Retrospective: Who You Callin’ Cultured?

By Aritha van Herk

A couple of municipal elections ago, a would-be alderman knocked on my door suggesting I might wish to vote for him, and asked if I had any concerns about the city of Calgary. I asked him what he planned to do for culture. He looked at me wonderingly, and said, with genuine puzzlement, “What’s that?”

The rest of Canada loves repeating the old joke that Alberta culture is an oxymoron. Albertans don’t enjoy the teasing, but that isn’t enough to make the province identify culture as one of its strengths. In fact, culture is a word that most high- and low-profile Albertans avoid. Dancing, drinking, driving, fine, but culture? This implicit anxiety is most manifest officially, as evidenced by our government and its servants. The word culture appears only once on the Government of Alberta public website, under the Department of Community Development, now headed by the Honourable Gary Mar. That department claims its mandate is to promote community development, protect human rights and promote fairness and access. Its goals are identified as preserving, protecting and representing Alberta’s history, culture, provincial parks and protected areas. There it is. A word buried, culture sandwiched between the venerable dead of the past and high-end parking pads for oversized recreational vehicles.

This was not always the case. Between 1946 and 1971, the provincial government actually boasted a Cultural Development Branch, which morphed into the cultural development branch of the Department of Culture, Youth and Recreation (1971–75), then became Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism until Community Development replaced the whole ministry. Apparently, the latter designation is more palatable in relation to the bread and butter of survival and advancement, more acceptable to the fair citizens of this province, than the connotations of frills, icing and extras that “culture” suggests. But this attitude is not so much that of the “average Albertan,” but of our provincial politicians. Their deep unease with culture paints it as unmentionable, like a black bra strap peeking out from underneath a respectable sleeve.

To read the entire article, from the January 2006 issue, click here.

van Herk revisits “Who You Callin’ Cultured?”:

In 2006 culture was predicted to flourish as Alberta’s brain gain, our artists at the forefront of a cultural revolution. The petro-boom boosted culture’s bottom line—but seemed to endorse showy celebration more than sustained development. We dazzled ourselves with fundraisers and hired charismatic and expensive arts administrators, all of which proved that the arts too can suffer from the boom and bust of hyperbole and delusion. The dust has settled and now Alberta’s culture thrums steadily in an unsteady economy, although always under pressure, whether from arguments against public art or the fact that as of 2016 corporate support for culture had dipped by more than 70 per cent. That’s a recipe for arrhythmia, if not starvation.

Minister Ricardo Miranda believes that heritage, culture and tourism together shape our future prosperity, and the province’s incredible talents in film, drama, art, literature and music buoy his position. He’s proud of giving the AFA a $5-million increase (although they were promised $10-million, and some “new” funding merely restores earlier cuts). He says Alberta provides Canada’s third-highest direct funding for artists and arts organizations. In 2015–16, Alberta was fourth in per capita arts funding, at $6.35. This will rise to $7.43 in 2017–18.

The difficulty is that most artists have a terrible time making a living, and almost inevitably serve as their own patrons by working at precarious jobs to fund their artistic practice. Alberta writers, painters and composers do not wake in the morning to a certainty that they’re valued. Trapped by the model of money and productivity, we’re always arguing about how much “economic activity” the arts generate. In Alberta it’s estimated that culture generates about $10-billion in economic activity. In 2014 culture contributed $5.7-billion to Alberta’s GDP, sustaining more than 55,500 jobs. We certainly can’t afford to ignore or starve the arts.

Culture is a bellwether for the zeitgeist of a place. Door-knocking politicians insist that average people don’t relate to culture as anything more than a leisure activity. But the value of creativity for a diversified Alberta cannot be discounted. In these turbulent times, artists are the original “stickers,” the ones who settle in for the long haul, who persist in the place where they can make their work. And work they do!

Aritha van Herk is a novelist and professor.

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