Public Discourse and the Arts in Saskatchewan

Recently I had a short but heated exchange on Twitter about the Mendel's plans to change its name to the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. I said: The Mendel will always be the Mendel. I find the title 'Art Gallery of SK' insulting to all the other museums in the province. I also discussed it briefly with another artsy type on Twitter who mentioned that at the recent Arts Congress there was some heated conversation about it to which I replied:That would have been an interesting discussion! I don't think the Mendel has thought through the PR implications.

No doubt my tweets weren't terribly enlightened but it's hard to get deep into the heart of a political argument in 140 characters, especially for someone like me who always errs on the side of using way too many words to express a point. I have strong feelings about the name change, which are rooted deeply in my history of working in the arts in Saskatchewan - close to five years at the Saskatchewan Arts Board first in grants administration and then in communications, nearly three years leading the PR effort at the MacKenzie Art Gallery and two years of volunteering on the board of the Arts Alliance (note that I am not speaking for these institutions in this post - the opinions expressed are completely my own). This does not even begin to run through the arts organizations I worked for on a part time or casual basis while in university. Despite moving to the United Kingdom a few years ago, I have continued to foster a deep appreciation of the arts community in Saskatchewan and am all too familiar with the important advocacy work that goes on behind the scenes to secure even the modicum of funding stability needed to keep things running. So imagine my surprise when someone I've never heard of or met tweeted this at me a day later:
@amythibodeau: Is the University of Saskatchewan insulting to all other provincial schools?

followed one minute later by: People who don't understand art galleries should not have an opinion about the Art Gallery of SK.
Yikes! Really?

My reasons for not supporting the Mendel's name change are fairly complex and have to do with them making the decision without consultation or even fair warning to the other museums in the province. When I worked at the MacKenzie, it felt like people were often trying to pit us against the Mendel - it was the Saskatchewan arts scene version of the 'feud' between Lady Gaga and Katy Perry - it was a fiction but one that people seemed to want to believe in. Whenever something controversial would happen at the Mendel, I would inevitably get calls from journalists wanting to know our position, which was always: we love the Mendel, we support the arts in Saskatchewan as a whole and we work together (and with other Saskatchewan museums) to do everything we can to ensure that the arts are widely supported. I often spoke to the marketing person at the Mendel and on a few occasions we even worked together to issue joint press releases. With very few exceptions, this collegiality was my experience while working in the incredibly vibrant arts community in Saskatchewan. We always tried to work together because we realized that fighting over funding scraps like rabid dogs only fueled the mojo behind the people who think that the arts should not be publicly funded.

So this is essentially why the name change bothers me. It was done without consultation (or with very little) and with little strategic consideration for how it would impact the wider provincial community. The name implies that there is only one premier art museum in Saskatchewan and it is located in Saskatoon and that disregards the nuanced history of the visual arts community throughout the province and the different roles institutions of varying sizes have played and continue to play in its development. The fact that the University of Saskatchewan has its name is, to my mind, pretty irrelevant to this discussion. The change sends a message to decision-makers that there is a clear funding hierarchy; by name the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan sounds like it has provincial status and value above and beyond what the other institutions in the province have and that simply isn't true - and if it is, it shouldn't be. The museum community is in a difficult situation here because to publicly speak out against the name change is to display instability and fissures to the provincial government in an environment where the arts are already the first thing on the chopping block.

I have yet to read anything from the Mendel that justifies the name change. It seems like more than anything it was a political move made to bolster the public's perception of the institution in the face of a massive capital campaign to build a new facility.

I could go on, but I suspect most of you are bored already. I think the Mendel is a great institution and that it should be supported but I think they've made a grave mistake not only in their new name choice but in the insensitive way they've gone about doing it.

Back to the Twitter comment: People who don't understand art galleries should not have an opinion about the Art Gallery of SK, which has played over in my head more than a few times over the past few days - and I should note, was directed at me by a Saskatoon-based artist. Whether you agree with my opinion about the Mendel or not, this kind of reactive nastiness does nothing to further the important dialogue that needs to continue about the state of the arts in Saskatchewan. Whether or not I fully understand or have the proper credentials should be irrelevant to my right to an opinion expressed respectfully and in the interest of conversation - in fact, shouldn't we be trying to expand the debate so that people outside of our circle feel welcomed to become engaged and passionate supporters of the arts? It is this kind of elitist reaction that gives those who don't think the arts should be publicly funded the tools they need to divide and conquer. Social media can be a great facilitator of dialogue; if supporters of the Mendel name change see a comment, even if they disagree with it, wouldn't it make sense to engage that person, bring them into the fold a little, make them feel like their voice matters, their concerns heard? If arts supporters cannot even be respectful with one another when discussing issues publicly then how can we ever hope to mount a strong advocacy campaign should those cuts come? And don't kid yourself, they are coming.

