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Money Talks, Etc.

Arts map: a good idea that ducks culture’s biggest need

by Gregory Beatty

Maps are used these days for all sorts of purposes. Travel, most obviously, but also urban planning and mineral exploration.
Why not use mapping to strengthen and promote the local cultural scene?
That proposal was put forward Sept. 23 (the day our Fall Arts & Culture issue hit the streets, coincidentally enough) by Glenn Gordon, Regina’s coordinator of arts, culture & film, at a well-attended city hall forum.
A cultural map is an online guide to arts and other activities in a city. It could be focused on venues like galleries, theatres and museums, or it could be expansive, including shopping and restaurants. The examples we looked at—from Winnipeg and Vancouver — looked useful. You could easily find out what was going on, where it was happening, how to get there and what else was in the area.
Regina could use something similar.
Don’t know if Gordon’s proposal raised eyebrows among the general public, but it did in this office.
Here’s why: the city had just assessed its cultural infrastructure via a 2008 Recreation Facility Study.
Now it was embarking on another process to inventory cultural assets?
In our Fall Arts Guide we did a feature on the infrastructure deficit facing cultural organizations in Regina. If you read it, you’ll know that after decades of underfunding they’re struggling to stay viable. Staffing was one of the biggest challenges faced. Cramped space and inadequate technical facilities were also major concerns.
I’ve been writing on the arts for over 20 years and I can say without reservation that, in that time, the arts in Saskatchewan have pretty much been studied to death. Government departments of culture, while underfunded in their own right, at least have enough bureaucratic resources to participate in these time-gobbling and arcane proceedings. Artists and arts organizations do not.
And there’s many times they must feel like modern-day Sisyphuses, condemned to endlessly roll boulders up hills, only to have them roll back down.
But having said that, and established that we’re all total wet blankets here… a cultural map isn’t a bad idea.
When I spoke with Gordon before the forum he said the city was defining culture broadly to include arts, heritage, and ethno-cultural organizations.
If I was involved in a small theatre group, for instance, it would be super handy to scout potential venues online to learn their seating capacity, technical capabilities, rental cost and whatnot.
“It will provide a baseline inventory of what’s out there,” Gordon said. “But we also hope that ultimately it will serve as a destination point for people when they want to find out about cultural activity in Regina.”
The advantages of being online are obvious. Content can be updated regularly, and you can incorporate links so people using the map can obtain more information by visiting websites, watching videos and taking virtual tours. So yes, a cultural map would be a valuable resource.
But the bottom line is that no matter how efficient cultural organizations become, they’re still pathetically underfunded and under-appreciated. Until that changes, the arts will continue to struggle.
And artists will bitch, whine and gripe. And they’ll be justified.
Still, over 100 members of Regina’s cultural community felt strongly enough about the value of mapping their resources that they attended the forum. The featured speaker was Sue Stewart from the Creative City Network, who noted that Australia was quite far advanced in the process. In Canada, cities as diverse as Vancouver, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Mississauga had drafted cultural maps.
Some outcomes were better than others. But all that experience is now available to help guide Regina.
Regina is not without some experience itself. In 2007, Arts Action enlisted University of Regina geography professor Judy Siemer to create a map.
“I think the idea that citizens were willing to start the exercise indicated that there was an interest and a need for a cultural map,” said Arts Action co-founder Kathleen Irwin after the forum.
“When you see maps like they have in Winnipeg [] and Vancouver [], where you can just click and see an event calendar and other information, it only makes sense,” said Christine Ramsay, another Arts Action principal. “It’s like having running water and sewers. It’s so essential for us to be able to participate in our culture.”
Ancillary benefits abound too. When the arts community meets with politicians or is covered by media, maps are a good tool to promote understanding.
They can also be used by urban planners to inform investment decisions in the cultural sector.
Finally, through the Web, the map’s reach isn’t just limited to the city.
“It’s also about how the outside world perceives Regina,” said Siemer. “I’ve shown the [Arts Action] map at several conferences, and everyone said, ‘Oh, I had no idea that there’s so much culture in Regina.’”
[Maybe because there isn’t the funding to market it properly? But I digress.]
That reach is something MacKenzie Gallery director Stuart Reid finds attractive. “I think there’s some great worth in having that resource. I’m really interested in the cultural networks and exchanges that happen across the city.
“I also think about cultural traffic. As an institution, the MacKenzie is certainly engaged with the city. But we’re also engaged with the province, and on a national, and sometimes international scale.”
Down the road, a dynamic and engaging cultural map will pay dividends for Regina in areas like tourism and economic development. One drawback, said Stewart, is “it’s a fairly lengthy process, and it requires a lot of community collaboration, and it can be rather expensive.”
Mississauga spent $250,000 on its map. And money needs to be allocated, too, to keep the map current so it remains a vital resource.
It’s also important to be clear, Stewart said, who owns the map. “Does it belong to city administration, tourism, the arts community?”
While Winnipeg’s map is administered by the Winnipeg Arts Council, Vancouver’s is more tourist-oriented.
“We’re a little bit uncomfortable measuring [culture] based only on economic activity,” said Reid. “There’s all kinds of value that culture brings to a city. But there’s going to be an exchange between the cultural sector and the city during this process so I think we’re going to be able to assert that.”
Phase two, says Gordon, will involve detailed surveys and focus groups with the goal of having the map ready by next fall. As one of Regina’s flagship institutions, the MacKenzie has adequate resources to participate in that process and reap maximum benefits.
Other groups are not similarly blessed, Reid observed.
“There’s lots of less formalized activity in the city, and sectors that need some extra assistance to ensure the map accurately reflects the broad cultural spectrum in Regina,” he says. Aboriginal, ethnic and queer representation, for instance, would have to be assured. And management of the map should ideally be handled, Ramsay said, by an arts council that would differ from the current arts commission by being independent of the city and funded for precisely that type of work.