Recently I had a friend and theatre colaborator contact me with a problem: a project whose performance space backed out needed a new home in three weeks' time. With some idea of the performance's style and production needs we started brainstorming spaces. We quickly came up with a dozen options and, in the past, I would have expected two or maybe even three spaces would be available and the main problem would be choosing the best one. However, with the arts sector booming, all the venues on our list were booked. Given recent cultural shifts in our city this isn't shocking but it does raise some questions.
The climate of theatre has changed in Hamilton and there are two responses to this as an artist: either it's the biggest opportunity imaginable or it's terrifyingly intimidating. If all twelve venues on our list were booked, that means that on one weekend in our city there are at least a dozen different shows patrons can choose from. This means that if you are making theatre here it not only needs to be 'good,' it needs to be 'better.' Perhaps some multipurpose venues were featuring live music and it's possible some venues had private events; nonetheless, it's a dramatic change from even just five years ago, no pun intended.
More art is happening and that's good, isn't it? This boom is developing and attracting a larger audience and 'a rising tide lifts all boats', right? Although the imagery of that aphorism is encouraging it's not the tide in demand, it's the fish.
Don't get me wrong; competition is vitally important for the development of individual artists and the entire artistic community. However, for many years Hamilton has been an incubator for artists: a safe warm place to develop some skills before moving on to a more competitive environment. We have been fortunate to have wonderful organizations like the Hamilton Fringe Festival, the Staircase Theatre and several longstanding community theatres that give new artists amazing opportunity to participate and develop and, most importantly, to fail and learn from that failed experience. Failure too is essential for development. Once these artists became more confident the majority of them moved on to more competitive environments: most notably, Toronto. Now, artists don't seem to be leaving as often and in a turnaround many are arriving from these more competitive environments seeking space and opportunity.
Here's the intimidating part: how can we still offer a safe warm place for new and inexperienced artists while simultaneously creating opportunities for more experienced artists seeking space for their developed work and skills? How can we ensure that resources do not become scarce? In evolutionary theory its called 'competitive displacement' when a more dominant species forces another to occupy a sub-optimal habitat. Will that happen here in our community, with our young artists?
I certainly don't have the answer but I've been watching intently as this city starts to really 'rejuvenate' itself, like we had been told for more than a decade that it would, and here's what I've seen: people are passionate about this city. Hamilton t-shirts and bags with witty puns and references to our gritty roots are everywhere. The expierenced artists that come here are here to do something different, not to rehash what they've done elsewhere. The young local artist voice is strong, political and motivated. Everywhere I look when I walk down streets like James Street North, or Ottawa Street North, I see businesses that are embracing the creative surge. Perhaps more important than answering the question of how to continue to incubate new artists is to keep asking the question as part of our ongoing discussion.
Remember how this rant started? An artist needed help and people responded. I look at the new #HamOnt and I don't see people looking back with longing. People are choosing to be excited, not intimidated, and really are we surprised? After all, Hamilton is a city with steel in its veins.