We are never going to agree on everything, but fostering a wider public discourse and activism around the arts is key to expanding support for the arts community. And it should be fostered at every opportunity in Saskatchewan and elsewhere if we ever hope to gain a foothold on stable funding.

Image Credit: Mendel - This One's For Hope by er1danus

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Fifteen Albums Meme

I have a bit of a cold and apart from reading and laying under a blanket I have some spare time today, which is my excuse for spending the better part of the last hour responding to a meme I was tagged in on Facebook. It's a pretty good one as far as memes go and has got me thinking about the various stages of musical infatuation I've gone through and what those phases represent to me.

The rules of the meme were to come up with a list of fifteen complete albums that were significant and unforgettable in some way. Not all the albums need to be 'good' or be representative to great taste, but they are the ones that stand out from the others, the ones I'll remember. My list isn't mind blowing, but I thought I would share it here, along with some accompanying Youtube videos of the songs I remember the most.

Childhood (four to seven years old)

1. The Mini Pops - Mini Pop Kids (1981)
This is one of the first albums I can remember my mom buying for me. I loved every song and it's only recently that I've been struck by how skanky those kids were dressed up and how inappropriate some of the songs were for five year olds to sing - like Tainted Love. I wanted to be a Mini Pop and for awhile whenever I would get a new album, I would speed it up to sound like the Mini Pops. Frankie was my favourite song but I couldn't find it on Youtube so I've settled for a close second, Stupid Cupid.

2. Juice Newton - Juice (1981)
For about five years Queen of Hearts was my favourite song. As I got a bit older (like seven or eight) I grew to also appreciate some of the other tracks on the album including Angel of the Morning and The Sweetest Thing. I still think of that album as classic and after ten or eleven drinks, I've been known to belt out a Newton hit or two at karaoke.

3. Michael Jackson - Thriller (1982)
This album is responsible for my realization that Santa Claus doesn't exist. For Christmas one year (I think I was five or thereabouts) my mother bought me Thriller on vinyl and Santa bought me a small child's record player. I remember asking my mother how she could have known that Santa would bring me a record player unless she was Santa. The jig was up.

I love how this video begins with a disclaimer from Jackson - then a devout Jehova's Witness - that it doesn't endorse his belief in the occult.

4. Cindy Lauper - She's So Unusual (1983)
Again, I received this around the same time I got the Mini Pops and even today I love it. Classics like Time After Time, Girls Wanna Have Fun, Money Changes Everything and She Bop. Best of all though was Cindi Lauper's whole look. Even at five or six years old I wanted to dye my hair orange and yellow and wear multi-colored crinolines.

Honourable Mentions: Live at PJs by Trinny Lopez.

Childhood (7 to 13 years old)

5. Harry Belafonte - Calypso (1956, I discovered it mid-80s)
I spent summers at our cabin at Regina Beach as a child and on the drives out, my grandmother would often play this album. I rediscovered it in the early 90s when bits of it were used in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and even today it's one of the albums stored in its entirety on my iPod.

6. Johnny Rivers - The Best of Johnny Rivers (1975, I discovered it mid-80s)
Secret Agent Man, Midnight Special and Seventh Son. Oh yes.

7. Patsy Cline - The Patsy Cline Story (1963, I discovered it late-80s)
I fell in love with Patsy Cline after seeing her bio-pic. Juice Newton, Dolly Parton and Johnny Rivers aside, I've never considered myself a big country music fan. Apart from the classics like Johnny Cash, listening to country was almost forbidden in my house so my grandmother was none too pleased when my mother bought me the Patsy Cline tape. It is a great album though - Crazy, Walking After Midnight, Blue Moon of Kentuky - and it's still one I listen to occasionally on my iPod.

8. Guns and Roses - Use Your Illusion I and II (1990)
Technically two albums and probably not the GNR one would expect on a best of list - Appetite for Destruction is the more obvious choice. When I was in grade eight I received Use Your Illusion I or II as a gift from someone who had obviously never listened to it and though it didn't really fit in with the poppy stuff enjoyed at the time, I became almost obsessed with it. This was around the same time I thought I wanted to get my belly button pierced. I bought the second volume as soon as I could and listened to both - a lot.

