Artists and Their Towns

Talk given by René Derouin, L’Art et la ville symposium, Laval, May 16, 2007

Artists’ creative process is affected by the day-to-day environment in which they operate. The opposite is likewise true in the sense that this environment is also altered somewhat by the creative undertakings of the artists that live there.

The various cities and towns I live in as an artist show tremendous contrasts from one to the next. Each of them¾whether Montréal, Val-David, Mexico or Puebla¾has its own culture and its own, distinct community. From the four thousand inhabitants of Val-David to the twenty-four million people living in Mexico City, the contrasts abound and are a direct inspiration for the creative endeavour.

Shaped by the environment

I consider that living in these places of culture is truly a great opportunity. There are many towns without artists or culture throughout these Americas we live in¾places thrown up using clichés and imported mediocrity, soulless, prefabricated towns that you pass through without wanting to stop.

The relations between creative artists and their towns are important and meaningful. It often happens that artists gather together spontaneously in certain as yet undeveloped neighbourhoods where it doesn’t cost too much to live, since they need space for their studios. This is not the only guiding criterion, however. Artists also look for the conviviality and tolerance characteristic of these emerging communities. By definition, they are marginal people who every day, through their actions, shape the spirit and identity of the places where they live. Years after they have passed through, their works remind us that these places have been redefined by the existence of a certain community of thought. In visiting them as tourists, we can share these moments in the history and lives of creative artists. Paris is the perfect example of this phenomenon: every neighbourhood there is filled with the memory of culture and history.

Artists: Instigators of change and creators of collective wealth

Not only do artists protect, preserve and enhance the places where they live, they also often fall victim to the wealth they have helped create. Many neighbourhoods have become too expensive for the artists that made their reputation. Everywhere artists settle, speculation is not long coming. New York’s Soho neighbourhood is a typical example. Today, artists can no longer live there and, instead, have to move away from Manhattan. Closer to us here, our now-famous Plateau Mont-Royal has recently undergone the same phenomenon.

The regionalization of culture

We are currently seeing a major change in perceptions regarding the question of culture in small towns. New questions have been raised and a heightened interest in cultural matters is perceptible in towns outside the major centres. This is a relatively new trend, which I think is largely created by the injection of new government funding in the regionalization of culture. I also detect a curious phenomenon of exhaustion of tourist resources all over Québec: today’s tourists travel a lot, demand a lot and aren’t about to spend two weeks’ vacation in just one town. That time has passed. Now you have to develop sites of major interest to hold on to these passing tourists for longer. As a result, towns are competing with one another to stand out from the crowd and many stakeholders are convinced that culture is the only viable solution to achieve this goal.

Beware of imitations

The cultural initiatives emanating from this new trend are sometimes distressing. Even though there may never have been a single painter living in a given town, nor any tradition of painting, people there might decide to launch a painting symposium. Looking for a guiding theme, organizers start up medieval festivals in towns that aren’t even a hundred years old… In short, people would like to use culture to give a boost to towns that are having difficulties, but what culture is there really to speak of? It’s the equivalent of opening an iron mine in a place where there’s no ore. That is one particularly disturbing aspect of the current process of regionalization of cultural budgets.
 Culture is a combination of things, both large and small, often closely connected to people and their history or to the local geography. This essential heritage is the basis from which we must try to work¾a fundamental reality that is too often overlooked by those attempting to develop cultural initiatives. Culture must, above all, be identified with a town’s citizens and serve their well-being before we try to turn it into an attraction for prospective tourists.

Artists and their towns

What should artists’ role be within their towns? What role are artists prepared to assume? A few years ago, we wouldn’t have dared ask these questions. With the emergence of new trends of thought and a deeper concern over the importance of artists in the economy of our societies, these questions have today become highly topical. With this in mind, we must re-examine the status we grant to artists within our society.

At our first symposium, LES TERRITOIRES RAPAILLÉS, held in Val-David in 1995, our guest of honour, Gaston Miron, presented his work La Marche à l’amour at the church in Val-David. Miron was very moved when, at the opening, Mayor Laurent Lachaine officially declared him an honorary citizen of the town. He then surprised his audience by stating: “I am deeply touched; you are the first town in Québec to name me an honorary citizen¾after five towns in France.” We had just accomplished a fine example of integrating the artist with his community.

