During the recent NHL playoffs, Winnipeg Jets winger Patrik Laine coined a new, unofficial civic slogan: "Winnipeg is good."
But those familiar with this city's vibrant arts scene already knew that.
People might not pack out Portage and Main chanting Go, Arts, Go! — though they definitely should — but the 12th annual Mayor’s Luncheon for the Arts and the Winnipeg Arts Council Awards, which took place at the Fort Garry Hotel on Thursday, was an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of this city's emerging and established artists, across disciplines.
Curator Niki Little/Wabiska Maengun, experimental artist Freya Björg Olafson, and artist/craftsman Keith Oliver were the big winners at the event, which was attended by about 500 people representing a wide cross-section of the Winnipeg arts scene.
The Winnipeg Arts Council, 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 five awards. Those include three jury-selected artist awards: the RBC On the Rise Award comes with a cash prize of $5,000, while the Making a Mark Award and the Making a Difference Award each come with a cash prize of $3,000, an increase from the $2,500 awarded for each prize last year.
Two community-builder awards — the Outstanding Volunteer Award, which is a $1,000 donation to the arts organization of the winner's choice, and the Arts Champion Award, which is a work of art by an Winnipeg artist — were also presented at the event.
Little/Maengun won the On the Rise Award, which honours an emerging professional. She's been making waves in the visual art world: in 2016, she launched her first solo curated show, enendaman | anminigook ("intention and worth" in Oji-Cree) at aceartinc., where she was the Indigenous creator-in-residence. She's also a member of the Ephemerals, an all-women Indigenous collective of artists and curators.
"I really appreciate the generosity this arts community shares," she said.
Olafson was the recipient of the Making a Mark Award, which recognizes the excellence of mid-career artists. She's regarded as a performance-art pioneer, using video, audio, painting and performance to create boundary-pushing works that have been seen by audiences around the globe.
"I've really been touched and fostered by so many different organizations within the Winnipeg community, across art forms," she said, extending special thanks to Video Pool, Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers and Dave Barber at Winnipeg Film Group (who was also thanked by Little/Maengun).
"And to the other nominees: thanks for the incredible work that you do. You have my deep respect and many of these people make me very proud to be from Winnipeg."
Oliver, who is the president of the Manitoba Craft Council board, took home the Making a Difference Award, which honours an artist or arts administrator who has contributed to the growth and development of the arts. He thanked all the hardworking folks who "brought the Manitoba Craft Council back from the ashes," and took a moment to celebrate the MCC's new home as part of the new C2 Centre for Craft, which also houses the Manitoba Crafts Museum and Library.
Ellen Oberlander and Trish Smerchanski, the co-chairs of the School of Contemporary Dancers' Board of Directors, were honoured as Outstanding Volunteers.
"Volunteers would not exist without the outstanding arts groups and organizations that we have here in Winnipeg," Smerchanski said. "It is indeed an honour to be able to give back to the wonderful community in which we live."
Michael Nesbitt, chairman and president of Winnipeg's Montrose Mortgage Corp. and a supporter of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, took home the Arts Champion Award. Nesbitt was instrumental in bringing composer and pianist Philip Glass to Winnipeg in January.
"The bulk of the work done in our city, culturally, is in front of us," he said. "It's not me. It's simple to write a cheque. It doesn't take much in the way of skill. Those in front of us today represent the heart and soul of the cultural community that we're a part of. We should be proud of it. I'm proud of it."
The ceremony itself was also a showcase for local talent. Winnipeg’s first Poet Laureate, Di Brandt, read the hilarious original poem she penned for the occasion, titled Winnipeg Pedestrian Blues, Or 13 Ways to Cross Portage and Main, while poet and spoken word artist Chimwemwe Undi delivered a searing and salient keynote address about the importance of diversity in the arts, and why it needs to move past being a buzzword.
The event, which was MCed by Ify Chiwetelu and Trevor Dineen from CBC's Radio’s Now or Never, also included performances from the Sher-e-Punjab Bhangra Club dancers, Suzanne Kennelly and Friends, and Indigenous drum group the Buffalo Gals.
Mayor Brian Bowman reiterated his continued support for the Winnipeg arts and cultural scene in his address at the top of the event, noting that council has increased funding for the Winnipeg Arts Council by half-a-million dollars since 2014. He underlined how a healthy cultural scene contributes to a healthy economy, and how a thriving cultural scene is an asset in attracting people to the city.
"That's because they can hear the voice of Winnipeg," he said. "They can imagine themselves in our neighbourhoods, in our downtown arts hubs, in intimate community music venues throughout our city, in concert auditoriums, in small galleries or in the major cultural events we host really, really well here in Winnipeg. They can imagine themselves here, in this place."
In the context of an arts luncheon, he was preaching to the choir, but it's an important take-home message, especially for those who don't believe the arts should be a priority. Art and culture are things that make Winnipeg good, and that's why they are worth supporting and investing in.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.