What is a city government’s appropriate role with respect to the arts?

In 2000 the city of St. John’s invited artists from all disciplines to help it develop a set of recommendations to make the city a more art-friendly place. Since then, the city has hired on a city arts and culture development co-ordinator—Kay Anonsen—who has been in charge of implementing those recommendations.

Now, eight years later, the city is hosting another symposium on arts and the city to ask what the municipal government has been doing right, what it has been doing wrong, and what it can do to improve—with the ultimate goal of putting together a formal city arts plan.

Elling Lien spoke with some of the people on the symposium’s organizing committee to get the lowdown.

SD—Shannie Duff
RL—Ruth Lawrence
KA—Kay Anonsen
MP—Michael Pittman

So, the last time this happened there were a large number of recommendations that came up. How did the City do?

SD: Pretty well.

KA: I think, for example, one of the recommendations was to put in flower boxes, and we didn’t do that, but we did start putting up murals.

I think the arts community has to make that determination. We will present what we have accomplished, and people will have to make up their minds about what they think was good, bad, or indifferent.

RL: For example, [reading one of the recommendations] “creating a temporary position for an arts development officer for a period of twelve months to be followed by an evaluation,” that is how Kay’s position was created. It was recommendation number two. They were talking about twelve months, and it’s been a seven year position.

SD: It’s now permanent…

RL: That set of recommendations became kind of a working document. When I look through them, I see that a lot of the items were acted upon. More than I ever would have thought when I first got involved back then.

KA: An important part of what we’re doing now is to look at what recommendations from the last symposium were followed through on, and if they weren’t, why not? That’s something we’re very focused on now—preparing a report card on the progress.

SD: This particular process started with the Arts Advisory Committee and the idea originally was “we should do a report card on how we’re doing on these recommendations,” because I don’t think we’ve done a good job as a city to let people know how much has happened internally. So we thought, why don’t we get people together again, give them an outline of what has happened, and try to move on from there. So from that little idea, which must have been about 18 months ago, came the idea that we would develop a formalized arts plan or cultural plan for the city, and that this upcoming symposium would be more structured and be the official engagement of the arts community around the development of an arts plan.

What exists now are policies. Plans are here [gestures up high] and then out of plans flow policies. Policies are what direct action and budget, but you do need to have the vision; the plan. What’s the role, in the 21st century—because things are happening so fast, even in our own community—what is the appropriate role for a municipality in the early 21st century, and how should we deal with that? How do we build? How to we make the arts even more relevant—not only within the city bureaucracy, but to the community.

Because if it’s relevant to the community, the community votes for the council, and the council votes in favour of the arts.

Aside from the evaluation, what will you be talking about at the upcoming symposium?

RL: The two areas we’ll be starting with will be very broad themes: “Cultural Infrastructure” and “Engaging the Public.” They’re huge. They cover a lot of territory.

What do you mean by “Cultural Infrastructure”?

RL: Well, what we started talking about first was space… Living space, space for creation, space for performance, space for exhibition… So “Cultural Infrastructure” covers the gamut. And possibly, somewhere down the road, could include making a space for the arts. …a cultural centre… Or maybe now we need to look at broadening that idea to form a cultural district, or something like that…

SD: The idea is: “What kind of atmosphere do you need in your city to makes it possible for creative people to live and work and contribute to the quality of life in our community…?”

RL:And “Engaging the Public” really means “how do we get the public to experience the art?”

KA: Since municipalities are relatively new to the cultural game, so to speak, it’s always important to think about the city’s role. The Canada Council, and the Department of Heritage and the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council… all those entities have a clear mandate to support the arts, but the City has a regulatory framework for water, sewer, roads and parks, and it’s looking beyond its framework to develop and support the arts. What is the City’s role? We are, of all the levels of government, on the street, so to speak. We can do an awful lot of interesting things to reach the public with art, for example, our lunchtime summer concert series. It’s free, it’s in the downtown on the lunch hour, and what I’ve heard from many people who enjoy that concert series is that they normally just don’t get out to the bars, and a lot of bands don’t start until 11 at night, so if you’re not into that scene, you’re really missing out on a lot of local music. So with that the city has provided an opportunity for the public to hear local musicians.

RL: And the murals project… another easy example to point to.

SD: The public arts projects.. the sculptures you see around…

For this symposium, what are your wildest dreams? What do you wish to accomplish?

KA: My wildest dream is that we’ll have an official arts plan.

MP: I don’t think it’s a question of wildest dreams. I think it’s a matter of taking everyone’s suggestions seriously at the symposium, and figuring out what goals are attainable. I think you can come out of anything with all kinds of great wishes, and with a big long list of things that many people would like to see, but you have to be really specific to actually accomplish things. This is a great opportunity for all kinds of artists to have their say in putting together a cultural plan with attainable goals.

RL: I do feel like there’s a great start in this city. I think we’re already on that road. It may be a mile at a time, but we’ll get there.

To read the recommendations put to council from the last symposium. (500k pdf)

Arts and the City II, a symposium on the arts will take place on April 4th and 5th at City Hall. If you have any questions or would like to take part in symposium, contact the city’s arts and culture development co-ordinator Kay Anonsen at