A Fresh Start for the Arts

By Theresa Wells

Last week I was delighted to hear an announcement that signaled a new era for the arts in our community. It has been a long time coming, and it was an announcement that I believe has the potential to see the arts scene in our region flourish. The announcement? The appointment of Russell Thomas as interim executive director of Arts Council Wood Buffalo.

It’s a natural fit, of course, as Russell isn’t just interested in the arts – Russell lives and breathes the arts. He is a performer, a painter, a writer – he too is an artist. He understands the world of the arts, from performing arts to visual arts to the written word. He has been a part of that world for a very long time, and so his roots and connections run deep and strong. Those pre-existing connections make him the ideal person to run the arts council as it embarks on the process of becoming a functioning organization. And Russell is a strong leader, too, and that is desperately needed.

Why is strong leadership needed in the arts? Aren’t arts all about just letting things happen, freedom of expression and all that? Yes, and no. Artists of all types need support to survive, and not solely financial support. They need champions who ensure that the arts are included when decisions are being made about things like municipal budgets. They need an organization that will help the arts to grow by supporting and fostering that growth. That is why an arts council with strong leadership is so very important.

When I tell visitors about the strength of our arts scene I think they are often surprised. We encompass every facet of the arts, from performing arts at Keyano Theatre to literature in NorthWord Magazine to visual art at the MacDonald Island Community Art Gallery to everything else. Our arts scene has tremendous potential to grow, too, and that is because we have a secret weapon in our arsenal. We have our youth.

We are a young community, with an average age of just 31. Our schools are bursting with students, each one of whom is a potential artist of some sort. Perhaps they like to paint or they like to write or they like to act – but whatever their choice in artistic pursuit they have the potential to add to our arts scene. We have a robust performing community in our schools, too, and I have seen productions from schools in both the public and Catholic boards that delighted me. I have seen visual arts exhibits from students that blew me away with their burgeoning talent. I have listened to the bands, and I have seen what is coming our way – which is an arts explosion, ushered in by local youth with a desire and passion to explore the arts.

Perhaps this is why I feel an arts council is so crucial right now. I have long said we are on the cusp in this community, on the very edge of tipping over into becoming an urban centre, and one of those things is this sense that the arts are about to become far more important than ever before. We have always had artists, and arts, right here, but they have not always had the support and encouragement they have needed, or that should have been available to them. They have not had a champion, and they have not had an organization that can not only promote them but also fight for them and ensure that arts are not forgotten as we grow and change.

For me the arts are a fundamental part of life. So much of what we as humans do is centred on the arts, whether it is our enjoyment of books or music or sculpture. We visit art galleries and we go to see plays. We recognize that arts are one way we can engage youth, and especially those youth who may on occasion be a challenge to engage. We are fascinated by the exploration of art, whether we do it ourselves or watch others as they grow in their chosen artistic pursuits. And that is why the announcement this week matters – because in the end the arts matter, and they matter because they are what gives life joy and meaning. They are how we express ourselves, and how we share our thoughts and beliefs and ideas with others. The arts connect us. The arts build community, and that is why the arts are so vital to us all.

I welcome Russell Thomas, interim executive director of Arts Council Wood Buffalo, to his new role, and I eagerly wait to see the future of the arts in this community. I do not pretend I know exactly where it will go – but I am deeply glad we have someone like Russell at the head of this particular train, and I plan to sit back and enjoy the ride!