Let’s Hear It For Diversity

Straight, white dudes once ruled the arts. Not anymore.

25 The Arts | by Gregory Beatty

“Arts ecology” is a big buzzword these days. It’s used to describe the general lay of the arts landscape in recognition that, just like in real life, a healthy environment is vital for artists to thrive.

In a discipline as diverse as the arts, ecology covers a lot of ground. Education, professional development, role models, media coverage and more are all involved. With that thought in mind, we decided to explore how Regina’s arts ecology has changed for three communities that, in the time Prairie Dog’s been around, have become key drivers of change in the city.

This isn’t meant to be a detailed exploration, just an overview with a focus on Indigenous, female and LGBTQ arts activity. /Gregory Beatty

Indigenous Initiatives

Going back to the 1970s, really, Indigenous artists have had a presence in Regina. Credit for that goes to Plains Cree artist/educator Sarain Stump (1945-1974) who started the arts program at what became Saskatchewan Indian Federated College. As it happens, the MacKenzie Gallery is about to open an exhibition called Mixing Stars and Sand which looks at Stump’s art and legacy. It runs March 3-June 24, so check it out.

Bob Boyer (1948-2004) was another early leader in the Indigenous arts community. He taught at SIFC, and exhibited widely, with several prominent public commissions to his credit. In addition, local galleries such as the MacKenzie, Dunlop and Rosemont (now Art Gallery of Regina) did show Indigenous art. So when Prairie Dog was founded in 1993, Indigenous artists (and to a lesser extent, curators) were part of Regina’s arts ecology.

In 1995, the Saskatchewan Arts Board formed an advisory panel to improve access for Indigenous artists and organizations to its programs and services. In its 1999 report, the panel distinguished between artists who employ “modern approaches” and those who worked in traditional forms. The panel also distinguished between urban and reserve-based, and southern and more remote northern artists/organizations, and emphasized the importance of the SAB engaging those diverse communities. To do that, it recommended creating a Community Development Consultant position to be staffed by a First Nations person and a permanent advisory committee.

Other organizations have also stepped up their game. The University of Regina, for instance, has an official Indigenization policy that is dedicated to respecting Indigenous history, culture and knowledge. A key component of that, of course, is the relationship it enjoys with First Nations University of Canada, which moved from its former location at old Regina Campus to a gorgeous Douglas Cardinal-designed building in 2003.

The MacKenzie Gallery is another example. In 1998, it hired LeeAnne Martin as head curator. Previously curator of Contemporary Indian Art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (1992–94), and First Peoples equity coordinator at Canada Council (1994–98), she injected an Indigenous perspective into the gallery’s programming. Two memorable exhibitions presented during her tenure were Exposed: The Aesthetics of Aboriginal Erotic Art (which Martin co-curated with Morgan Wood) and The Powwow: An Art History (co-curated with Boyer).

When Martin left the MacKenzie in 2000, she was succeeded by artist/curator Patricia Deadman, who was followed by Michelle LaVallee in 2007. During her time at the gallery, LaVallee made several trips abroad to Sydney, Venice and Brisbane as part of a Canadian Aboriginal curatorial collective, where she built connections with Indigenous artists/curators in Australia, New Zealand and other locales.

Two memorable shows LaVallee curated during her time in Regina were Blow Your House In with Indigenous Australian artist Vernon Ah Kee in 2009, and 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. in 2013 which celebrated the talents of Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Carl Ray and Joseph Sanchez.

Last fall, LaVallee left Regina to become director of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s Art Centre in Gatineau. The MacKenzie has yet to hire a replacement, but it will soon announce the winning entry in a Canada 150 reconciliation project to install a new public art work in Wascana Centre. The finalists are Mary Anne Barkhouse, Wally Dion and Duane Linklater.

Other highlights that stand out for me include Edward Poitras becoming the first Indigenous artist to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1995, and the founding of Sâkêwêwak Artists’ Collective in 1996. Sâkêwêwak has led an itinerant lifestyle over its 22-years, but it partners with lots of organizations to present events such as its annual Storytellers Festival which runs until Feb. 28.

The founding of Common Weal Community Arts in 1992, the launching of Mispon: A Celebration of Indigenous Filmmaking in 2006, the creation of dedicated awards for Indigenous writing and publishing at the Saskatchewan Books Awards which has led to a surge in Indigenous fiction and academic scholarship, and work New Dance Horizons has done to promote powwow as a dance form are other landmarks.

Speaking of powwow, each April FNUniv hosts a two-day gathering at Brandt Centre that kicks off the powwow season. And in 2014, Regina hosted the North American Indigenous Games which saw hundreds of artists who were part of a companion festival visit Regina. And how can we forget The Crow Hop Café and Bionic Bannock Boys comedy troupe which played to packed houses for several years starting in the late 1990s.

Mexterminator II, a performance project that Neutral Ground co-presented with Red Tattoo Ensemble in 1997 that explored notions of Indigenous identity in the digital age was another great project. Really, there’s been so many over the years it’s impossible to mention them all. Here’s to many more.

