Downtown Arts and Culture

A bunch of people who, in the final analysis, could probably most accurately be grouped under the category “boring older white people who like trees and old buildings” gathered in the Carriage House at Beaconsfield on Thursday night to discuss arts and culture in downtown Charlottetown.

Instigated by Catherine Hennessey and her followers as part of a regular series of meetings of downtown residents, the putative purpose of the meeting was to develop some sort of “vision” for arts and culture in the downtown into the future.

Charlottetown’s cultural institutions were all well-represented: David Mackenzie from the Confederation Centre of the Arts, Judy Whitaker from the PEI Council of the Arts, Chris Severance from the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation, my consort Catherine Miller from the PEI Crafts Council, Kier Kenny from the Kier Gallery and Harry Holman from Culture, Heritage, Recreation & Sport all made brief presentations about the role of their organizations in downtown Charlottetown.

The evening began with an exercise for the audience: we were each given three cards, and asked to respond to the questions “What is your favourite thing about downtown Charlottetown,” “What is your favourite thing about arts and culture in downtown Charlottetown,” and “What is the heart and soul of downtown Charlottetown.” Later in the evening, after the aforementioned presentations, our responses were read aloud, anonymously.

This is where things got depressing.

If the hall contained the cultural braintrust of downtown Charlottetown, then we are in trouble, for it quickly became apparent from the responses to the questions that what people like about downtown Charlottetown is that it is a quiet, peaceful safe little place with lots of trees and old buildings where you can walk pretty well everywhere. Several people mentioned that they like the Confederation Centre of the Arts. City Cinema came up once. There was a mention of church music.

If the role, or at least one of the roles, of arts and culture is to stir things up, to make us feel and think and learn about ourselves and others, then, at least reflected through the eyes of those gathered last night, we have a culture drought Charlottetown.

We’ve a community well suited to living a pleasant uneventful life, sometimes punctuated by some lively church music, or perhaps taking in Anne at the Centre. But that, we appeared to reflect last night, is about it.

This is not (thank God) entirely true, of course: there are some very interesting people making very interesting art, thinking provoking thoughts living right here downtown. But we hide them out of view, for the most part, and certainly don’t invite them into our institutions and embrace and support them.

My suggestion, at evening’s end, was that if we are to foment a vision for arts and culture in downtown Charlottetown, we should start with the premise that we should take what we reflected on and revealed about the place, and seek to do the opposite.

In other words to take risks, support that which makes us afraid, embrace artists who make us feel uncomfortable (at least some of the time) and generally seek to have a cultural environment that works more to teach us about the rich, textured, fractured, sorrowful, joyful modern world of today than to gently lull us to sleep in our pleasant walkable community.


Ann Thurlow's picture
Ann Thurlow on May 3, 2002 - 16:04 Permalink

Maybe you could start by extending the boundaries of “downtown Charlottetown” a little bit to include some of the rough and tumble types who live (gasp!) north of Euston Street.

Alan's picture
Alan on May 3, 2002 - 16:07 Permalink

PEI has a habit of presenting itself — for the tourists, for funding, for “moral” reasons — rather than being itself. Your post interestingly juxtaposes with the CBC morning show call in on urban bootleggers. Within the same district as discussed in the arts, the venerable illegal taverns of Charlottetown were supported and panned in turn by those calling in and the police really took the stand that they will enforce the law as the community felt appropriate. Likewise with the arts, they will be publicly pursued as the community feels appropriate. So, like illegal taverns, the arts are there and if they don’t cause too much of a fuss, the community won’t shut them down. Is my analogy apt?

Oliver Baker's picture
Oliver Baker on May 3, 2002 - 19:04 Permalink

This reminds me of an essay by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker a while back, which was about why New Yorkers like New York and how the reasons they cite include opportunities they don’t partake of, and about how they still have a point, in his view. I just can’t remember what the point was.

Oliver Baker's picture
Oliver Baker on May 3, 2002 - 19:09 Permalink

Which is not to say that I’m not with you on this, Peter. I’m just saying I’m not sure why and recommending Gopnik on this subject.

