Who needs local culture in a brave new world?


The big guy sitting beside me was from Alberta. We were flying to Toronto on the red-eye, him on his way home, me to a meeting. We talked about the future of the west, which he thought would be golden for at least the rest of the century.

I wasn’t so sure, and asked him about the low provincial royalties on oil and the increasing foreign ownership of the oil sands. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t have answers. But apparently foreign ownership is having some effect on the people of Fort McMurray, Alberta, as I learned from a friend living out west. She e-mailed me a link with this bit of news:

“At 11:30 this morning (May 3), the faculty of the Visual and Performing Arts programs at Keyano College were rounded up and given 15 minutes to clear their offices, then escorted from the premises by security. They were not met by the administration and informed that their programs and jobs had been cut. They were not given pink slips. They were not even notified by email that this was their last day at work. They were escorted out by security like common criminals.”

Did the irony of Munch's The Scream selling for $120 million the day before the shutdown escape anyone? Sure, I understand how undervalued art has been in this country. And for a brief moment in the late 60s we even had a few of our own superstar artists.

But the drift away from the arts in education has been unrelenting, and it corresponds directly with the rise of global corporations and a profit-driven centralized management culture. This new culture doesn’t value innovation, creativity or outspoken honesty, which form the basis of the arts. In fact, the new culture requires quite the opposite. And the managers of this evolution vote with their arts dollars, or lack thereof.

There’s more to it, of course. Like every other province, Alberta is cutting back—yes, cutting back—even in the middle of its oil boom. The province, operating under the assumption that the foreign oil investors will disappear if oil royalties are too high, has kept them low, and hasn’t contributed significantly to its Heritage Fund since the late 1980s. This year the Alberta government is predicting an $886 million deficit and doesn’t plan to either raise taxes or oil royalties for at least three years.

So, short on cash, the province is doing what governments everywhere do: it’s cutting frills, like the arts. This is no big deal, I guess, to workers in Fort McMurray, where annual wages for tradespeople are well into six figures. They’ll still have their shiny new pickups and iPads even if their kids can’t get into a local arts program.

And in the bigger picture maybe none of this matters. Our executive class now has access to four millennia of collectible art. Our museums and art galleries are stuffed to overflowing with it. And those artists remaining are challenged to find new ways of seeing and saying things. Now, with everything having been discovered and said, the work of today’s artists may never find available gallery space anyway.

But there are other careers. Ah...or are there? It used to be that artists could go into other fields, like marketing. The advertising industry could be an extremely profitable creative environment, albeit ethically questionable, and those ads actually influenced most of the great art of the last half-century.

Yet even that’s disappearing. There won’t be much need for it as advertising turns into online data tracking. In something called algorithmic targeting, data trackers individually aim photos, discounts and product descriptions directly in our path just as we’re ready to purchase. You can check it out on Terry O'Reilly's radio show. So with no need for creative messages, it’s good-bye creative departments.

Coincidentally, on the same day that the Fort McMurray arts program was cancelled I was facilitating a workshop with some medical researchers. They’re facing the same problems—though in the initial stages—that artists have endured for decades. And the reason? Research is now seen as either too expensive or unrelated to direct profit streams.

The end game is aiming everything at profit and cutting the rest. As for the rest of us, we’re either a part of a reengineered society of passive managers, resource extractors, service sector workers, distributors and buyers. Or else we’re falling out the bottom of an emerging new class system with no bottom in sight.

So yes. This closure is significant. It’s one more symptom of privatizing and profitizing every aspect of our society. Meanwhile, we’re letting both our public sector and our environmental commons collapse.

And why might this be important to New Brunswickers? Well, some of us may be leaving for the boom in the west. Meanwhile, the rest of us staying behind can be sure that the government cuts are going to be much more severe here, because our government either won’t want to tax the corporately wealthy for fear they’ll leave, or because it’s already in bed (and sound asleep) with our corporations.

Sound familiar? Yes kids, you might want to put down that watercolour brush and grab a Skillsaw.


  1. I won't drink to any of that, but, I think I need another scotch.

  2. I'll join you in that. A nice single malt, no ice of course.


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