Honourable Mentions: Tiffany by Tiffany, Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen, The Dirty Dancing Soundtrack, Greatest Hits by the Bangles, Hormonally Yours by Shakespeare's Sister. 

Adolescence (14 to 19 years old)

9. Sarah McLachlan - Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1994)
Sarah McLachlan became one of my favourites throughout high school. After discovering Fumbling, I bought all of her older music and loved most of that too. I still think this is a good album though I can't say the same for the stuff she's released in the last ten years.

10. Hole - Live Through This (1994)
I loved Nirvana's Nevermind but if I had to choose between it and Live Through This, I would have to pick Hole. I am not a Courtney Love fan and have never been someone who aspired to look and act like a junky but something about the angst of this album resonated with my teenage self and it fed some deep dark part that I mostly kept hidden. I loved Olympia (Rockstar) the most.

11. Tori Amos - Little Earthquakes (1992) and Under the Pink (1994)
Yes, technically that is two albums - but I can't pick one and I can't seperate them. I still love these beautiful, sad songs. Last year I saw Tori play live in London and although she was good, it was disappointing to me because what I wanted more than anything was just her under a spotlight playing her piano. Her new stuff has a lot going on and I think she's at her best when she pares things down. My favourite song by Tori is Precious Thing and my favourite line: "Where the pretty girls are/those demi-gods/with their nine inch nails and little facist panties tucked inside the heart of every nice girl" and when Tori sang the line live, I almost cried.

Honourable Mentions: Nevermind by Nirvana,  The Very Best of Otis Redding by Otis Redding, Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morrissette, Tragic Kingdom by No Doubt.

Early Twenties

12. Ani DiFranco - Not A Pretty Girl (1995)
My early twenties were devoted to cultivating a devotion to the music of Ani DiFranco. She made me feel tough and independent when I felt overwhelmed and a bit lost.

13. Fiona Apple - Tidal  (1996)
I've been a bad, bad girl. This was very much how I felt my first few years out of highschool.

14. The Pixies - Death to the Pixies (Limited Edition Bonus Disc, 1997)
This is such a good album.

Honourable Mentions: The Reality Bites Soundtrack, X/O by Elliott Smith, You Were Here by Sarah Harmer, Everybody Else is Doing It by the Cranberries.

Post-Early Twenties

15. Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)
This album was a gateway album to so much amazing music for me. I credit them with my love for Stars, Broken Social Scene, Neko Case and so many others. Their new album - The Suburbs - also wonderful. One of my favourite songs is Anthem for a Seventeen Year Old Girl and I don't think I would have ever found it without first finding Arcade Fire.

Honourable Mentions: Heart by Stars, You Forgot it in People by Broken Social Scene,  Fever to Tell by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Best of Etta James by Etta James, Arular by MIA, Middle Cyclone by Neko Case, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.

Want to play? What music defined the different phases of your life? Leave a comment.

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Why Didn't We Cover this in Girl's Choir?

This may be the best thing I've ever seen. Wonder what Gail Fry and Doctor Cherland would think?

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And now on a lighter note...

Pretty good marketing gimmick.

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We've been looking after Carrie and Micheal's little Chihuahua named Paco while they are on their honeymoon. He's a doll and we're having so much fun with him. He's about two pounds and completely full of beans. 

And yes, that is a little foil hat I made him out of my Kit Kat wrapper. He doesn't like it much.

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Writing Again

When I was a child I spent a lot of time with adults or alone. My grandparents had (and still have) a little cabin at Buena Vista Beach and although the area is fairly developed now, when I was a child it wasn't much more than a collection of beat up cottages, gravel roads and one small corner store where my cousin and I would buy sour candies and chocolate bars. In Canada, school was out in the last week of June, and didn't start up again until after the September first long weekend; me and my grandmother would spend most of that time at the cabin where there were none of the modern conveniences or distractions of the city.

There weren't a lot of kids in the area, or maybe I've never been great at making friends - either way, except for playing with my cousin Justin who would sometimes come out with us, I can remember spending a lot of quiet time reading, drawing, writing and listening to music on my Walkman. We went for long walks in the hills on the edge of town down along an old trail that used to be a train track and  spent time sitting on the beach - me floating in the green lake water trying not to put my feet down into the weedy bottom and my grandmother reading on a towel.

