"The arts are central to ‘city building,’ as the lingo goes these days," Carol Phillips says. At this month’s First Fridays in the Exchange Art Talk, we’ll speak with Phillips, the executive director of the Winnipeg Arts Council, about what art and artists bring to cities.
There’s a growing interest in "how the arts infuse the city with life and energy and spirit, and all of those things that make living worthwhile," Phillips says. "This is a question that’s constant all over North America."
There’s a long-established belief that art can help develop self-reflection, empathy and understanding.
There are also spillover effects. Study after study has demonstrated that the arts encourage civic engagement and community connection, increase rates of volunteerism, boost tourism and help drive economic growth.
"The question is: what differentiates Winnipeg from any other place that has a cool restaurant scene, a cool coffee scene and a cool this and a cool that?" Phillips says.
"It’s what our artists do that give the city its character. Their grittiness and their fearlessness — those are some of the characteristics that make Winnipeg what it is."
As well as providing grants to individual artists and arts organizations, the arts council oversees an innovative public art program.
"Our public art program is about the design of the city, but also about the people who live here," Phillips says. Some of these public art pieces are monumental and permanent. Others are ephemeral events, performances and happenings. Almost always, "there’s a response to the geography, the history of this place," Phillips says.
The importance of "this place" gave its name to a series of ambitious works installed in Air Canada Park by contemporary Indigenous artists, including Kenneth Lavallee, Julie Nagam, Rolande Souliere and the team of Rebecca Belmore and Osvaldo Yero. The artists were asked to consider what it means to be living here and now on Treaty 1 territory. "In our initial consultation, arriving at an approach or theme, we met with artists, curators and elders who could advise us, and that’s what they said," Phillips says. "The works need to be about ‘this place.’"
Another recent project is Bokeh, by Takashi Iwasaki and Nadi Design, an interactive and immersive work installed at the duck pond in Kildonan Park. Relying on the dreamy play of coloured light, Bokeh is not just a sculptural installation, but an experience that needs to be activated by the people who use the park.
Bokeh’s official Jan. 12 opening drew a crowd. "A thousand people at a skating party," Phillips recalls. "And it was cold. Talk about a community experience."
Phillips also speaks about celebrating World Poetry Day. She remembers last year’s event, which involved people from many of the city’s diverse communities reading poetry aloud: "It was poetry that people had selected that had great meaning to them, their experience, their community. Sometimes it was in a different language.
"I thought, ‘Wow, this is what poetry does,’" Phillips says. "It was transformative."
She also cites the city’s first poet laureate, Di Brandt, who has recently composed verses to Portage & Main, as well as a series of tragicomically freezing winter sonnets. ("It’s good to have a poet laureate with a sense of humour," Phillips points out.)
Looking ahead, Phillips is excited about marking the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike with a large-scale sculptural work by the late artist Bernie Miller and his collaborator Noam Gonick.
Based on the famous L.B. Foote photograph of a streetcar being tipped over, this is a big project that involves complex bronze construction and funding from multiple sources, including Manitoba’s labour unions. "It’s going to open, come hell or high water, in June, right there, almost to the site," Phillips says. "It’s a really important and monumental work."
In the end, though, it’s not just about the works of art. It’s about the people who will be experiencing them. "It’s not just giving out grants," Phillips says. "It’s making sure that all Winnipeggers can have choices, and anyone who is curious and wants to engage with the arts is able to.
"I think the arts are a human right, to be quite honest."
To hear more about art and the city, join us at the First Fridays Art Talk/Art Walk with Carol Phillips. The talk takes place on Friday, March 1 at 6 p.m. at the Free Press News Cafe, with a guided art tour of the Exchange District afterwards. Call 204-421-0682 or email email@example.com to reserve tickets, which include dinner and cost $25, plus tax.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.
Updated on Monday, February 25, 2019 at 7:39 AM CST: Adds photo