On Friday, October 14, 2011, many were surprised to have the Federal Government’s Department of Canadian Heritage recognize Calgary as one of two “Cultural Capital” designations in 2012. Calgary shares its title with the Niagara Region in Ontario.
Michael Green, curator and creative director of Calgary 2012, a non-profit organization to showcase Calgary culture and help to create legacy projects, mentioned: “I actually had never heard of the ‘Cultural Capital of Canada’ until I heard that we were putting in a bid.” Green continues: “I don’t think there is a ‘Cultural Capital’, I mean there are some undeniable cultural capitals, you’d have to say Montreal is the cultural capital without question.” Meno Lopes, a long-standing supporter and active player in Calgary’s arts and culture, confirms: “It’s really not true. Places like Toronto and Vancouver or Montreal are huge cultural places.” Vi An Diep, a self-employed entrepreneur who has maintained her position in Calgary for over 15 years as a self-taught music artist complements: “I was shocked because when people think Calgary, they don’t necessarily think arts and culture.”
Vi An Diep is a true local artist, known to perform at Calgary’s distinguished Jack Singer Concert Hall to street performing and everything in between. She developed her music career almost exclusively within Calgary. In 2006 she received a Betty Mitchell award for Outstanding Composition. Vi An knows arts and culture in Calgary: “I carry a great responsibility on my shoulders when I go out there as an artist,” she says. As a public educator of her Vietnamese and Chinese heritages, Vi An is known for being a virtuoso in improvised original music on the many traditional Asian zithers that she plays. “We have a lot of jaded artists, because, truth be told, you have to pull teeth and drag people kicking and screaming to come out to live music [in Calgary],” she says. For Vi An, the Calgary 2012 initiative may be a good incentive for artists in the city, as she wishes: “…It hopefully encourages arts and culture communities to make extremely good use of the grant money, not just for one-time affairs, but for more meaningful and sustainable developments in the arts and culture.”
Calgary 2012 celebrates the centennial anniversary of the institutions which are at the heart of Calgary’s culture. Michael Green vouches for the importance of cultural growth outside of our Western norms. He strongly states: “I think the time is now for us to find more ways to include more diversity at the center of what we do.” From Meno’s perspective, he states: “It’s important for World Music to bring people together in carrying universal messages…Music goes through any barrier…We need to keep our music strong and diverse…We need this more now than ever.”
Calgary is very divided by the unspoken rules of an old oligarchy recently re-formed in a new place. Michael Green, who in his normal life is curator of High-Performance Rodeo, Calgary’s International Festival of the Arts, remarks: “I would say that diversity is still developing. It is still evolving. Not very long ago, the average Calgarian wasn’t as diverse as the average Calgarian is today.” Robin Wortman, co-executive producer of Dream Makers, an internationally award-winning documentary paying tribute to Aboriginal contributions to film and television, asserts: “There is a predominance of non-visible minorities who dominate the culture of Calgary in the mainstream.” Robin remembers: “I was at a Cultural Forum in the reception of Jack Singer Hall by invitation to promote Calgary culture in 2010…it didn’t represent the true diversity of the city…Where were the Sikhs? Where were the Aboriginal people?”
When it comes to the specific arts community that Vi An represents in Calgary, she is a self-proclaimed "lone ranger when it comes to this whole World Music community.” When it comes to recognizing the contribution to World Music in Calgary as the “Cultural Capital” of Canada, she remarks: “This is an area where Calgary can step up.” As a part of the Calgary 2012 cultural mandate, Michael Green advances: “Everybody will be able to participate in however they want to express themselves and be a part of Calgary’s culture.”
Meno Lopes conveyed his promotion for a diverse cultural scene in Calgary with a fresh eagerness. “It is important to keep mixing to create new musical styles,” he reminds us. Meno has a unique vision for the future of World Music in Calgary. He begins: “…my intention is to make it into a major-sized community…” Meno says with confidence: “As a realtor, the #1 complaint is that there’s not enough culture in Calgary,” Meno continues, “One of the biggest problems is people don’t know.” When I asked Robin Wortman, executive producer of the Aboriginal Juno Showcase during the Juno Awards in Calgary, if he knew about World Music in Calgary, he responded: “No idea.”
What is most surprising about the unexpected “Cultural Capital” recognition is its timeliness. With great enthusiasm, Calgarians are truly inspired to experience culture anew in 2012. Michael Green enthusiastically affirms: “…There’s a real groundswell in Calgary, a groundswell of optimism. It’s almost an old-fashioned Calgary, ‘we can do it’ feeling.”
Vi An Diep and Meno Lopes are taking matters into their own hands, and for the first time, fulfilling a leadership role as funding organizers for local arts initiatives. In order to bolster the activity of hard-working individuals in grassroots arts communities, Vi An draws from her experience working with numerous organizations. “It’s all about funding, funding, funding…” she says, “We should all band together and form a community; bookkeepers, grant-writers, promoters.” In the eyes of Vi An, grassroots arts community, “…always stays very strong regardless of the amount of funding available.” Meno shares this opinion with Vi An. “There are lots of other resources out there already” he states with humor.
Meno announces: “A few friends and I are looking into creating Calgary’s first World Music Festival.” Based on his experience working with Afrikadey, a successful arts and culture festival celebrating Calgary’s many African heritages, Meno fervently recounts: “Most money goes into paying artists, not enough into marketing. If you don’t market, people don’t show up.”
Vi An warns with her closing statement: “With government funding, you do what you like, only you are limited in creativity.” Culture can also, quite effectively, alienate individuality and stifle personal creative process. Meno Lopes answers: “Cultures can be negative, they can divide. My vision is to unite cultures using music as a tool.”
Robin’s intelligent insight that “artists and intellectuals... are the greatest threat to dictatorship because the creation of art requires freedom of thought and expression” should be well understood in this precocious period of Canadian history. Robin went on to further make his point with an anecdote: “Winston Churchill told his finance minister (Chancellor of the Ex-Chequer) who recommended cutting all funding for the arts in order to pay for WWII and Churchill responded: “Then what are we fighting for?” he recounts. “I think it is appropriate for a young country that we are prepared to ask the important questions instead of just swallowing an idea that someone else has given us about who we ought to be… We are not as willing to just stand on a chair and make a pronouncement about what a real Canadian is…”, affirms Michael Green.
Are sources of funding for arts and culture truly tolerant of ambiguity? Where are the passionate voices from our lifelong artists, dedicated to contributing to vibrant cultural sustainability? A historical quote by the enigmatic Howard Thurman reads: "The measure of a man's estimate of your strength is the kind of weapons he feels that he must use in order to hold you fast in a prescribed place." Our Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 45 million dollar budget cut from the arts is in line with the notion that “arts and culture” means “too expensive.” In 2012, millions of dollars for funding arts and culture go to the City of Calgary. Four years after many thousands (in five days there was a 40,000 person resistance online) of Canadians protested in the streets from Montreal to Vancouver without any foreseeable change: is $2 million for the largest city in the richest province really a cause for national celebration?
In a speech entitled Can culture and art play a part in the development of lasting freedom or not? at the first Freemuse (an organization dedicated to voicing issues about freedom of expression and censorship in music) World Conference in 1998, Mr. Miguel Ángel Estrella said: “To re-gilt ‘the look’ of a political figure, prestige campaigns are launched and fortunes are spent. But when you talk to those same politicians about any long-term social program, they grow reluctant.” Again, the cautionary words of Vi An echo “…not just for one-time affairs…”