In 2018, it was announced that a historic gift to McMaster University of two million dollars would lead to the creation of The Socrates Project; a collaborative engagement initiative that aimed to deepen the connection between the university and the greater community. It would do so through four distinct avenues: exploring democracy; the future of work; the impact of humans on nature and nature on human society; and critical culture.
Courtesy of Lynton (Red) Wilson, a McMaster alumnus and Chancellor Emeritus, as well as a Founding Co-Chairman of Historica Canada, the investment was to add to the city’s growing arts community by bringing a variety of innovative arts programming to Hamilton- much of it for free.
Since its launch, The Socrates Project has brought world-class artists to Hamilton, including the Peggy Baker Dance Projects, Polaris Prize and Juno award winner Jeremy Dutcher, Dora Award winning play The Runner (Human Cargo), TVO Host Steve Paikin, and the Art of Time Ensemble, to name a few. During the pandemic, already scheduled events pivoted to an online forum and discourse.
In September, the Project presented its first conference; Shift 2020, challenging attendees to think about the type of future they wanted to see, and how to get there. Panels featured past event participants and Canadian icons, including Naomi Klein and Margaret Atwood.
But its first conference was also its concluding event. Facebook posts for the conference note that the summit is the culminating event of the project, but no other official statement notes the end of the initiative.
The Socrates Project was never advertised as a permanent addition to the University’s programming or community engagement strategy. In its initial presentation to the community in September 2018, the project was announced as a two-year pilot- meaning its culmination and closure in September 2020 was right on schedule. However, The project served an important role in the university’s long-term strategy to increase its emphasis on liberal arts, while simultaneously enhancing and integrating itself into the greater arts community. It’s unclear whether a new initiative will take the place of The Socrates Project in the near future, or if the university is preferring to stick closely to its reputation and current emphasis on science and medical research at a time when COVID-19 has minimized a desire for uncertainty.
The short-term impact of the pilot project is immense. In addition to demonstrating the need and demand for international and Canadian artists to be presented in Hamilton across the greater community, The project also brought students, artists and activists together for much-needed conversations, such as GAGED (Gathering on Art, Gentrification and Economic Development); a two-day forum that produced a report on gentrification in Hamilton with recommendations and models that was shared with local government and community groups, in addition to the University. The significance of the project within the McMaster community is also notable. In early 2019, artist and Socrates Project collaborator Santee Smith was announced as the university’s first Indigenous chancellor, effective that November.
Longer term, its legacy is uncertain. Although a demand has been determined through the project for Hamilton to present a greater number of Canadian and international artists, very few organizations within the city have the infrastructure or budget to fulfill the role. For those that do, the mission or mandates of the projects that The Socrates Project were able to bring to Hamilton may be seen as too niche. While the University has proven it is more than capable of assisting in that role, if there is not an interest to focus on this type of work, it may not matter.
Meanwhile, McMaster still has an Office of Community Engagement; however, unsurprisingly, most of its work connects back to the university’s academic programs. By comparison, The Socrates Project wasn’t reactive; it was proactive. Instead of responding to community initiatives by bringing constituents back to the University, The Socrates Project provided a powerful platform for the University within the community as a key player in the growing arts community. It’s uncertain if another program or new iteration will take place in lieu of The Socrates Project, but it’s absence will be felt throughout the city.