Women And The Arts

Creative City Centre superhero, Marian Donnelly | photo by Darrol Hofmeister

Feminism was kicking down barriers in the arts long before Prairie Dog burst on the scene. Since the ’60s, at least, women were demanding that their artistic and curatorial work be given its critical and commercial due. That included both the media women chose to work in (textiles, in particular, were a contentious battleground), and issues and concerns they might deal with (such as motherhood and related domestic issues, which the male art establishment regarded as not being worthy subjects for art).

Skirmishes were still being fought, of course, but women were reasonably well represented in Regina’s arts ecology when this paper launched in 1993. In visual art, for instance, the head curators at the MacKenzie, Dunlop and Rosemont Galleries were women (Cindy Richmond, Helen Marzolf and Karen Schoonover), and they were joined by Brenda Cleniuk who became director of Neutral Ground in 1996. On the commercial side, the Susan Whitney and McIntyre (run by Evelyn and Louise Durnford) were both prominent galleries.

In theatre, Susan Ferley headed the Globe, and the late Michele Sereda was an indie dynamo through her company Curtain Razors. Then in dance, you had Robin Poitras, who had co-founded New Dance Horizons with Dianne Fraser in 1986. And the year we were born, Dianne Warren cleaned up at the Saskatchewan Book Awards with her short story collection Bad Luck Dog. Throw in Gail Bowen, Maggie Siggins, Sandra Birdsell, Connie Gault, Bonnie Burnard and other names I could drop, and an argument could be made that women dominated Regina’s literary scene.

Still, like I said in my introduction, arts ecology is a complex area that involves a lot of different components. To help survey how that terrain’s evolved for women over the last 25 years, I asked University of Regina visual art professor Leesa Streifler, who has taught and worked as a professional artist in Regina since 1986, for input.

One positive development Streifler cited was the increase in female studio faculty at the university. When she arrived in Regina, she was the only woman on faculty. Since then, she’s been joined, at various times, by Ruth Chambers, Marsha Kennedy, Joanne Bristol, Rachelle Viader Knowles, Risa Horowitz, Holly Faye, Sylvia Ziemann, Barbara Meneley, Carmen Robertson and others.

Women are present in other arts faculties too, of course, with some, such as Mary Blackstone, Kathleen Irwin, Kathryn Laurin, Sheila Petty and Rae Staseson having served as deans or associate deans. Another positive Streifler flagged was the growing number of female artists with MFAs. When she arrived, she recalls, there was only one other female artist with an MFA. Now, there are many more.

Outside the university, women continue to be well represented in Regina galleries. In addition to LeeAnn Martin, Michelle LaVallee and Patricia Deadman (discussed above) there’s been continued leadership by women at the Dunlop with Noreen Neu and Amanda Cachia, and the current trio of Jennifer Matotek, Blair Fornwald and Wendy Peart. In 2016, Faye took over for Schoonover at the Art Gallery of Regina, and Neutral Ground recently underwent a “re-visioning” spearheaded by Fornwald, Horowitz, Alex King (curator of the university art collection) and Sandee Moore (artist).

Streifler also cited Strandline Curatorial Collective which is headed by Elizabeth Matheson and Christine Ramsay. In collaboration with Timothy Long (MacKenzie curator) and Viader Knowles (who now teaches at Coventry University), they presented Meet in the Middle: Stations of Migration and Memory Between Art and Film — a three-year project which culminated with an installation by Atom Egoyan at the MacKenzie in December 2016.

The Saskatchewan Arts Alliance, SaskCulture and SaskBooks have long been led by women (Marnie Gladwell, Rose Gilks and Brenda Niskala), and since Patrick Close left CARFAC SASK Jennifer McCrorie and Wendy Nelson have served as director. Similarly, Globe Theatre is helmed by Ruth Smillie, and the Saskatchewan Writers Guild has had several female heads including Byrna Barclay and current interim director Tracy Hamon.

Obviously, there are too many women active in the local arts scene to give shout-outs to them all. But Streifler did mention Marian Donnelly, who founded the downtown arts hub Creative City Centre in 2011. It’s home to Articulate Ink, a female-operated print collective. Slate Gallery’s dynamic duo of Gina Fafard and Kimberley Fyfe also got a shout-out. As did University of Regina president Vianne Timmons, as a general role model for women.

Again, arts ecology is a complicated subject. In ways too numerous to count, having balanced representation in positions of influence helps everyone with artistic aspirations, regardless of their backgrounds, realize their potential.

The LGBTQ Revolution

This area of Regina’s arts ecology has seen big changes in the last 25 years too. There’s still a long way to go, of course. But compared to where we were back then we’ve come a long way.

Regina saw its first Pride Parade in 1990. I didn’t participate but I did witness it. I was heading downtown on the bus from the south end for a Saturday afternoon art event, and we met the parade as it was turning into the Legislative grounds off Albert.

