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.