Can Art Save Downtown?

According to EDGE’s Google analytics, you probably won’t read this. Stories about arts and culture, the data shows, are one of the least likely to receive your click. And yet, in May, when the City of Yellowknife polled citizens about what should be done with its recently purchased lot on 50th Street and Franklin Avenue (the 50/50 corner) and 50th Street itself, the most popular solution to breathe some life back into our decrepit downtown was an art centre. It was an admittedly small sample, but still, art was the first choice when it came to fixes for the city’s decaying core.

Beneath its frontier town grit, Yellowknife is an artsy town. We show up at community theatre performances, drum dances, concerts, dance recitals, pottery sales, film screenings and art exhibits. When 70 people crammed into an empty store at the Centre Square Mall in February to experience Trace, a transgendered artist’s interactive performance, it proved that there’s even an appetite for challenging contemporary art that pushes beyond the white walls of a traditional gallery space.

Which is a space we don’t actually have in the first place. There has never been a dedicated public art gallery or any kind of permanent arts space in Yellowknife. Instead, grassroots organizations, like Yellowknife Artist Run Community Centre (YKARCC, of which I am currently president), along with earlier incarnations that came before it, have attempted to anchor creative and curious Yellowknifers, while slowly pushing forward the simple idea that art has a place in the city alongside sport, business and politics. Whatever form it takes, a progressive municipality nurtures art and culture.

In the case of YKARCC, it started with an empty church.  When, five years ago, local artists convinced a local developer to allow a collective of artists into a former Pentecostal church before it was demolished, they reclaimed the building as a short-lived arts space. Not only was the church a place to make and exhibit art, music performances and workshops, it sparked a discourse on the role art and culture plays in civic life.

In 2011, when a public forum was held in the space for candidates in the territorial election to share their vision for art and culture in the North, there wasn’t an empty pew. We are well beyond the point of knowing there’s a significant role for the cultural community in Yellowknife and, yet, we still seem to be far from agreeing what that looks like.


When the wrecking ball inevitably dropped on the church, ARCC moved to a four-bedroom apartment above the restaurant Taste Of Saigon on 50th Street. By renting out the rooms as artist studios and applying for municipal and territorial project grants, as well as hosting a variety of fundraiser parties and concerts, ARCC managed to run a series of exhibits, workshops and an artist-in-residence program. Now, the lease on that space in coming up, and the future of YKARCC, and art’s role in the city, is again up for discussion.

Art is not just a coat of paint

A few weeks ago, the City of Yellowknife and the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce hosted a Business Improvement District (BID) information session. An expert flew up from Edmonton. This is an idea being championed by city councillor Adrian Bell, former owner of Javaroma, and someone who really genuinely wants to save the downtown core. In the BID model, private businesses pay a levy and draw on public funds to give downtown a facelift (everything from planting trees to sweeping streets), ultimately revitalizing business.

Bell has been positive about the possibility of using art to help revitalize downtown and invited ARCC to take part. The problem was, though, the business owners and experts didn’t share this vision. They suggested ARCC participate by painting a mural or by making bike racks. This version of arts and culture as an afterthought, instead of an integrated part of downtown planning, is the reason Yellowknife lacks a municipal art gallery or a community arts space, and has a minor fraction of the public art you see in the streets of Whitehorse.

In 2013, Halifax-based documentary photographer and community activist Hannah Minzloff became ARCC’s first artist-in-residence in a themed series of workshops we called This City. The idea sprang from looking around at the abandonment of the downtown. Empty stores with boarded-up windows, a largely vacant mall, and a lack of concern for the people that inhabit downtown. That year, spikes appeared on concrete blocks near the Gold Range Bar, a popular hang out spot for street people. The following year, the benches outside of the Post Office in the city’s heart – a true gathering spot – were removed at the request of the owner.

Minzloff and ARCC invited city planners and the public to examine the revitalization of the downtown through public art, art-based events, and community participation. The residency culminated in a temporary takeover of 50/50.

With the addition of music, coffee and tea, seats made from salvaged pallets, a sculpture made from junk and some lights, that corner throbbed with life. We were warned that some of the street people might vandalize the effort. In actuality, we were thanked for creating a space they felt a part of.

Creating a temporary installation for one-night isn’t going to change the downtown. But what if we took it a step further? What if we stopped treating art as an afterthought, as a chance to stick some funky bike racks in at the last moment? What if we instead looked at arts and cultural groups’ very real history of helping to revitalize broken or abandoned public spaces. I’m not making wild claims here that arts groups or individuals could do it alone. But I am arguing that we should be a more integral part of the process. Those of us in the arts and cultural sphere need to make a better argument for ourselves as being more central to Yellowknife’s future. And those who think of arts and culture as a sideshow or a distraction at best need to look at what that kind of thinking has left us with so far.

Let’s Talk About Artspace, an event held tonight at the YKARCC space, continues this discussion with visiting speaker Tracey Bowen of the University of Toronto. 7 p.m., 4913 50th St.



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