Brantford’s Arts Ecology

Recently I was lucky to have a great talk with Wiktor Kulinski, Ph.D. Candidate in Performance Studies & Anthropology at York University and Principal Researcher for the Arts Ecology Initiative, Brantford/Brant. Although I had some questions for him he had an even better one for me: “How do we make our community more special?” As a life long resident of Brantford, as many of you reading may also be, I got thinking- Brantford has seen quite a bit of change over time and depending on how far back you can go, Brantford has seen some great times…and some not so great. 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Brantford was a thriving and growing industrial town and has been known mostly for that over time. The city motto as adopted in 1850 is “Industry and Perseverance”, a sentiment that still rings true and has given Brantford a sense of identity over these 140 years. More recently, with the closing of some major industry in the 1980 and 1990s, Brantford suffered a blow to its economy and reputation. However, rising out of this time (and as recently quoted in the Huffington Post) Brantford is once again becoming a thriving and attractive home for many families and businesses.

All of this history was the context of my talk with Wiktor, who is hoping to bring back the softer side of our city. The goal of the Arts Ecology Initiative is to bring a thriving art community back- “We have this rich history that a lot of people maybe don’t know about” says Wiktor. “Sports in our town has taken the limelight, and rightfully so, but we aren’t doing it justice by forgetting about this rich history of theatre and performing arts that we have. There is a lot of homegrown energy around sports, and that’s what I want to do for arts- to create a space and not just community but a home base. Other communities have this too and from their own perspective.”

And when you really look into it, Brantford has the makings of an arts city! “The Sanderson Centre, which used to be called the Temple Theatre back when it opened in 1919 was the turn of the century. It was one of three theatres designed by famous architect Thomas W. Lamb- at the time these were world-renowned buildings. And the Arts Ecology initiative is trying to- I use the word ecology because it’s this organic methodology- and I want things to grow here again. We have the soil and the buds are here, we just need to ‘water the plants’ and let it grow again!”

This couldn’t be truer- it’s apparent in large cities such as Toronto, but we see this sense of community-based around the arts now in smaller areas- look to Hamilton for a great example.  But let’s not overlook all the great art spaces and events that we have here now- we are home to the Harmony School of Arts, Glenhyrst Art Gallery, and the newly opened Coach House, to name a few. We are also home to many talented performers, such as Emmy award winner Debra Brown who is a choreographer with Cirque du Soleil, the Grand River Champion of Champions Pow Wow held each summer in Chiefswood Park, and the International Villages Festival is running strong in its 44th year!

“We should be one of the places to be in Canada- we have it all. I watch things around Canada’s 150th birthday about what makes Canada unique and special, and I think: that’s Brantford! Everything can be wrapped up here- this is the capital of hockey, we are neighbours to the Six Nations, and we are a manufacturing city which is what built Canada! We are a microcosm of Canada, we have the best of everything!”

And this is why Brantford is a perfect city for a thriving arts culture and community- “People who live here have a pride in the city, but I also want it to go beyond the borders and get other people to look in and say ‘what is Brantford doing- it’s that cool, special community that has a little bit of everything’ and that’s what inspires our group in the big picture – how do we make our little community more special.”

As an artists’ collective, this initiative seeks to promote professional and resource development for artists in Brantford and Brant with a goal to incubate and support a thriving arts ecology. “We’ve always been working on raising the profile of arts – trying to make the arts more important for our community but also for outsiders looking at Brantford and Brant and wondering what we’re doing here. The main goal of the Arts Ecology is to find and develop a mid-size performing space, to hold 150-250 people, ideally in downtown. “What do you think of when you think downtown- you think bustling, lots of cool shops boutiques and restaurants, art sitting in the street – people moving about! An arts center downtown is definitely a good fixture to have. I’d love to have the action here!”

Brantford has had several attempts at this- most recently the Crawford Collective, the Arts Block, and for those who remember, The Ford Plant (where Arcade Fire once played!). So how do we plan for something again, and see it succeed? Wiktor and his group are collaborating with the City of Brantford, Brant Tourism, and the Cultural Advisory Committee, but more importantly, they are taking a holistic approach to their project. “How do you package something that’s beyond definition- it’s really challenging for all of us. We often have to present this in ‘digestible chunks’ but how do you put something that’s so loose in definition into something you can package.” So the discussion began this January with the first Arts Ecology Salon. “We hope to help artists in our community realize their potential as leaders in creative and artistic expression by creating the environment needed to nurture and support their work.”

Their next salon is scheduled for April 24 at 7 pm at the Polish Alliance Hall. Booked to speak is Lindsay Golds, Executive Director of Arts Build Ontario, a community group that offers professional development for the arts and has helped other communities such as Orangeville, St. Catherine’s and Hamilton. 

“Art is this thing that lives inside everyone-” summarizes Wiktor “- it is this need for us to reflect on life- all these questions we have, art is the reason we explore it. So the thing that we need the most is a space to interact with it.”

While our conversation included many other topics and philosophies, the big takeaway I got from the initiative was their desire to create community through the arts, to add a new identity to Brantford. Since we can all experience art differently it allows for us to connect based on that diversity, so while our city grows we can still remain close to it.

Photo Credits:

Mural: @bellcitybeat - twitter

Template Theater: Sanderson Centre Foundation