At the end of 2019, this blog published two year in review articles; one focusing on people and performances and another focusing on themes and trends. These articles looked at the top productions, artists and activities that shaped the Hamilton arts community that year, and looked at the trajectory of the sector for the year ahead.

Then the pandemic happened, and live performances as we knew them were halted. But lockdown or not, artists continually seem to be at the forefront of change, and as the ring lights, microphones and webcams turned on, so did the commentary, actions and conversations that defined the Hamilton arts community in 2020.

A Year of Action for Racial Justice

From the Wet’suwet’en protests that shut down rail lines from coast-to-coast, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to the social media dialogue held by Theatre Aquarius’ stakeholders on their Facebook page, Canadians and Hamiltonians recognized and called out the many systemic values that are diametrically opposed to the actual operating values of arts organizations and businesses across the city and country. The pandemic made disparities clearer than ever before, and no longer was it acceptable for arts organizations to simply find ways for benefits that were widely available to those of privilege (such as educational and training opportunities, financial capital, safety and a voice) to be available to others. Now, organizations are starting to realize that this mentality only furthers racism and disadvantage, and that there is a need to change language, increase representation, acknowledge failures of systems and commit to anti-racism in a structured way. It’s a long path to meaningful change that will require increased focus and accountability, supported by expanded social movement infrastructure- but 2020 was a marked beginning. 

Previously Silent Topics Came to the Forefront

The rise of the pandemic and subsequent response moved concepts from fringe discussion further into the mainstream. When the federal government announced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, arts advocates were quick to note the lack of support the program provided to some artists while benefiting others. Further changes to the program provided greater support to many of the independent artists and cultural workers across Canada, which could total up to 52% of artists. As a result, the discussion of a universal basic income as a means to alleviate chronic economic instability became a topic of national conversation. 

Simultaneously, the rise of local artist-creator group Femmepire and their digital presence brought much-needed conversations to the forefront of the arts community. During the summer, Femmepire held four digital discussions focusing on topics including ageism, racism, sexism in the Hamilton theatre community to further conversations and develop action around community care and advocacy.

Rise of the Virtual Performances

The use of technology surged in 2020 as our lives became increasingly dependent on our computers, phones and tablets to stay connected. Whether it was Zoom for work, or to communicate with family; Google for online classrooms, or Facebook live for virtual parties, the use of technology as a means to share resources and information grew significantly- and this reach expanded to art. As a result of the pandemic, artists, galleries and performing arts institutions experimented in the ways that art could be created and shared that was limitless.

Cobalt Connects was one of the first locally to jump on this trend, presenting two editions of Hamilton Shows Up, offering performers a paid opportunity to share their current projects with audiences. Other collectives followed suit, presenting online exhibits, performances and virtual opportunities to connect audiences and artists over screens instead of venues. Locally, this included the 2020 Hamilton Fringe’s What the Fest, the Hamilton Arts Council’s near-daily performance series over the summer, and the ongoing monthly series “Hamilton Originals” by the Westdale Cinema.

Pandemic-Themed Art

Given that art has always been a platform for artists to reflect on their own stories, as well as tell the stories that are happening around them and in society, this emerging theme of 2020 is no surprise. This year, as audiences and artists were unable to physically be together for much of 2020, creating this connection through a shared experience and documenting this time for a future generation seemed more important than ever. 

From the “Thank You” Mural (pictured in this article by Scott McDonald, Scott Martin and Steve Haining) on a Sherman Avenue apartment building, to Industry’s Corona Diaries and McMaster student Nicole Crimi’s children’s book Patty and the Pandemic, it was only natural for artists to seek inspiration as a way to look back and connect with others. Even notorious British street artist Banksy jumped on this trend, creating a number of street artworks to highlight the pandemic. Whether near or far, these themed works allowed audiences to reflect alongside the artists as to how these unusual times have impacted us. 

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