Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Opinion: Why Local Art Matters Now, More than Ever

Do you remember the sidewalk mural “Art is the steel?”

Written on James Street North- the centre of monthly art crawls- the message implied that in Hamilton, art would be critical to the city’s resurgence. That art could be a commodity that would drive investment and business and revitalize the city to a new glory.

The mural is faded now, and to some, so has the enthusiasm that went along with the message. Hamilton’s burgeoning art scene encouraged revitalization along key city streets- first Locke, then James, Ottawa and now Barton. But it’s getting harder and harder to find corporate and public support locally to maintain the investment and momentum started over ten years ago. 

This matters. Young artists, and artists developing roots in this city are in it for the long haul, and can be engaged in community building on an ambitious scale. To do so, those who need the support and investment of young and newcomer artists in the city, such as arts and municipal leaders, need to take note and harness this energy. 

In the past, being connected locally wasn’t an exception; it was reality. Before the internet, creating and growing beyond local borders was difficult. By comparison, today, we can communicate with nearly anyone, anywhere. But at the end of the day, Hamilton audiences are keen to support Hamilton artists. A local origin story still holds power. For artist lovers, the idea of connecting with a far-away artist might seem impossible; but it’s easy to be well-acquainted with one just as talented in their local scene. This type of connection to community can increase the perceived value of art, but also allows the audience or collectors to become an active part of the creation story. In turn, this creates a personal connection between an artist, their work and the audience- and the pattern continues.

Not only does a community connection create a greater meaning, but having a strong arts community is good for the well-being of a city as a whole. The City of Hamilton knew this at one point- it’s why Culture and Diversity, specifically “a thriving local arts scene” is listed as a priority in the City’s 2016-2025 Strategic Plan

But it’s not just up to the City to carry out this work. City entities, including local arts organizations need to be aware and engaged in this priority as well. These organizations have stakeholders and knowledge to identify emerging artists and engage new players in an arts scene that they know to be uniquely special. Arts organizations are also uniquely positioned to forge unique partnerships that use the power of their art to strengthen community ties, both culturally and commercially. Simultaneously, the City needs to examine its own work in supporting organizations and individual artists to be empowered to assist in increasing the city’s economic and cultural prestige through the arts.

Once organizations and individual artists are supported and empowered, local events become much more exciting. Think about the early days of Art Crawl, with coordinated gallery openings, bus tours and special events on the street. While Art Crawl has remained grassroots, imagine a dedicated, organized effort that develops innovative, experiential happenings to introduce audiences to art. How much more meaningful would it be if there was a local artist or musician present during those moments where audience and artist can interact?

The rise of Art Crawl, and Hamilton’s interest in street art (including the Concrete Canvas Festival) supports the idea that local art matters. By its very nature, street art began in alleys and on warehouses- places where an intimate, local knowledge was an advantage. For those in the city that may not attend galleries, theatres or formal venues, murals and street art are key connectors to the artistic community. 

The transformative power of street art also cannot be underestimated. Street art is regularly used to deter crime in neighbourhoods, develop a sense of community and ownership and create a sense of place and familiarity. Each space becomes important to those who know it- and often, those who know it are local, providing another opportunity for local artists to connect directly with local audiences. Harness these connections, and a market for the work of local artists starts to emerge. It’s small, but sentimental, and with room for growth.

So what does this mean for the future of Hamilton’s arts community?

In the recovery of a pandemic where we’ve spent the last sixteen months supporting the people and businesses nearest and dearest to us, we know that local loves local. We love to support those that we get to know, and those who make our neighbourhood and city a better place to be. And we want our neighbourhoods and city to recover better and stronger than before.

Local and young audiences are dedicated to stewardship and growing relationships. Connection is paramount. Devotion to a local arts community can go hand in hand with hometown (or new hometown) pride. This generation of new audiences and collectors can take an active role in their communities- artistic or otherwise- and have big dreams about the potential for the future. 

They need to be given this empowerment. Artists and arts organizations need to be willing to take a risk to develop and grow these young leaders, and invest in showcasing local talent. Connections need to be made, strengthened and fostered. The City of Hamilton needs to provide meaningful support- not just to organizations and artists through funding- but through strong policy and action. Local art scenes matter now more than ever, and if Hamilton is to continue to grow as a vibrant city, we need to ensure that the local art scene continues to matter.

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