Shaping the land: An artist’s idea

Spending time with artists from Mexico and Latin America, where their status is more firmly established than here, I have been able to observe the existence of many organizations which some of them have created to ensure that their culture endures. Numerous museums, studios and foundations there bear the name of the artist. In Mexico, in particular, a number of museums are named after Mexican artists. Try and find a museum named after a Québec artist, look for a high school or elementary school, and you’ll soon see they’re few and far between. The fear of criticism! The fear of imposing a name! The fear of remembering and of naming oneself. The committees and structures of the State help perpetuate this anonymity, but artists must not remain anonymous if their work is meaningful.

Land and town

We tend to see culture as being disseminated only in certain traditional spaces like art galleries, museums, exhibition centres or concert halls. The idea of using the land as a cultural space and convincing a town to join in as a partner is a major challenge. Try to imagine what the Laurentians will look like in twenty years or so. Today, Highway 117 and the main street are already congested by the influx of tourists and the traffic they bring. It is imperative to recall why people come to this region and this town: for culture and the natural environment. If we don’t preserve as much green space as possible, if we don’t protect nature with cultural projects, we may experience spectacular growth, but the village will resemble a bedroom community, a retirement suburb for Montréal.

Cultural policies and small towns

Another key point about cultural policies lies in the fact that the decision makers¾the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, Québec’s Ministère de la Culture et des Communications, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Department of Canadian Heritage¾must better understand that working in the regions calls for accommodation with the artistic community, citizens and town partners. Working together with people in the region and in keeping with town policies produces a complex network of relations that our fellow artists on those organizations’ selection committees too often ignore as an important value in regional culture. For example, if I put together a symposium in a major urban centre, I might just consult essentially the artistic and cultural community. The public would be only slightly involved. It’s an entirely different story when the project is connected with a town and a specific territory. This aspect must be taken into greater account by cultural decision makers.

The town as cultural leader

The town has a vital role to play in making our living environments more convivial and enriching our day-to-day reality. It must encourage the development of public spaces where citizens can share a history, a culture and a memory. Churches have played this role before in Québec. We now must rebuild this idea of public space around culture, and a number of towns in Québec have already established projects of this kind. The town is the most effective decision-making centre for improving our immediate surroundings, or making them ugly, for preserving heritage, or making it disappear. Town mayors have an important responsibility in this regard, that of building the heritage of tomorrow. I believe that artists must also get involved in this by participating in citizens’ committees and committees on culture or heritage.

The mayor of one town in the Laurentians recently told me: “We’re beginning to think of culture based on ourselves and meant for our public.” I replied: “Finally! No more phony projects intended for tourists who are supposedly eager to come visit us.”

Artists and the creative process

Creation is not linear, nor dependent solely on the history of art. It is constantly changing and reinvents itself in every age. The creative process is influenced by the place where it happens and the characteristics of the country where it is located. If Florence, Paris and Mexico exist as world heritage sites, it is largely the result of political decisions made by people who showed clear-sightedness and promoted the forging of close ties between art and the public.

Artists on their own can’t influence so many things. They have to wait for commissions. Every good architect, every good composer, every great sculptor depends, to a certain extent, on the call of society if they want to produce great public works. This raises the question of involvement on the ground and within the community itself, a process that is far from easy. As artists, we have to know how to set our egos aside, step out of our isolation, throw off that shell that has often become too comfortable.

We have to stop spreading the idea that, to maintain their integrity and credibility, artists must cut themselves off and remain on the margins of their communities. The Renaissance produced its share of major works, which emerged out of daily struggles carried on by entrepreneurial, socially engaged artists. These artists’ works form an integral part of history and underlie the ideological, political and economic struggles of their respective times. To reach that point, these creators most certainly had to act as factors of change and deliberation within their own communities and, by extension, their towns. Let’s stop stuffing ourselves with speeches on pseudo-integrity and instead observe the disappointing reality: artists without a public, fossilized by institutional support.

It is time for artists to react by reintegrating the public space into daily reality. Their independence and their freedom as creators depend on it. We have to seek out and create new audiences. There are many people who would like to take an interest in art but are put off by its methods of dissemination. To remedy these shortcomings, we must be able to count on the involvement of public decision makers and the formation of new partnerships between artists and towns, between creators and communities. These cooperative agreements constitute promising vehicles for our development and our identity.

René Derouin