patterns then assemble them as floating layers inside a box frame, Laura never missed an opportunity to apply her instincts as a printmaking teacher at DVSA to explaining the process to market visitors of all ages. Along with that obligation to work, the obligation to make their work understood was also strongly felt among Market Value's artists.

    For the artist collective (F)NOR, the challenge of conveying an understanding of artistic labour became an integral part of their Market Value shift. These four artists expressed a keen awareness of the tension between providing an authentic look at their practice and negotiating this reality through the public arena of the market's community space. Assembly Line became both a performance work littered through with many of the symbols of factory labour - bells to signal a finished stage, a break table with a (F)NOR thermos - and a productive studio experience that offered visitors a unique glimpse at collaborative art-making. Children in particular were mesmerized by the process, and all the collective members at the panel fondly recalled one seven year old girl's wide-eyed realization that art was something that could be part of her future career.

    Many of the artists shared similarly transformative moments with children (of whcih there were many during the March Break), whom Tara Bursey noted don't have the same "forcefield" as their parents: they were more openly curious and eager to learn. Reflecting back on the shift she had completed that same day as our panel discussion, Tara agreed that Market Value emphasized the importance of "honouring the public." When answering questions about her process of recreating the end title card of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai in sesame seeds and rice, Tara found her explanations tended to draw out the creative potential in the general public visiting the market that day. From the many children whom Tara encouraged to try out her process at home (minus the hot glue gun) to the adults who offered suggestions for different materials she could use, Market Value diminished many of the unconscious barriers that separate artists from their audiences. "Non-artists," Tara added during the panel discussion, "have amazing, artistic ideas."

    Fibre artist Mary Dyja took this respect for everyday creativity a step further by actively encouraging visitors to pick up a crochet hook and lend a hand to the ever-expanding growth of a suspended sculptural mass mimicking the slow growth of cellular biology. While her work is created and presented in a conceptual space that is separate from traditional craft, her method was readily accessible to many visitors and, as Mary noted, most especially among senior women who had many more years of experience in crochet. The work she took away at the end of the day fused her stitches with those of several fleeting collaborators who added an organic, unpredictable element to her growing form.

    While the intention of Market Value was to educate a general non-artist public about artistic labour, neither Andrew nor I had anticipated that this learning would so heavily blur the divide between the artist and the wider public. This, we learned, was a far more effective means of advocating for the arts - not through words alone, but by developing an active and immersive understanding that thins the boundary between performance and process, between the maker and the consumer of art. From artists to market vendors to our rotating cast of incidental visitors, the repeating call was for more - more opportunities to see what artists do, in an even more visible and immersive environment.

    Whether what we had intended as a one-time experiment will take on an extended life as a regular public project remains to be seen, but the conversation will be continuing when WAHC launches Art SEALS the weekend of May 2-4 with a fresh cast of Hamilton artists demonstrating not only their artistic practice, but the non-artistic labour that supports their careers. We hope you'll take the time to engage in that and the countless other efforts growing in our community to recognize the value that artists bring to Hamilton.


    Market Value was presented by the Hamilton Arts Council and the Workers Arts & Heritage Centre from March 7-15, 2014 at the Hamilton Farmer's Market in downtown Hamilton through the generous support of the Ontario Arts Council.




  • Opera Hamilton Blues

    March 19, 2014 by Mike Cameron

    I'm sure many of you read the news…

    "After years of constant financial difficulties, the board of Opera Hamilton has announced that it is ceasing operations." ~The Hamilton Spectator, January 9, 2014

    Now, I'm sad to see any arts organization go under, but after working & living in The Hammer for several years, this one doesn't particularly surprise me. Hamilton's been a blue-collar town for decades. Steel taking centre stage for most of them.

    Art is the new steel, says the t-shirt. Maybe. Somewhat.

    Decades later, the collar's still blue. A lighter shade, yes. But.

    Back to The Spectator: "Mayor Bob Bratina called the news "really regrettable" and said it was 'a great cultural asset' for a city the size of Hamilton." 

    For a city the size of Hamilton.

    Maybe we're just not big enough to lighten that shade of blue? Maybe we don't have enough 'emigrants' from Toronto to lighten that shade of blue?

    Maybe just not enough of us like opera? Even 'pop'era.

    Opera. Not the new steel.

    In the article, Bratina says, "Personally, I would not want to be the mayor overseeing the loss of a cultural asset like Opera Hamilton. I am certainly going to try as the mayor to see what we can do help overcome the difficulties."

    Says OLDTECHGUY, in the comments, "Opera may be good for Hamilton. I don’t really know. I would prefer that my taxes not be used for the opera until there are no homeless people, no hungry families, and no hungry children in Hamilton."

    Or, maybe just not enough of us want to pay so others can like opera?

    So many maybes. Maybe, even, Opera Hamilton will be our next phoenix? I hope so.

    Local opera singer Stephanie Yelovich, in a January 15th op-ed piece in The Spectator, wrote, "I hope the unfortunate news from Opera Hamilton will bring us together as a community committed to the arts so we can continue to get to know each other. We must work to save this precious gem."

    Again, I hope so.

    As Louise Dompierre, Boris Brott, Carol Kehoe, and Lorna Zaremba wrote in a Letter to the Editor in The Spec, "Opera Hamilton will be missed not only by their dedicated audiences, but by many who have never attended one of their performances but who benefitted from the economic activity the company spurred."

    Missing Opera Hamilton yet? I hope so.

  • After Stage Directions

    March 7, 2014 by Stephen Near

    On Saturday, March 1st, I had the opportunity to participate in the Hamilton Fringe's Stage Directions event to brainstorm and discuss the future of Hamilton theatre alongside a host of theatre artists and organizations. The event took place at the Players Guild, the oldest community theatre in North America, spread out in various rooms within the historic Guild House. As I walked into one of Hamilton's most unique spaces, I was reminded of the statement on the Guild's website:  "theatre is happening in Hamilton and it all happens in the house with the big red doors". It was certainly true for today's event!

    In writing about Stage Directions in a previous blog, I think I went into it with some expectations. That didn't last long. Given that it was to be an Open Space event, many of my expectations were swiftly thrown out the window. One of things I didn't expect was just how wide-spread and far-reaching some of the ideas and proposals discussed would be. Ranging from straightforward plans to organize an "arts-vote" initiative for the upcoming municipal election to concrete strategies on how local amateur theatres could work together to help independent troupes in the area, Stage Directions was a flurry of active and engaging dialogues.

    It helped that the Guild House had several break-out rooms where discussions could take place. Yes, it was close quarters and rooms were often crammed with participants. But that was part of what got people talking to and listening to each other. And I was pleased to see the Fringe folks had organized a "newsroom" where notes made by participants could be collated and posted for the rest of us to read. But the big thing I took away from Stage Directions? Something I rarely see in the Hamilton theatre community... all of us in one space talking with each other about how to get things done.

    Stage Directions was just that: a direction for Hamilton theatre artists to work towards regarding the future. No one left the event believing every issue had been tackled or that every obstacle had been solved. But it was an important first step. And for a theatre community that's seen a lot of change in a short amount of time perhaps that's enough for right now.

    Want to find out more about Stage Directions? I encourage you to contact Claire Calnan at the Hamilton Fringe Festival!