The parade had attracted a fair bit of acrimony. Organizers had even been denied a permit by then-police chief Ernie Reimer. To limit reprisals, the small group of marchers wore masks. When we passed on Albert, I made a point of waving and giving them the thumbs up.

Fast forward 25 years, and Pride has morphed into a week-long celebration, and the parade is a joyous celebration involving hundreds of people from all walks of life.

Backing up again, in 1989 there was a huge stink in Saskatoon over a Mendel Gallery exhibition by Toronto photographer Evergon that featured erotically styled male nudes. Regina was spared the ignominy of a controversy like that, which saw city councilors challenge the gallery’s right to show the work, thank goodness — at least, we were spared until the year 2000. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I started writing on the arts for the Leader-Post in April 1990. The first gay-themed exhibition I reviewed followed a few months later when the Rosemont Gallery presented some mylar drawings by Toronto artist Andy Fabo. Fabo had recently lost his partner to HIV/AIDS, and was HIV positive himself, and that was the focus of the show. As you might imagine, the drawings were intense. But the paper published my review, no problem, and I don’t remember any controversy over the show, so props to us for that.

In 1997, the Gay and Lesbian Community of Regina held its first Pride Week. In 1999, the GLCR moved its social quarters from a Warehouse District club called Rumours to Q Nightclub & Lounge on 20-block Broad. Drag shows are a staple on its entertainment calendar, and it’s an important part of Regina’s LGBTQ arts ecology. The University of Regina’s been proactive in supporting LGBTQ students and faculty, too, which has helped promote self-acceptance and understanding for youth across the gender spectrum.

Still, it hasn’t been an easy struggle. And Regina’s broader arts community, with support from municipal, provincial and federal funders, deserves credit for exposing audiences to LGBTQ-themed work. The undisputed champ in that regard is Queer City Cinema.

Gary Varro started the festival in 1995 and remains its artistic director today. Back then, gay and lesbian film festivals were limited to large cities such as New York, Berlin, Toronto, San Francisco and Vancouver. Varro attended several festivals, made contacts, saw tons of films and videos, then put together a multi-night festival with screenings and a related panel discussion.

Varro’s title for the festival, Queer City Cinema, is a clever pun on Regina’s nickname “Queen City”. But its significance extends beyond that.

“Back then, ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ were the terms that were most commonly used,” he says. “‘Queer’ didn’t even really exist, other than as a pejorative term. It was reclaimed in the ’90s as a way to push against certain representations of lesbian and gay. It brought to the fore more radical, more subversive representations in art. That’s what QCC was born out of.

“My idea was if you’re going to do something, make it matter, make it different, and provide some texture,” says Varro. “Regina’s beige enough, so the whole intent back in 1995 was to make something happen that wasn’t going to be a cookie cutter gay and lesbian film and video festival. I wanted to bring forward this notion of queer, and what it meant politically, socially, sexually and otherwise.”

Even a cookie cutter gay and lesbian festival would’ve met with controversy, Varro thinks.

“But I went further than that,” he says

How far? Well, the 2000 festival featured some screenings and related discussion on queer porn. When the Saskatchewan Party opposition caught wind of it, they threw a hissy fit and demanded the NDP government pressure the Saskatchewan Arts Board (which by law enjoys an arms-length relationship to protect its independence) to pull the $5,000 grant it had given the festival.

“The 2000 festival was when the shit really hit the fan — but in a good way,” says Varro. “I regard it as a coming of age moment for Regina, and the queer community. I wasn’t anticipating what happened, but it was indicative of a certain climate at the time.”

When Varro started QCC, gay and lesbian film festivals were a key way to build community and promote awareness for LGBTQ people. Thanks to technology, things are much different now, he thinks. “When QCC started there was no Internet, and the festival was intended as a way for people to come out and feel as if they were being acknowledged and represented.”

Now, it’s possible to access any amount of LGBTQ arts and entertainment content with a click of a mouse (or TV remote, for that matter, as mainstream queer representations are much more common than they used to be). Social media has also exploded, and that’s created what amounts to a virtual gay village.

While Varro still curates film and video as part of QCC, he’s branched out into live performance which permits audiences to engage with the artist in an intimate and visceral way. His curatorial strategy, though, remains the same.

“Back in 1995, it wasn’t so much about taking a risk, it was a given it was a risk because of the way people felt about being gay and lesbian,” Varro says. “It wasn’t meant to be a festival for the straight community, or people who were opposed to our identities, to see films that were sweet and sad in how they talked about their oppression on us, and how we’ve suffered and the gains we’ve made.

“That was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to make a festival about us, for us, and not a Gay 101 where it was ‘Here’s our sad lives because of you, but you know what, we’re really great, clean, upstanding people.’ That just isn’t reality,” he says.

“To this day, it’s a vision I’m attached to. And I’m glad because I think QCC is a unique event.”