Life Under the Golden Rule (2012)

Originally published in Vol. 10.1 (Sept. 2012) Download a PDF version of this article. By Savannah Walling Art and art making are barometers of a community’s well-being, reflecting the landscapes in which we work and the golden rules by which we’re guided—from “He who has the gold can make and change the rules” to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The inner city Downtown Eastside is highly stressed. Land development and rezoning plans are transforming Greater Vancouver into a “world class creative city” of architectural icons, glass towers, condominiums, and 24/7 mega-entertainment casinos. Global marketing has sent home prices into the stratosphere. Certain politicians encourage creative activity to attract investment capital and “improve” neighbourhoods; the pressures to transform artists into “regeneration bulldozers” are real(1). So is gentrification as a global urban “regeneration” strategy to remake areas into “whole new complexes of recreation, consumption, production and pleasure as well as residence.”(2) The recent addition of Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts and Woodwards Redevelopment brought thousands of new residents and office workers into the community virtually overnight. The neighbourhood is transforming under our feet: single room occupancy hotels become student and worker conversions at rents above welfare rates, and shops and services shift into boutiques and up-scale restaurants. Tensions within the community are increasing. Advocates for low income housing and human-scale streetscapes are pitted against advocates for affordable entry level housing or public safety or improved housing standards. Two years of cut-backs and turmoil have been super-stressing arts organizations. BC’s arts funding was always well below other provinces, but in 2009 the BC Arts Council’s funding was cut in half. BC Gaming also reduced its contribution to arts, sports, educational, environmental and social services by 50%—and eliminated funding for adult arts and sports.(3) Intensive lobbying by the BC arts community and a provincial election restored some arts funding. A one-time Olympic Sports and Arts Legacy Fund was re-directed to the BC Arts Council to temporarily maintain its grants budget at a stable level. BC Gaming recently expanded eligibility to include arts and sports for adults. But the size of the “pot” didn’t change; there’s less available for everybody. Another side-effect is the shrinking of matching funds from federal programs. Criteria and regulations narrowing eligibility are axing programs and services. Although almost every industry has some kind of subsidy, incentive, or tax break, social services and arts are targeted for cuts. Government funding is being re-directed to prizes and one-time commemorative events. Thankfully, the City of Vancouver has continued its modest but steady support of the arts despite the tough economic climate. We know that art won’t die and artists won’t stop making art. William Cleveland, director of the Centre for the Study of Art and Community, reminds us, “Even in the most desperate places, every war zone, prison—art making is pre-eminent, breaking out all over, a matter of survival.” But arts infrastructures, years in the making, have been decimated. Organizations struggle to stay afloat. Seasons are reduced, arts projects cancelled, postponed, or shrunk. Artists lose jobs. Political policies influence programming, production values, and the decisions about which artists, images and stories will be supported to represent our culture. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I remind myself of the words of my singing teacher Ralph Cole: “If you can deal with the shit in your life you can grow the perfect rose.” Surfing the tidal wave of cuts, Vancouver Moving Theatre downscaled to concerts, staged readings, and workshop productions. We managed to preserve gaming funding for the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival by framing it as a “neighbourhood-based heritage festival.” We joined forces to provide leadership training in community arts (with Toronto’s Jumblies Theatre); a Christmas fund-raiser to benefit the festival and community arts (with SFU Woodwards Cultural Programming Unit); and job opportunities for professional and DTES emerging performers (an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot with NeWorld Theatre, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, and Theatre UBC). To build healthy communities, all of us are needed. We contribute through art because we’re artists, guided by the ethic of reciprocity as we focus on creative projects tailored for and with our community. Alongside other Downtown Eastside artists, activists, businesses, and social organizations, we’re striving to nurture local talents and community well-being as we navigate the cultural storms of life. NOTES 1. With thanks to Maggie Hutcheson, “The Community Artist in the Creative City: Engaged Citizen or Regeneration Bulldozer,” Out of Place (dispatches from artists on the loose) (Jumblies Press, 2010). 2. Neil Smith, “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy,” at 3. The BC government now takes 90% of all gaming revenues. Treating gaming as a voluntary tax and “cash cow,” it’s shrunk the portion of gaming allotted to non-profit organizations from 45% to 10%.  

