Do you remember Culture Days in Hamilton? Did you know that it’s happening this weekend?

If you didn’t (or don’t), you probably aren’t alone. It seems that a number of people and organizations have forgotten about Culture Days In Hamilton this year.

Culture Days was founded in 2010 as a national celebration of arts and culture. Their goal is to support artists, arts organizations and culture and heritage organizers to facilitate free public events in their communities every year during the Culture Days weekend- typically the last weekend of September. In its first year, there were CBC Broadcasts and events coast-to-coast. Their fifth year was marked by a collaboration with Orchestras Canada and Choirs Ontario by “Conduct Us;” an event where individuals nationwide were invited to conduct their local choir or orchestra. By last year, Culture Days had established itself as an independent charitable organization working year-round to encourage access and participation in the arts, culture and heritage sector and inspire discourse about the value of arts and culture.

When an artist or organization participates in Culture Days, the organization is responsible for planning an interactive or participatory event free of charge during the Culture Days weekend. In exchange, Culture Days offers a tremendous amount of marketing and promotion support in addition to industry development resources. This does not just include workshops and a dedicated website; in the past, there have been local newspaper features or TV space; in short, the type of publicity smaller organizations or independent artists may have trouble accomplishing on their own. 

Culture Days is happening this weekend, although Hamilton wouldn’t know it by perusing the official website of events. Of the many activities happening across the country, only three are taking place in the old city of Hamilton; all at the Central Branch of the Hamilton Public Library (HPL). Even for the Library, this is a significant decrease in activities; at its peak participation in 2016, the HPL offered fourteen separate events at nine different locations. 

Expanding the geographical reach to all of Hamilton produces slightly more positive results in that the Dundas Valley School of Art has at least four separate activities listed, and Stoney Creek has an Apple Festival listed.

Just outside of Hamilton has significantly greater offerings. Burlington has a variety of workshops, classes, lectures and performances to attend over the course of the weekend. The Burlington Performing Arts Centre has even curated a spectacular sounding full festival, featuring Hamilton artists like Tom Wilson as well as a performance by the Juno-nominated Sultans of String, accompanied by the local community orchestra (Burlington Symphony Orchestra). While not all of these events are free, the Burlington Performing Arts Centre has taken advantage of the free marketing efforts provided through Culture Days to create a robust weekend of free community programming enhanced by ticketed events.

Looking a little deeper provides some additional results and activities. The McMaster Museum of Art has a sold-out workshop listed on Eventbrite as a “Culture Days Event;” however, it is not actually listed as a Culture Days Event.

For some cities, additional support, coordination and facilitation efforts are provided by the city itself. Nearby Cambridge, for example, provides dedicated website space with activities divided by the day. Likewise, Ottawa, Oakville, Burlington, Barrie, Windsor, St. Catharines and Guelph all provide dedicated space on their city’s official website to Culture Days. A search of the City of Hamilton’s site brings up nothing.

Across the country, over 3,000 official events will take place this weekend as part of Culture Days. The events currently scheduled by the HPL and Dundas Valley School of Art are admirable on their own; but as they collectively make up 100% of Hamilton’s official contribution to the weekend-long event, the offerings from both venues represent a total of 0.23% of activities across the country.

What has caused such a low participation rate? As there is no mention of Culture Days on the City of Hamilton site, is it a lack of city support and facilitation? Previously, the Hamilton Arts Council assisted in coordination efforts- is it a lack of their (or another third party) support and facilitation? Have most organizations and artists put their efforts towards Supercrawl, only two weeks ago, and are now facing exhaustion and unable to take on another weekend event? Is it staff changeover in arts organizations that have led to a lack of capacity to participate in this type of initiative? Is it apathy? Are there actually more events (like the McMaster Museum of Art) that just didn’t register as official activities? Most likely, it’s a mix of all of these and probably more.

Regardless of the reason, the lack of participation and leadership in Hamilton in Culture Days is a loss for the entire city. Free arts, culture and heritage events provide an incredible opportunity to engage audiences who may not otherwise engage with the arts; either due to a financial barrier, or for other reasons. By providing a free participatory experience, as per the mission of Culture Days, artists and organizations are able to engage with supporters and potential audience members in a low-risk way that allows patronage and community goodwill to grow. By not participating, not only are individual artists and arts organizations at a loss, but so is the entire community. 

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