Making art is often a solitary pursuit.
Solitary is not the same as lonely, although it certainly can be. Even the most collaborative artists will find themselves alone with a blinking cursor, a blank canvas or an empty stage, trusting their imagination to create something new.
That’s why sometimes, it’s nice to get together. The 13th annual Mayor’s Luncheon for the Arts and the Winnipeg Arts Council Awards, which took place at the Fort Garry Hotel on Friday, brought together 530 artists, supporters, patrons and business owners to celebrate and honour both the emerging and established artists who make up Winnipeg’s vibrant arts scene, as well as the community members who support it. Comedian Chanty Marostica hosted the event, which itself serves as a showcase for local talent.
The WAC, the not-for-profit corporation charged by the City of Winnipeg with distributing funding to arts organizations and artists as well as managing the City’s Public Art Policy, handed out three juried artist awards: the RBC On the Rise award, which honours an up-and-coming artist; the Making a Mark award, which honours a mid-career artist; and the Making a Difference Award, which honours an artist or arts administrator. This year, all three awards came with a cash prize of $5,000.
Dancer and choreographer Phillipe Larouche took home this year’s RBC On the Rise award. Originally from Laval, Que., Larouche trained in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School Professional Division and danced with the company for two seasons. As a choreographer, he was commissioned to create two new works for the RWB, including Next of Kin, an innovative work performed to and inspired by the music of the Bros. Landreth that debuted in March.
"This is deeply humbling," Larouche said, speaking from the heart after he was unable to locate his prepared speech on his phone. "I’ve very honoured to be receiving this today. I take it not so much as a recognition of the work that I’ve done but more so as encouragement to keep going down this path."
Writer Jake MacDonald can add this year’s Making a Mark award to a long list of accolades from a prolific career. The award-winning author recently added playwright to his CV; his first play, The Cottage, debuted at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre this spring.
"This is for an artist at mid-career so, with any luck, I’ll be eligible for the senior category when I’m 140," he said to laughs.
"Four years ago, I founded an association with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre which resulted in the play that closed a few weeks ago. There were 50 or 60 people involved in that production, and it was a wonderful demonstration of the importance of teamwork, everyone working together towards the single vision of making Winnipeg the cultural capital of Western Canada. I’m very happy to live here, and I’m very thankful for this award."
Writer Charlene Diehl received this year’s Making a Difference award to raucous applause in recognition of her work as the director of Thin Air: The Winnipeg International Writers Festival and, in particular, advocating for diverse literary voices.
"I say often that our writers and artists are our canaries in the coal mine, coming back with messages about where we’re going," she said. "I am so delighted that we have a city with this kind of support for the arts. We are the centre of turtle island, and we do have a chance to share the word about how to make a community that can actually get along with one another, where we can reach out and make connections with one another, and really start living out what it means to be treaty people here on this very precious land."
Two community-builder awards were also handed out at the event. Susan Algie, founder and volunteer executive director of the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, was named this year’s Outstanding Volunteer, while BMO Financial Group was acknowledged as this year’s Arts Champion.
Mayor Brian Bowman used his almost 20-minute address to talk about how the arts plays a central role in the life of a growing city.
"I believe it makes an important difference in the daily lives of every single Winnipegger," he said. "Each year, the arts contributes significantly to Winnipeg’s rich cultural life. The arts also contributes significantly to our economic development. The arts and cultural industry represents roughly $1 billion dollars in Winnipeg’s economy and employs six per cent of our city’s workforce. While not everyone agrees with public funding for the arts, I know that the arts sector is a great investment."
Debbie Patterson, a longtime Winnipeg playwright, director, actor and disability justice advocate, delivered an inspiring and poignant keynote speech about the thorny intersection between art and capitalism — the latter she says has "jumped the shark and should be cancelled." She pointed out how, so often, these types of events focus on the arts as an economic driver for the city, and speakers use their time at the podium make a case for supporting the arts financially.
"I think as a society we need to stop making a business case for the arts and start making an arts case for business," she said, before issuing a powerful call to action.
"So business leaders, I ask you, How are you going to evaluate what you do in terms of truth and beauty? How are you going to really, critically observe what actually is and imagine what could be? Do you regularly ask yourself how you could better serve your community without attaching market expansion as a measure of your success? How are you going to respond to the fact that, given the reality of climate change, sustainability and continuous expansion of profit margins are mutually exclusive?"
It’s an artist’s job to imagine a new world, Patterson said. Friday’s event was a nice reminder that they don’t have to do it all alone.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.