small town Resilience:

Overcoming Austerity in PEI’s Artist-Run Culture

PART 1: the state of things

By Becka Viau

It was almost one year prior to Flotilla that the Province of Prince Edward Island pulled their operational funding from the PEI Council of the Arts. September 2016 marked a devastating blow to artist-run institutions across the country and in the province, as the PEI Council of the Arts was the only remaining artist-led provincial arts council within Canada. At this point the PEI government was left accountable for the development and sustainability of the Arts in the province, not the community. This felt very weird for the arts community on PEI and many were afraid to see what would come next.

this town is small inc., PEI’s only contemporary art focused artist-led initiative, was also going through a transition. I was pulling back from being involved with the management of the organization as I prepared to steer Flotilla. Thankfully the board took action and given the pressure of hosting a large national event like Flotilla, this town is small stepped up and presented a relational performance piece and a social night at one of the late night venues. These two events helped to prepare the organizers for transitioning into management of the organization.

Art in the Open, a long standing collaborative project between the City of Charlottetown, the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and this town is small, was also in transition as it became an independent non-profit rather than a project. This is an interesting point considering all three partners were key to the execution of Flotilla in Charlottetown. In many ways, although Art in the Open was moving at status quo, this project had already built strong trusting relationships with the host municipality, the province (a funder of the festival), the nationally mandated gallery and the artist run centre.

So, long story short, Flotilla was presented in Charlottetown at an incredible time of transformation. It brought the city to life in ways that only artists can imagine. It strengthened existing relationships with funders and partners, while developing a relationship with the national scene. Flotilla brought community, something that can feel small in such a remote place as the east coast. On PEI we are still feeling the positive ripple effect from this event. (Though, as a place with limited resources, many of our key administrative resources, I am sure, are still recovering from Flotilla exhaustion!)

Process documentation of Floating Warren construction. Photo: Andrew Maize.

Process documentation of Floating Warren construction. Photo: Andrew Maize.

PART 2: the cultural u-turn

By Amanda Shore

When Becka Viau was hired as the Project Lead for Flotilla, her broad network of colleagues at Atlantis were sprawled across the four Atlantic provinces. She incorporated as Becka Viau & Associates to create the administrative base that could accommodate Flotilla. Given that Atlantis ran on the volunteer support of artist-run centres, and operated without a paid staff person, Viau felt the need to create a management company on the east coast with the skills, knowledge, and expertise to handle an artistic project of this scale. Becka Viau & Associates was created to hold the administrative infrastructure that Atlantis didn’t have—staff, resources, and cash flow—to advance the first year of costs while the project was in the fundraising stage. Through stifled laughter, Viau jokes that her company acted as the “private yacht,” or safety net for Flotilla. As a private company, Viau couldn’t benefit from publicly funded programs such as Young Canada Works, so Atlantis played a key role as a national service organization in bridging these funding streams. As an artist herself, Viau created a community-oriented artist-run organization disguised as a private company in order to leverage liability and expenses across a network of underfunded artist-run centres.

Construction of the Floating Warren. Photo: Andrew Maize.

Construction of the Floating Warren. Photo: Andrew Maize.

hannah_g disseminated stories and hearsay overheard at Flotilla, as the Anecdotalist in Residence.  See the full project here.

hannah_g disseminated stories and hearsay overheard at Flotilla, as the Anecdotalist in Residence. See the full project here.

In 2017, Becka Viau was managing this town is small, PEI’s artist-run centre which collaboratively coordinates with Charlottetown’s annual festival of art in public spaces, Art in the Open. While Art in the Open was veering off into its own entity, it was still contained within the concentric circle of organizations that could shuffle technicians, artist fees, and office space amongst the network on PEI. Given the lack of funding available for each individual project, this networked approach to resource sharing has become essential on PEI. In the contemporary visual arts world,” Viau states, “we found who our real allies were, and we created a lot of new allies too.” After PEI dissolved its arts council in 2016, it became essential for Viau to work directly with the municipal and provincial government in order to access funding. Viau says that she was “able to extend Flotilla’s presence on PEI by a month because of Art in the Open and Third Shift,” the night festival in Saint John, NB run by Third Space. The two festivals collaborated to produce Brandon Vickerd’s installation Sputnik Returned #2 for Flotilla, and Viau’s production team split responsibilities between these events. Viau’s carpenters and technicians worked for Art in the Open for two weeks, then went straight into three weeks of work for Flotilla.

Reflecting on the benefits and drawbacks of a decentralized administration, Viau recognizes “a symptom of scarcity” in east coast artist-run culture. Artist-run centres, she says, are often “afraid to invest in administration because administration can be slow—but you need the administration to make it work.” After the administrative weight of Flotilla, and giving birth in the midst of the project, Becka Viau experienced a dramatic episode of burnout. “I had to drop off all the boards I was on,” she says, “and the community felt the impact of my absence. They were able to identify this gap, and that's where the province came in wanting to fund [this town is small] to put on this mentorship program. I think a lot of people learned from it, but we also learned that it is possible to do something of a large scale here on the east coast." The government saw her journey through recovery—having run several high-profile festivals that year—and since Flotilla, Viau has been hired by the provincial government, in partnership with this town is small, to mentor arts leaders on self care and setting boundaries in arts management. Through this program, Mentorship and Capacity Building for Arts Administrators, Viau and this town is small have worked to help break the cycle of burnout in PEI artist-run culture.

Looking for a silver lining, Viau says that her recovery has impacted the administrative community on PEI. Since Flotilla, both Atlantis and Becka Viau & Associates have introduced compassion clauses about self-care into all contracts for freelance and temporary employees. As artist-run centres pursue capacity-building, it is crucial to remember that growth is only sustainable to a point. As Becka Viau & Associates has demonstrates, care and vulnerability are not barriers to capacity-building, they are the building blocks of growth.