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Street art stifled in Winnipeg

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Street art is all but stifled out of existence in Winnipeg.

Recently, instead of dealing with a lone troublesome individual, busking was banned in front of the Osborne Village liquor store.

Last fall, I was nearly arrested for creating sidewalk murals at Assiniboine Park with chalk. The artistic viability of my labour was questioned by the police, who took issue with my having a hat for donations, were not aware Assiniboine Park was public property and confiscated a small sign that said "support local art."

Have you ever wondered why there aren't more street artists in Winnipeg? Have you travelled and wondered why, like street food, we don't have any street performers?

The instinct to regulate and control everything in Winnipeg runs deep. Everywhere an artist goes, someone is bound to question the legality of a busker performing, or ask if you have a permit (no such permit exists nor is required). A security guard, police officer or an incensed citizen threatening to call the police leave an unmistakable message: You are unwanted. Go elsewhere.

With an existing culture of fear, many would-be street artists do not bravely venture out to try anyway. Most, when told to pack up and leave, do just that. But our public spaces, our parks, our sidewalks, are all places where we as Canadians are allowed to exercise our most basic and fundamental freedoms.

Nowhere are these freedoms more stifled than at The Forks.

Two summers ago, I met a travelling juggler from Ohio at The Forks, who asked me where he could busk.

He couldn't pay $50 for the privilege of bringing his tricks to Winnipeg for one or two days, when he needed to eat. I suggested a couple of usually less-troubling places, and with a frown told him he should skip the Prairies and head right to Vancouver.

What kind of ambassador of the city was I that day?

To busk at The Forks, you have to pay a fee, audition, pay another fee, submit a set list for approval, and agree to no less than 13 rules or face having the prestigious "busking licence" revoked.

They get to say what you play, where you play, and how long you play, and whether or not you even receive a licence is up to a panel of judges.

This regulation keeps a lot of passionate artists away. If you are a regular at The Forks and wonder why the buskers change as regularly as the postcards do, wonder no longer. Any artist not willing to surrender to these rules, register and pay fees, doesn't get to play at the approved busking stops (one of which resides in a parking lot).

The Forks says up to 100 buskers are "licensed" annually. At $50 a head, that is a cool $5,000 to "maintain the program."

The Forks now sits in the shadow of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Yet to use your freedom of expression at The Forks, you must obtain gracious permission to do so following a successful audition and acceptance into their "program."

They also enjoy a misguided belief among Winnipeggers that you are "allowed" to busk there. This belief carries the implication that you are not allowed to anywhere else.

Our urban streets have the potential to feel much warmer and more inviting, if street artists were encouraged, instead of often being treated as aggressive panhandlers.

There are simple steps that could send a different message to street performers. Every BIZ group, park management group and the City of Winnipeg itself can take initiative to instruct their security guards, patrols, cadets and police busking is a legal activity. Private landowners willing to pick up the slack can step forward and help initiate a busking scene.

We need to change the culture of thinking in Winnipeg toward street artists. Encourage it. Support it. Not with busking licences and regulations, but open arms, a smile, a thank-you, or the flick of a quarter. Not with contempt, but support.

Then maybe we will see just one bastion of backwardness this city is known for leap a step forward, with the joys and smiles music and art can bring to the streetscape.

Graham Hnatiuk is an artist and political writer living in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 A17

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