Hometown Arts

The arts in Fort McMurray are on life support. Can they be saved?

By Mar'ce Merrell

Among the big trucks, big wages and big development in Fort McMurray, professional artists struggle simply to survive. The city’s housing costs are unforgiving for people not working in the oil patch. The recent suspension of all art programs at Keyano College undermined the community’s former cache of professional artists. While grassroots community-driven art surfaces here and there, some locals who’ve invested lifetimes in making art in Fort McMurray are now wondering if they have no choice but to leave. Without professional artists creating theatre, visual art, literature and music, they worry their community will become an industrial wasteland where tradespeople make money and get out, where the only career choice for locals is in the oil sands, and where the arts amount to a few big-ticket events a year, likely imported from elsewhere.

Is there hope? Fort McMurray’s handful of remaining professional artists aren’t giving up. They, along with a newly formed Arts Council Wood Buffalo, might be able to save the local arts community—if they stay long enough. The odds are stacked against them. Professional artists say they know how the system needs to change, but that their voices haven’t been heard by the government. An arts revolution in Fort McMurray will require more than artists’ efforts. Local decision-makers need to hear from the weeknight and weekend community artists, the parents of students and the school districts that the arts are integral to engaging citizens and to building a vibrant community.

Locals who’ve invested lifetimes in making art in Fort McMurray now wonder if they have no choice but to leave.

Community interest in the arts is evident. Last year’s locally written Hometown… The Musical! found its 120 local actors through open auditions; the youngest cast member was 18 months old, the oldest over 60. Set in the then near-future, 2014, the musical takes place at the Fort McMurray International Airport the day it opens, and follows five stories—of people leaving the city for good, people who’ve decided to stay and residents born and raised in Fort Mac. Mayor Melissa Blake played herself and even danced on a bar. Blogger Theresa Wells captured the community’s reaction to seeing their own stories play out onstage, calling the show “a complete tour de force, a joy ride from start to finish, an explosion of talent and music and community… and home.” The musical sold out eight shows to be the third-highest money-maker in Keyano College Theatre’s history.

Music lessons are in demand too. Parents pay up to $80 per hour for private music instruction, and waiting lists for teachers are long. An art gallery space in a hallway at MacDonald Island Recreation Centre displays local artists’ work in continuous rotation. Dance lessons are abundant, and there’s even a fledgling hip-hop scene featuring the Northern Elements Crew, a group of poppers, breakers and DJs. All of this looks good on the surface, but the professional artists who give the lessons—and who supported the production of Hometown… The Musical!—struggle to sustain themselves. The community ostensibly wants arts engagement and enrichment, but its leaders don’t seem to understand and support what professional artists need to survive and thrive.

With last spring’s suspension of Keyano College’s arts diploma programs (visual arts, performing arts and music) along with its trade program for musical instrument repair, five professional artist-instructors lost their jobs. Most left town. The instructors say they were fired and told to leave immediately. Catherine Koch, Keyano’s vice-president academic, says programs were cut partly because enrolment was too low. “Twelve students in the first-year drama program was a high enrolment,” she says. “[But] then we’d see only five students in the second year. That translated to $200,000 over five students.”

Koch also points to provincial funding cuts to post-secondary institutions and to government constraints: “The ministry doesn’t want low-enrolment programs.”

Keyano College president Kevin Nagel says the institution is committed to meeting community needs. “If there is demand in the community for any kind of programming, we’ll find a way to deliver it,” he says. “This is what post-secondary does. We’re advocates of good programming and broad programming.” Keyano College administrators say they want to help build demand for the arts and, if possible, to reinstate the arts programs cut in 2013. Kim Jenkins, CEO of the college’s Land Trust Corporation, points to Holy Trinity High School’s visual and performing arts program, which opened in September 2011. “Programs at Keyano weren’t cut because we don’t like the arts,” he says. “They were cut because we’re not getting kids into the programs. The high schools weren’t producing the kids that want this. When the first group of Grade 7s comes out of Holy Trinity… maybe then we’ll see demand go up.”

But shouldn’t a city’s post-secondary institution lead the way to a full and meaningful cultural life? Should the college acquiesce in and perpetuate Fort McMurray’s industry-driven and infamously lopsided economy?

With community leaders blaming their decisions on external factors, and undermining the arts and professional artists while claiming to value them, frustration runs high among the few artists remaining in Fort McMurray.

Opera singer Sarah Neiman, a born-and-raised Fort McMurrayite and former Keyano student, obtained a masters of music in literature and performance from the University of Western Ontario before returning to her hometown. She thinks the cuts at Keyano are a blow to the arts scene. “The hardest thing is the loss of the instructors,” she says. “We had a handful of professional artists living and creating in this community. Without those instructors there aren’t going to be many high-level artists.” Neiman teaches private music lessons, music and dance classes at the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts (a facility in Holy Trinity School), a dance class as a contract instructor at Keyano and workshops for local organizations and schools. She’s also the program leader and mentor artist-educator with Learning Through The Arts, which places artists in public school classrooms.