Rob's picture
Rob on May 3, 2002 - 20:32 Permalink

Perhaps the bootleggers are the perfect risque cultural fabric we need to embrace.. Uhumm.. hmm…

Alan's picture
Alan on May 3, 2002 - 21:42 Permalink

…or is a bootlegger the not-pub these folks must accept as Anne is the not-art another (perhaps intersecting) cohort must accept…

Craig Willson's picture
Craig Willson on May 4, 2002 - 13:02 Permalink

It is entirely possible that I am misunderstanding (I often do), but as the O

Alan's picture
Alan on May 4, 2002 - 17:43 Permalink

I think I agree with you in large part Craig except for the “sub-cultures” idea…unless we are getting very much sociological rather than ethnographic (and I used “cohort” and thereby muddle). I see it all as one. I use “not-pub” as there is an average working joe desire to attend a basic neighbourhood tavern, as they exist every where else legally. But — with the continuing shadow of 1880’s to 1948 prohibition — even though there is not a legal tavern, it will still exist illegally. People do what they want whether it is officially acknowledged. What does not come into being is a diverse and choice requiring selection of street life establishments. Rather we have a familiar comfort and a pleasure that will come into being. There is also a desire for art as comfortable entertainment into which category I would place the Anne play and Henry Purdy. I not call this art as — for my taste — I really don’t think it is in the same way most movies are not: it is really popular art — again, comforts and confirms rather than raises doubt. As a result, in certain circles, it is not real art. [I would think it unrealistic to expect more challenging art to excel where conditions are not ripe for it (small population with fairly strict social code, a habit of the authorized monopoly and disinterest in self-examination).] Despite not being high brow, Purdy and Anne is what people apparently want. It is true, as you say, that the life of your former Savage Harbour neighbours, as mine here in the Rustico area, is gentle, real and worthy. But is is also simply not certain things: urbane, expansive or broadly receptive to a variety of views and experiences. It is not bad that it is so it mere is so. What I see is the play out of the same theme small “c” conservative ethic. One artist I support is John Neville of Halls Harbour NS who uses his paintings to tell the stories of his village, many uncomfortable. I have looked for that examining kind of local art here and not found it. What I do see is a lot of art that supports the accepted story and which overlooks or overwrites much of the interesting stuff in the culture, which would include odd combination of libertarian dependency; the bootlegger and the moonshine; the historical facts like the Belfast riots and Gorman’s (?) songs; and all the other stuff that goes to make the place…but which I really don’t think people want to deal with. This is what I mean by the presentation of PEI rather than its being. In politics it plays out as well. I was watching the CBC polital panel last night and was struck by the “preacher’s” stance of the PC representative — seemingly the oldest young man in the universe. His use of language and elevation of his favoured political figures was right out of an 1870’s medicine show…yet that is an acceptable form of debate — very different from the level of debate you see on the CBC political panels from St. John’s, Fredericton and Halifax where the nitty gritty is the thing. Such puritan absolutism creates only comfortable characatures in politics and in art…but it may just be the only thing that is wanted — like the bootlegger, not what is acceptable elsewhere… but what actually is here.

Craig Willson's picture
Craig Willson on May 5, 2002 - 17:26 Permalink

I too agree with the comments you have made Alan. However, I am still waiting for someone to define culture or art. Zipping along the north shore yesterday, enjoying the sun and wind in my face I paused to watch a lobster boat pass under the Cove Head Harbour bridge. The good natured wind blown fishermen waving and teasing me as to why I was riding anything other than a Harley only added to my mental portfolio of

Dave Moses's picture
Dave Moses on May 5, 2002 - 17:56 Permalink

This post is bringing up some painful memories for me. When we I returned from theatre school my dream was to have a theatre company with its own theatre. Mackenzie Building was out because the union regulations made it cost prohibitive, there was anything like a “warehouse district” where we could find big empty buildings cheap. We finally got into the old Seaman’s Beverages building (where City Cinema now is) and any money we made there was more or less put into paying the $1200/month rent (plus GST). We started Annekenstein there, and we lasted a couple of years. But it killed us financially. We went for financing/funding for the space itself and was told it was impossible because the monies were earmarked for the PEI Arts Council and the new “cultural centre” they were planning. “But we already have a cultural centre, we just need some help with the rent.” Forget that old place this new place will be great and for everybody! All we wanted was a big black box that we could use in whatever way we wanted. Big, empty and cheap. When the Arts Guild Building finally arrived it was a long white building that wouldn’t let wood-carving classes on the main floor because of the wood chips that would get into the carpet. We kept searching for a home. We made a theatre in the old Condon Woolen Mills on Fitzroy Street, but were forced out by a youth centre that gave all youth centres a bad name. The neighbours were supports of the theatre but the complaints about the centre fell on deaf ears. We moved to the Carriage House and spent a year there. But we were kicked out by the neighour for reason of “misuse of the space” or something like it. Her support of the neighbours is something for which i still haven’t quite forgiven our friend Catherine Hennessey. What started as a theatre company that was devoted to developing orignal work became finally Annekenstein, Inc. It was the only show that paid the bills we wound up playing the Prince Edward (now the Delta) and Myron’s of all places. The last couple years of Annekenstein the sketches were, in my opinion, of a cruel and bitter kind of comedy that was filled with hate our audiences and ourselves (‘though i still like to think we were funny). The thing we need now is the same thing we needed then: a Big Black Box. An empty space. A place we could do whatever the hell we needed for whatever event/show/performance we were doing. Big, cheap and empty to be filled with our bodies, our voices, our thoughts.

