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Art of the matter

As the cultural plan nears completion, some in the arts community remain doubtful. Sue Carter Flinn reports.

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A quick tour around the HRM Cultural Advisory Committee’s open house on November 28 paints a grim picture for the city’s proposed cultural plan.

While councillor Sue Uteck and a group of city staffers listen to citizens’ concerns, the other 10 members of the committee, comprised of citizen volunteers and other city representatives, are not in attendance. Approximately 40 people move from table to table, each labeled with cards suggesting topics such as Arts Development, Diversity and Lifelong Learning. The mood is amicable (perhaps because of the notable absence of many arts stakeholders), but the criticisms towards HRM’s cultural track record are direct.

Input from the evening will be evaluated by the committee and included in the plan, scheduled for presentation to city council later in the month. Draft copies of the 61-page report sit in a weighty stack, ballooning with bureaucratic language and ambitious objectives—a contradiction to the personal issues discussed at the open house.

May Lui sits at the Diversity table. As a member of HRM’s race relations advisory committee, Lui is well aware of the struggles that new immigrants face when moving to a new country. “We don’t always want Asians to work with other Asians,” she says. “We also want to work with other people.” She says teaching immigrants about Canadian culture is only half of the job: The city needs to nurture empathy about the diverse rules that affect how different ethnic groups perceive issues such as law enforcement.

Accessibility is important to Gerald McNeil. He’s the outreach program manager for Veith Street Gallery Studio, an initiative that showcases work by artists with disabilities. Sitting across from McNeil, Luke Batdorf says he doesn’t see anything new or innovative in the plan. He feels the city is lacking in spiritualism—not in the religious sense—but in how it approaches design.

Professional potter Janet Doble moves over the Arts Development table. Doble, whose ceramics are familiar sights at Handsmiths and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia gift shop, is struggling to survive financially. Doble could be the poster-artist for the biggest problem facing culture in the city: “I feel discouraged and penalized for trying to support myself,” she says emotionally.

Doble moved her studio into her home from a space above the Army Navy Store on Agricola. After applying for a permit, she now faces a commercial property tax she can’t afford. She’s decided to give pottery one more year before packing it in. “Am I going to be a martyr to my job?” she asks. “This is why so many people move away.”

Andrew Terris grimly nods his head in agreement. As an activist, whose involvement in advocacy campaigns includes the 2002 fight to keep the provincial arts council, he has seen other plans gather dust, and the exodus of many artists who leave the city. He dismisses his marked-up copy of the cultural plan as a “dog’s breakfast.” He says a few focused initiatives, including a dedicated cultural agency and an arts council staffed with professionals, the committee would receive more support from the professional arts community.

A review of CAC’s meeting minutes does not offer much hope. There appear to be divisions in the group—mostly over semantics. In October, councillor Steve Streatch resigned over statements made in the plan’s vision statement, citing it contains “too much concern with political correctness.” Streatch returned to the committee in November after a discussion with Peter Kelly. Then, two days after the open house, the unofficial news of NSCAD president and committee representative Paul Greenhalgh’s resignation from the university, delivers yet another blow.

As the committee battles on to create a plan that will satisfy a range of needs, the city’s cultural future—and those whose livelihoods are affected by its outcome—remains in limbo.

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