I used to write a lot when I was younger. I can remember working on a 'novel' when I was in grade six; every night after dinner instead of watching television I would settle down at the kitchen table to write for hours. When I was thirteen, I saved up my allowance for months to buy a typewriter and when I finally got it, I set up a little desk in my bedroom and wrote and wrote and wrote. I actually looked forward to it.

Although I never really stopped writing, I stopped finding time for the kind of creative writing I was so in love with as a child. I'm not really sure how that happened or how I allowed my feelings to shift to the sense that writing was a chore rather than a pleasure. Slowly, I am trying to find my way back to the feeling of play and pure enjoyment that I used to feel at the prospect of an afternoon in front of my old typewriter (now it's my old Mac). Yesterday I wrote my first complete short story in quite awhile; I had no particular market in mind and no plans to try to publish it, I just wanted to get it down. I have no idea whether it's technically good or bad, but I love that it's there. An excerpt from my work in progress (but fully formed!) first draft:
Through the dark green of the bushes back beyond the beach, January could see flashes of  plum and the rolling water became the sound of fabric passing over stones and twigs, a procession of women – Lucy’s best friends – leading her down the path towards the sea.
I had cake and tea with the beautiful Ms. Dean the other night and as we talked about books and reading I was struck by what a gift this year of travel is, not only because I get to see the world, but because it affords me the time to read and write that I haven't really had since those childhood summers at the beach. Apart from exploring (fodder for writing), and some freelance work we've taken on, I have endless patches of time to read, study photography and write and I really want to use it well.

If anyone wants to start a virtual writing group, let me know; it would be great to build a little community around this rekindled romance.

Image from my Pinterest Lovely Stuff Board, Photographer Unknown

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If I Could Have It Back

"If I could have back all the time I'd wasted, I waste it again and again and again."

Beautiful .

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What I Learned from Six Weeks in Mexico

 Anyone who knows me personally or reads this blog with any regularity knows that my fiancee and I are currently traveling around the world. Instead of traveling from place, to place, to place too quickly to really taste what life there is really like, we are generally spending multiple weeks and sometimes even months in one location. So far we've spent six weeks in Arizona, six weeks in Mexico and are currently on week two of a month in Vancouver.

In Arizona we lived like royalty in a beautiful desert edged house on the northern rim of a big city. The house was beautiful, spacious and comfortable and our hosts were gracious and generous. We wanted for nothing except perhaps rain and a cool breeze, both impossible requests in the desert in the late spring.

We chose Mexico as our next long-term stop because we both wanted to break up our time in the United States and Canada with a location that felt culturally different; we didn't choose to travel in order to barricade ourselves in familiar places where everyone looks and talks like us, taking comfort in the sameness (though I came to long for some of that sameness during our time in Mexico). We knew that we needed to be in Vancouver for the end of July to attend a wedding and there were also the budget and round-the-world ticket restrictions to contend with; according to the terms of our ticket, we needed to leave the US via the same city we entered, which was Los Angeles.

Unlike many of my friends and family who have spent a lot of time in Mexican resorts as a way of escaping the long, cold northern winter - it was a country largely unfamiliar to me. I knew that I liked Mexican food - or at least the bastardized version of it made familiar to me through the Old El Paso brand of tacos and salsa sold in supermarkets - oh, and the amazing food in London's Mestizo restaurant near Euston. And I speak some very basic, halting Spanish, which I'd learned mostly from Sesame Street and because there are some words that sound similar to their French equivalent and I did French Immersion from Kindergarten until grade eight.

This was my basis for spending six weeks in Mexico: food and the ability to count to ten in Spanish.

In my 20s I read a bunch of novels by Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (technically set in South America) and the colorful towns and people they described informed what I imagined a small Mexican village might be like.

One cold, rainy London day in April I came across some information about San Blas, a small fishing village of about 8,000 people on the Pacific coast of Mexico about a two hour drive North of Puerto Vallarta. It ticked all my boxes: it wasn't particularly touristy, it was on the water, it was cheap, it was supposed to be 'real' Mexico and it had a mythology attached to it in the form of a Henry Longfellow poem called The Bells of San Blas . The place I booked for us didn't have air conditioning, which I imagined would be fine as I shivered in the London damp; a little bit of heat wouldn't hurt us. I also steadfastly ignored all the warnings about the bugs because being from Saskatchewan, I thought I understood how bad mosquitoes can be (I was wrong).