Reflections on a Cross-country Collaboration in Community Arts Training

Originally published in Vol. 7.3 (March 2010) Download a PDF version of this article  By Savannah Walling and Ruth Howard In November 2009, Vancouver Moving Theatre and Toronto’s Jumblies Theatre joined hands across Canada to present the Downtown Eastside Arts4All Institute—six days of learning, idea-sharing, films, panels, art-making, mutual support, and inspiration. Produced for the first time in western Canada, and specially tailored for the Downtown Eastside community, the institute provided an in-depth introduction to principles and practices of art that engage with and build community. Host director Savannah Walling and lead artist and facilitator Ruth Howard joined forces to adapt an intensive course developed by Jumblies in Toronto over the past three years as part of the Jumblies Studio. The name 4All springs from a close relationship between this initiative and Jumblies Offshoot project, Arts4All, at Davenport Perth Neighbourhood Centre. Joining Savannah and Ruth as facilitators were Canadian community play movers Terry Hunter (VMT), Varrick Grimes (Toronto/Newfoundland ), Keith McNair (Jumblies), Cathy Stubington (Runaway Moon Theatre, BC), and Lina de Guevera (Puente Theatre, BC). Panels on forming community partnerships and making room for diversity reflected a spectrum of community-engaged arts as practiced by Judy Marcuse (ICASC), Rosemary Georgeson (urban ink), Bruce Ray (gallery gachet), jil p. weaving (Vancouver Parks Board), and others. Coordinator Susan Gordon organized nourishing lunches. Community partners included Carnegie Community Centre, Community Arts Council of Vancouver, DTES Heart of the City Festival, UBC’s Humanities 101, Ukrainian Hall, and Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation. Reflecting most community art projects, the twenty-one participants represented a diversity of backgrounds, skills, interests, and purposes. Most were local, but some arrived from other neighbourhoods, from Victoria, from Kamloops. All shared an interest in gaining skills and in processes that engage with community. Participants included veterans in the field wanting to revisit basics, challenge skill-set weaknesses, learn from and share with peers; professional and emerging artists wanting to engage more effectively with communities and learn how this differs from mainstream arts presentations; and others who’ve participated in a variety of arts-related community activities wanting to learn how to go about becoming professionals in the field. Some wanted to put Downtown Eastside-created projects onto the road to share with friends and relatives, to shed light on realities of city life, and to inspire other communities to put on their own plays. Most had big or small projects in mind and were ready for tips and tools on project start-ups; on facilitation, communication, conflict-resolution, delegation; on preparing (and maintaining) budgets, business plans, and funding proposals; on forming partnerships; on assembling collaborative creative relationships; and on documentation, evaluation, and legacies. Big questions were addressed. What do artists need to know to work successfully with community members on arts projects? How do we create projects accessible to diverse levels of experience, age, cultural and social backgrounds, and openness? How do we ensure that community-engaged artists focus on a community’s real issues and understand that when we risk opening up old wounds with tough themes, we must ensure that these communities and individuals will be okay after we leave? The energy and enthusiasm during the institute were contagious. Collaborations were great fun. Participants appreciated the diversity and willingness of people to be themselves, the respect and humour displayed throughout, and the shared wealth of resources and breadth of life and artistic experience. Everyone learned.   BIOS Savannah Walling is Artistic Director of Vancouver Moving Theatre, and interdisciplinary company producing community-engaged art and the DTES Heart of the City Festival. Ruth Howard is a theatre designer and creator and founding Artisitic Director of Jumblies Theatre, a company that makes art with, for, and about people and places of Toronto. Contact: