The arts lighting the way to a better city, Naheed Nenshi, Calgary Herald, July 30, 2009

Posted by on 3 August 2009

Last week, I was lying on a blanket on Prince's Island, listening to music, watching my single favourite thing about a Calgary summer.

Each night during the Calgary Folk Music Festival, a group of "lamplighters" works its way through the crowd. Young and old, they carry exquisite handmade paper lanterns, signalling the end of the evening, and lighting people their way home.

I love those lanterns. Not only are they beautiful, I love what they symbolize --the power of community, the power of art. Every summer, they remind me of the very best of Calgary and all the reasons that I love to live here.

I was thinking about the lanterns while contemplating some of the other discussions that we've been having over the last several weeks, starting with the strange issue of whether cowboys, hippies or drag queens were more deserving of federal funding. Some Conservative MPs were OK with some folks who wear chaps, but drew the line at others in them (the hippies seemed to escape their notice).

The bigger issue here is whether such cultural events should be funded at all. Some folks argue that it's not the business of government to fund arts and culture, and that these should rely solely on patrons and donors.

I disagree. In my mind, the right role for government is to improve the lives of citizens, and art is an important part of that. Visit the McKnight/Westwinds LRT station some time, and see if you can resist smiling at the whimsical topiary sculpture out front, or being moved by the reproductions of community members' family memorabilia embedded in the glass of the shelters.

Or go to Summerstock's production of Rent in Olympic Plaza over the next two weeks, and watch high school students sing and dance their heart out. It's free if you bring your own lawn chair, 12 bucks if you want a seat. (Try not to think about how Bill 44 would prevent the classroom discussion of this work of art that deals with religion (!), drugs (!!) and homosexuality (!!!) without notes being sent home in advance.).

Or hit Shakespeare in the Park, by-donation at Prince's Island Park through August, running a hip-hop Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream featuring the music of Queen. I kind of hate the first play, but that's OK --maybe this production will show me something new with its soundtrack and gang warfare setting.

And that's really the point --art doesn't have to be universally loved. We may think that the Peace Bridge is ugly and not fit for its surroundings. Based on personal experience, the show we see at the Calgary Fringe Festival has about a 30 per cent chance of being really awful. But that doesn't matter-- the point of the art is to help us face questions like what we think is beautiful and why, or what we value in our lives and communities.

My friend Salimah put it nicely, when, in response to my last column referring to city council hearings as "theatre", she said "theatre's highest objective is to deliver the truth about human nature." I think that can be expanded to all art.

So, what then is the role for government and other institutions in all of this? I would argue that, rather than try to pick favourites, choosing between cowboy and drag queen, that we work as a community to encourage risk-taking, trying new things. This includes funding flagship institutions, like the Epcor Centre, where artists can practice their craft, ensuring that arts education remains an integral part of public schools, and providing money to arts organizations and festivals so that ticket prices can remain accessible to most citizens. It also means ensuring that public infrastructure includes art and is built to the highest standard--even if that means we get a bridge that a lot of people find ugly, that's better than one that has no response at all.

The good news is that current governments seem to agree. They are jointly funding infrastructure like the new home for the Mount Royal Conservatory, and funding levels are slowly increasing in many programs. Like those lamplighters, our leaders are helping light our way to a better community.

Naheed Nenshi Teaches At Mount Royal College's Bissett School Of Business.