It's taken me a few weeks to fully process my experience in Mexico - and longer still for all the bug bites to heal. I still think about the things I loved, like:
  • the little kitten who adopted us.
  • the salty warmth of the sea water and the way you could walk out forever and it would never get too deep.
  • the avocados.
  • the immense thunder and lightening storms that shook our little bungalow.
  • the quirkiness of places like Billy Bobs Bar and all the leather faced old gringos who had retired there to spend the rest of their days smoking pot; their stories about how a crocodile named Fluffy came to live behind the bar (it's true - we saw him) and the guy who couldn't pay his tab one night so Billy Bob, the owner, took the shirt off his back and hung it from the ceiling (it's still there).
  • Juan Banana Plantain Bread.
  • how affordable everything was, so much so that we got to the point where if we were spending more than the equivalent of $10 for dinner and drinks we felt like it was too expensive.
  • the struggle to communicate, which was both awkward and funny; and the sense of satisfaction when we found that against all odds an understanding was reached.
  • feeling a connection and sense of familiarity to a place; by the end of our time in San Blas we knew every important street, every bar and restaurant and the best market stalls to find the ripest avocados, freshest pineapple or greenest cilantro. Vancouver is lovely but it's vast and unknowable in the way that any city of a certain size is. San Blas was an open book.
  • The badly subtitled Mexican television.
There were plenty of moments of surprise and pleasure in Mexico mostly stemming from the confirmation that life is so unknowable and so big. I knew things would be different there but the extent of the difference still caught me off guard and made me feel the largeness of the world in a tangible way that I've never really felt before.

I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, as much for what it taught me about myself as about Mexico:
  • As much as I dislike it, my capacity for physical discomfort is greater than I would have imagined. Our weeks in San Blas were spent in an uncomfortable, hot little bungalow that we shared with giant spiders, millipedes and a family of chirping lizards; it was about a hundred degrees and the humidity sat steadfastly between the 75 and 100% range. A short walk to the corner store and back and I would be drenched with sweat. The mosquitoes and sand flies were vicious and not deterred much by even the most potent Deet filled bug spray. One morning I woke up with about ten huge welts on my back from something biting me overnight. I desperately wanted to sleep outside of the covers because it was so hot, but was too afraid of what would chew on me if I did, so I slept fitfully in the rough sheeted, hard, sandy bed. And even though I felt filthy, and itchy and sweaty, I managed to adjust - not to the point where I felt good but to where I could mostly ignore my body and find enjoyment in my life there.
  • At least in the smaller villages, Mexico moves at its own pace and you can either adjust to it or spend a lot of time feeling frustrated. I like time lines and deadlines and I like to feel like there is a system in place to ensure that things run smoothly. I struggled against this in Mexico until I came to a place where I could almost give up and just accept that somethings are out of my hands. When I'd feel annoyance bubbling up, a voice in my head would say, "Lady, Mexico doesn't care what you like."
  • My life is one of privilege and although I acknowledged that on an intellectual level prior to spending time in Mexico, I don't think I really understood it. In addition to the physical discomfort, Mexico was inconvenient; I couldn't buy what I wanted, when I wanted it and had to learn to cook using only local produce and make due with what was available. This wasn't an enormous hardship, but it was a new experience for me, accustomed as I was to life in zone two of London - a five minute walk to a Waitrose. I don't think I'll ever take convenience for granted the way I did before. 
  • I could never live in a country without an adequate animal welfare system. The starving stray animals on the street broke my heart every time we went out. I still think about our kitten and hope someone is taking care of her. 
  • It's important to take care of your community and dispose of rubbish properly. Filth accumulates quickly and makes even the most beautiful place feel depressing and unloved. Since being in Vancouver, I am noticing how clean it is and am so thankful for that and for a culture - imperfect as it is - that mostly cleans up after itself.
  • I love cooking and am pretty good at it; I can take a random concoction of ingredients from a little Mexican market and make something pretty wonderful.
  • There are compelling stories everywhere if you take the time to listen. There are so many things I want to write about that are a gift from my time in Mexico.
By the end of week six, we were both desperate to move on but, as cliche as it sounds, I won't ever forget the experience. I think I learned to see my own life a little bit differently, with a new level of appreciation for how lucky I am and how it really is nothing more than luck.

I'll continue to carry this new awareness in my pocket like a smooth, cool worry stone. I don't think I really knew it was there before I spent six weeks in Mexico.

All photos taken in San Blas by me.

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She's a looker.

More on the beautiful city, lovely people, amazing food, crazy fireworks and perfect wedding shortly. 

Photo by me.

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