Friday, September 22, 2023

2021 Year in Review: Themes and Trends

For many in the arts, 2021 might feel like a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of year. In the late summer and early fall, it felt like a return to full theatres and concert halls was inevitable. The feeling was short lived; first with the Delta variant and then Omicron, it seems like we’re entering a new, bleak phase of this pandemic. 

Ontario recently halved capacities, and the concept of attending an indoor performance seems like a risk. For venues, the risks are changing regulations and financial viability (particularly for smaller venues); for performers, the risk is proximity and extended contact with teammates that could potentially test positive- a similar risk that exists for audiences. 

But in the few moments we’ve had to sing, dance, laugh and interact from a distance has reminded us that the expression of the arts is something that our community continues to value. And at the forefront are the artists and organizations; and their actions and conversations that defined the Hamilton arts community in 2021. 

Power Balance Finally Tipping

When Mary Francis Moore took the helm of Theatre Aquarius in July, the event was a symbolic moment. Combined with the Philharmonic’s Gemma New, and the Art Gallery’s curatorial team of Christine Braun and Tobi Bruce, the balance of artistic power in three of the city’s five largest arts organizations are now held by women. 

Hamilton follows much of the country, which over the past five years, has gradually shifted towards diversifying leadership roles in terms of gender, sexuality and ethnicity. In addition to artistic leadership, the administrative arm of many of these organizations also have female-centric voices at the helm; including Lorna Zaremba at Theatre Aquarius, Kim Varian at the HPO and Shelley Falconer at the AGH. 

Small Steps for Social Justice

If 2020 was a year in which disparities and divides were made clear, 2021 was the year when notable action started to take place. In a first step to increase representation, acknowledge failures of systems and commit to anti-racism and equitable measures, organizations and collectives like Open Heart ArtsAm I Helping? openly presented works that asked audiences to question their status and voice in society. Others, like the Hamilton Fringe Festival, explicitly created spaces for artists that may not otherwise be on equitable footing and Aeris Korper’s pay-what-you-can model openly addressed and removed financial barriers to attending a performance. 

Virtual Experiences Are Here to Stay

This past year saw a significant rise in the consumption of online shows and performances. Zoom allowed for artists to interact directly with audiences, which (after some practice and facilitation) allowed for improv, magic shows and other practices that rely on audience interaction to continue. Once audiences were able to attend performances again, the hybrid element- finding ways to appeal and provide meaningful experiences to both a virtual and physical audience- became a central point of discussion. Others, like the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Hamilton Youth Poets collaborative Breaking the Vault exhibition created optional digital elements to enhance the live experience. 

Visual artists saw a jump in the value of NFTs. At the same time, collectible moments (whether streamed performances or NFTs) are seeing increased challenges around protection of works, which has called for increased creativity by creators and potentially, a revolution in digital rights.

Standup to the Forefront

When restrictions started to lift in the summer, local comedians were the first ones ready to appear on the stages or platforms offered by patios, pubs and restaurants. As one-person shows, standup comedians were primed and ready to be onstage as soon as they were able; and they were welcomed with open arms wherever they were able to fit and as public health regulations would allow. 

As a result, comedians appeared in locales where they weren’t previously integrated, and as of the time of publication (and often with the facilitation assistance of Hub of the Hammer), comedy nights are a more regular feature in many of our local bars, with new faces and acts emerging. How long that will last, and what the future of comedy may be as a frequented art form in the city still remains to be seen. 

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