A book could be written on the history of artists and their relationship and attitudes towards government, the public, popular forms of art, and arts’ legacy. With an extensive and diverse Culture Plan, Thunder Bay is well on the way to making history, establishing itself as a beacon of the North, which could well inspire other communities to follow suit.
Although many artists are thrilled, many others are circumspect on these matters. Even though the plan will directly benefit artists, many are apprehensive, and many are either reluctant to contribute or don’t know how. For some, if they fail at one attempt to win a public competition, they don’t try again. There are many reasons for this.
Historically, in times when democracy didn’t exist to offer the freedom artists generally crave today, artists relied on commissions from authorities and wealthy patrons. Many artists revelled in their time, fully a part of their community and at times sharing the same beliefs as those in authority, so they could be quite successful and be an integral part of the designing and building of towns and cities, such as the City Beautiful movement back in the 1890s, in which Thunder Bay was also positively affected.
At other times, artists created what was essentially propaganda, as in the Soviet Union — and loathed doing so. Many artists protested and were often the first to be imprisoned, as in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe today.
Artists are generally politically leftist, but can be as anti-government as right-wingers, routinely expressing their fears of government influence. And many artists who readily admit to a disinterest in politics can side with conspiracy theorists and retain anti-government attitudes even when, ironically, receiving government grants.
A stereotype of what it means to be an artist today also depicts artists as anti-establishment and fiercely independent. The belief that the best art is that which expresses the artist’s emotions and aesthetic principles pits the artist against the public, popular arts, and any program where “beautification” is the goal, because such a program, they worry, might impede upon the artist’s hard fought freedom to fully express themselves. And many artists are taught and live with the false belief that to work for others and to be motivated by financial gain is to be a sellout.
So today, with the result of history, artistic ideology, stereotypes and suspicion, many artists give little credit or are simply unaware that many politicians and civil servants can work hard to build and promote a cultural support system that benefits everyone, especially artists. And it should be noted, that often, politicians and civil servants could also be artists themselves.
Today in Thunder Bay artists have never had such great opportunities where they can contribute to their community. For example, from the years 1981 to 2007, there were three major public art installations completed for the city. But from 2008 to 2012, 22 public art projects have been completed, not including over 100 individual works of art for the city. Public involvement, mayors, city councillors, the business community and many others have brought about these opportunities.
A few details about the Culture Plan, some of its history and those involved, will appear in future articles.