Alan's picture
Alan on May 5, 2002 - 22:14 Permalink

I totally agree, Dave…and Craig…and Peter. So — once again — where does the absent visual art / performance art / real history / thai grocery thing that needs doing get done and how? Unlike most efforts, it would have to be without public financial dependency, not subject to a committee and not a member of an umbrella group…and not have “tourists are money” as a first principle.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on May 6, 2002 - 00:16 Permalink

Dave’s experience supports the idea that small populations are at a disadvantage when it comes to what kind and what breadth of cultural options their community can support. Obviously, not every town can support a professional sports team—depsite the fact that a very large fraction of the towns people would be regular ticket buyers. Likewise, not every town (or is it no town?) has enough performance art fans to make a company of full-time performance artists financially viable—even though performance art is cheaper to produce than professional football. Maybe this is a point that needs no illustration, but suppose 1% of all human beings will pay to hear live accordion music once per week: That sells ten tickets per night in a town of 7000—which is obviously not the basis of a sound business plan. In a metropolis of 3.5 million the same 1% fills 5000 seats every night. So there you find the accordion hall and the salsa hall and other things that survive either by attracting a narrow clientele all the time or a wide clientele once in a while. I imagine small town ventures need to appeal to a broader audience, which in turn suggests that they need to offer a kind of entertainment that lots of people are sure to like—either because it’s regional or because it’s something liked by lots of people everywhere, such as slapstick…or pornography. I suppose that’s why we need government subsidy of the arts.

Alan's picture
Alan on May 6, 2002 - 02:02 Permalink

…or, you can do obtain it by removing the commercial aspect to the enterprise rather than looking (again) for the auslanders to subside. All of what has been bitched and complained of has been provided by a co-op system. CodCo started at a St.John’s union hall…except as PEI missed the industrial revolution there are no industrial unions and therefore no union halls. So what is needed is a thai food / topical local arts co-operative.

Alan's picture
Alan on May 6, 2002 - 02:03 Permalink

Actually, I meant subsidizing auslanders

Lana's picture
Lana on May 6, 2002 - 02:26 Permalink

If it’s any consolation, Dave, I still have that black and white Annekenstein postcard.

Ann's picture
Ann on May 6, 2002 - 12:23 Permalink

Reading this discussion and then reading the posts about Toby McQuire is a very enlightening experience.
And I should also tell you that 600 people turned out for the Emyvale variety concert this weekend…certainly, by some measures, culture is alive and well.

Christopher Ogg's picture
Christopher Ogg on May 6, 2002 - 14:22 Permalink

I, like Craig and Alan, was very struck by the PC spokesman on the Compass political segment last Friday. My mind turned to Sunshine Sketches — he was certainly a caricature of something (I like Alan’s allusion to a side show preacher), but without the self-awareness to see the caricature. He really needed a frock coat with a lapel to grasp. Somehow my mind drifted inexorably to the Founders’ Hall — not only did he belong in it as surely as the cheesy Strolling Fathers (all so young and self-conscious in their caricatures of their great great grandparents), he was of a piece with it — embarassing amateurism blissfully believing it represents world class professionalism.

It’s warm again so I can sit in the sidewalk caf

Judy Bayliss's picture
Judy Bayliss on May 6, 2002 - 17:26 Permalink

Back again to the ‘discussion’ at Beaconsfield.
It was never made clear what the intention of the meeting was. I had thought that we gathered together to develop a ‘vision’.
Could it be that the wrong questions were asked? And why was it that no-one picked up on your comments about ‘taking risks’?
Perhaps it would be more productive to get a few individuals together, for them to develop a discussion ‘paper’ — that way there would be something to discuss. Kier and I were talking about this at the end of the meeting, both frustrated at the lack of outcome.
I refuse to think it a hopeless task.

Andrew's picture
Andrew on May 7, 2002 - 03:12 Permalink

I would like to see a clock tower downtown.

Rob MacD's picture
Rob MacD on May 7, 2002 - 16:07 Permalink

It’s just occurred to me that OffStage Theatre was, in a very small way, the equivalent to a theatrical bootleggers. Funded only by the patrons who enjoyed its theatre-on-tap.

For a couple of years, we were the Gordies to the Confed. Centre’s Myrons.

Sadly, the current Arts Guild can be likewise equated to the local Legion.

Olivia Rukavina's picture
Olivia Rukavina on May 3, 2022 - 15:18 Permalink

20 years!