Neiman shares a three-bedroom condo with two roommates, yet her housing costs are heavy. Artists who piece together several jobs also have little time left to collaborate and create art. “You miss making art at that high level because you just don’t have enough people to play with,” she says. “There’s a frustration in Fort McMurray for artists who want to make art be what they do. Community artists are valued and professionalism is valued in teachers, but there isn’t necessarily value in being an artist in your own right, doing your own art. Maybe once or twice a year. And then it’s ‘please get back to [teaching] lessons.’ We need to ask for more for our art.”

For five years Michael Beamish resolutely produced original stories about the Wood Buffalo community. He’s a graduate of Keyano’s now defunct performing arts program and co-wrote and directed Hometown… The Musical! The challenges have caught up with him. Beamish lived with roommates while working the equivalent of two full-time jobs. Reducing his work hours as the head of Keyano’s conservatory (continuing education courses in the fine arts) was impossible; his $70,000 salary was meagre in a city where the average rent is well over $2,000 a month and buying a single detached home requires a $750,000 mortgage.

In 2011 Beamish’s independent theatre company, Eye Flower Productions, produced Legion Blues, an original play with locally trained actors. The cast rehearsed in his kitchen and living room because there was no affordable production space. He also struggled to find actors. “With no affordable housing, they all had to work two or three jobs, and they couldn’t come to rehearsals regularly,” he says. “I had to fly in actors from Vancouver for my last show, except for the one high school student I found.”
Wood Buffalo Region supervisor of social economics Francisco Bermejo agrees that the municipality cannot keep up with the demand for affordable housing, with 7,000 to 12,000 new working immigrants arriving each year. “Cultural service workers [the category artists fit into] are definitely at risk in terms of housing,” he says. “In this community, any household making below $150,000 will be under the scope of affordability.”

Beamish recently moved to Germany to be with his partner, and though he says he was fulfilled by his involvement in Fort McMurray’s arts scene, he’s not optimistic. “I don’t see any solution coming from the city or the provincial government,” he says. “It’s all about investment, not about the community.”

It’s easy to sell a sponsorship for a hockey rink; people flock to that. The arts play second fiddle.

Hope might come in the form of an arts council. Former Keyano College director of communications and marketing Russell Thomas (also a former regional councillor) is interim director of Arts Council Wood Buffalo. He says he’s been working to educate the municipality on what an arts council can provide. “The arts permeate everything we do as humans,” he says. “When we watch TV, we watch art. We have art on the walls. When we read something that moves us, that’s literary arts. Life would be empty without the arts.”

The arts increase people’s capacity for life, helping us understand, interpret and adapt to the world around us, he says. They enrich our experience, bringing colour, beauty, passion and intensity to our lives. They provide a safe site in which we build skills, confidence and self-esteem. Other activities do some of these things, he adds, but only art does all three. Fort McMurray parents clearly see the value of the arts—there aren’t enough artists to provide private lessons for music, dance and drama, and Holy Trinity’s arts program continues to attract new students. The program’s enrolment has grown for three straight years.

The arts, though, are a difficult sell at the municipal level. “Sports and recreation have always trumped the arts,” Thomas says. “It’s easy to sell a sponsorship package for an outdoor hockey rink; people and organizations flock to that. The arts somehow play second fiddle. They have to become so important that there is visible support from senior leadership.”

While the municipality’s 20-year plan devotes a paragraph to the importance of the arts, stating a broad intention to support arts and cultural programs, services and facilities, it makes no mention of the artists or cultural leaders needed for the realization of an artistic vision.

The municipality has asked the newly formed arts council to provide direction, so Thomas must present a strong case for supporting professional artists.

Thomas hopes the council will have a strong mandate and financial support from the municipality, though he acknowledges these are early stages—the board of directors, elected last December, needs to establish the group’s mission, vision, mandate and values before beginning strategic planning. Any sort of real action, then, is still many months away.

Thomas envisions a public arts policy that would require a percentage of all funding for municipal projects to be devoted to the development and maintenance of public art and to operational funding for arts organizations. Artist grants and spaces at Keyano College for artist collaboration are on Thomas’s wish list. The council has even discussed new infrastructure—a visual and performing arts centre, a “catalyst project” with a price tag of up to $75-million.

But a building alone cannot engage an audience. The arts council, Thomas says, must place support for professional artists at the centre of its mandate, through individual project grants and opportunities for collaboration, performance and celebration of local, professional artists. This is how the artist community will expand.“Art is not dead here,” Neiman says. “Art is happening in schools and out of school for kids; community art is happening. We’re rebuilding. It’s fragile, though. We need to take care that we don’t do any more damage, that we keep what we have.”

Maintaining and improving the region’s art scene will require commitment from a policy perspective as well as from dedicated and driven individuals and groups.
The Wood Buffalo Region is in a unique position to create an extraordinary arts community: Financial resources are vast, people are excited and engaged, and professional artists are speaking out. A community known for its ability to innovate may seize its chance to shine in the creative realm.

Mar’ce Merrell is a novelist and regional manager of Learning Through the Arts. She lives in Edmonton and Fort McMurray.


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