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Art explodes in the territory —makes a colourful mess

From original CD releases, to film, to new art venues, educational programs and pop-culture events, the Yukon arts community is white hot.

From original CD releases, to film, to new art venues, educational programs and pop-culture events, the Yukon arts community is white hot.

And it shows no signs of cooling anytime soon.

A unique mix of forces — government and local business support, inspired artists and old-fashioned hard work — has spurred Whitehorse’s renaissance.

And the same creative storm is hitting other communities.

Take Dawson City. There, determination and government financial support has helped art enthusiasts offer the first year of a four-year visual arts degree from the town’s revamped liquor store building by 2007.

And the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre, with National Film Board backing, is running the first in a series of educational animation workshops this week.

They’re meant to teach youth animation filmmaking skills so they can tell their own stories.

“The number of artists in the territory has doubled in the past 10 years,” said Laurel Parry, arts manager of Yukon Culture.

Ten years ago the number of CDs coming out of the territory could be counted on one hand, now they would fill a case, and they’re playing in stereos all over the world, said Parry.

And, adding to the long-established organizations, new arts groups form and present fresh works in the territory continuously — for example, last year’s debut of the Spotlight Shadows Collective.

Last weekend, some of the people and organizations fueling the territory’s cultural machine met at the Westmark Whitehorse for the first-ever Arts and Culture Summit.

At the two-day summit, presented by the non-profit ArtsNet Society, administrators, art makers and art marketers talked shop, took direction on leadership and strategic planning and, most importantly, networked.

There’s a critical mass of people making art and giving to the arts community, now it is time to make connections between them, said Scott Wilson, Jazz Yukon president and conference organizer.

Wilson was a musician in his youth, but had stopped playing until he moved to the Yukon and was embraced by its cultural community.

“It wasn’t until I came to Whitehorse that I got back at it,” said Wilson. “I said, ‘Oh my God, there’s a big band here, there’s this, there’s that — I can’t believe what’s going on here.”

Wilson, with Debbie Peters, who manages artists as owner of Magnum Opus Management, and Whitehorse Concerts’ program co-ordinator Michele Emslie, organized the summit.

The three had been going out to conferences, like Pacific Contact in Vancouver, a West Coast performing arts tradeshow and booking conference.

“We thought, ‘Why don’t we do something like this in the Yukon because it’s very expensive for groups to each send people out for professional development,” said Wilson.

“And it’s been a long time since members of the arts community have gotten together in one room,” said Emslie.

“There’s nothing that can replace a face-to-face contact, and lots of people in the room now have a face to a name and a face to a place, and that strengthens the working relationship,” said Wilson.

And that creates exponential opportunities for artistic partnerships and presenting possibilities.

The summit is one bead in a string of events and circumstances that further fuels the territory’s arts-and-culture boom.

First, there’s a high-level of public interest and participation, said Parry.

“I think for an arts community to be healthy and viable you need a balance of people making art and the public meaningfully participating in it,” said Parry.

The territory has all these elements — in spades.

Yukoners make the arts part of daily life, from buying locally made swag to spending evenings at the arts centre to learning how to craft moccasins at Mount Lorne.

Second, the territory didn’t make the mistake of putting the cart before the horse.

Artists have always been creating work and the infrastructure — like theatres, support organizations and gallery spaces — has kept pace with it, said Parry.

Third, there’s a pack of mighty non-profit arts groups at work in the territory.

“They can turn water into wine,” said Parry. “You give an arts organization $20,000 and they can generate another $100,000 in revenues.”

Fourth, the Yukon has the highest amount of funding for culture in Canada.

The territory puts $418 per person toward culture each year, while the Canadian average rests at $69, according to 2003/04 Statistics Canada figures.

There are also more artists in the North per capita.

Artists make up 1.38 per cent of the Yukon’s labour force, but just 0.8 per cent of Canada’s workforce, according to a Hills Strategies Research report released in 2004.

Although nearly 50 per cent of all Canadian artists live in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver.

“It’s all worked together over the past 25 years, so that in the last 10 years, we’ve seen this explosion of arts activities at all levels,” said Parry.

“This is not a typical northern town,” said Wilson. The high demographic of government workers and the physical isolation plays into the Yukon’s rich arts scene.

Because it is a small place with a lot of artistic activity, artists have a chance to develop at accelerated rates here, said Emslie.

And the pool of competitors for government grants is not as large as it is in other centres.

The ArtsNet organization developed seven years ago with a meeting between some Whitehorse performing artists to make sure they weren’t double-booking the same dates for their concerts and events.

That was the seed for ArtsNet magazine and a listserv — an inexpensive way for artists to communicate, said Wilson.

Although there are no plans to make the summit an annual event, ArtsNet plans to host more focused workshops or retreats in the future.