Final words on the B.C. Festival of the Arts 

Hosting the B.C. Festival of the Arts in your community is a bit like having a creative bomb dropped and detonated on Main Street. Emerging and established artists from all over the province unite their explosive energy, they create sculptures, have art shows, paint murals, read stories and recite poems; they tell jokes, sing songs, relate aboriginal culture from cities and reserves and have a cabaret every night bursting with creative talent.

After the first day or two of this, once the host town has braced itself to the onslaught, it no longer feels like a bomb has been dropped at all, but like a conversation has been started.

This annual conversation between B.C.’s artists and its communities was brought to an end last week in Surrey with the last publicly funded B.C. Festival of the Arts. After 19 years of different B.C. communities hosting the festival, the provincial Liberal government, in a not-so-surprising move, cut the funding.

Surrey was an interesting choice of venue for this year’s festival. Unlike Nelson, Fort St. John or even Victoria, all previous hosts of the festival, it didn’t have the effect of pulling festival delegates together into a close geographical area. Surrey is not about centralization; it’s about dispersal. The three separate venues of Guildford, Kwantlen College and the Surrey Arts Centre were separated by miles and miles of four and six lane roads, couched by endless strip malls. The occasional undeveloped lot along these routes was bursting with bush and grass, testimony to the area’s previous lush growth. A bulldozer usually stood in these lots ready to complete the transformation to ashphalt. For an artist arriving from Gabriola Island, Lac La Jeune or even Whistler, Surrey provides the ultimate symbol of North American suburban sprawl.

Having recently graduated from Canada’s second largest municipality to a city, Surrey is actually home to a strong arts and cultural scene. The ethnically diverse and rapidly growing population makes for a rich multicultural society, one which will benefit greatly from a strong arts community. The elaborate and recently renovated Surrey Arts Centre is evidence that Surrey recognizes the need to develop the arts and put in place an infrastructure to ensure their growth and survival – that’s more than many towns in B.C. can boast of. With the physical presence of the arts centre, artists have a place to meet and work, to share ideas and to open the lines of communication with the community at large.

Communication, on many different levels, is what the B.C. Festival of the Arts is all about. There is the communication between the established artists and the emerging ones – a passing on of knowledge and experience which develops a continuum in the arts community. Then there is the communication between artists from diverse parts of the province. How often does a painter from Terrace get to speak with a poet from Kimberley about the surprising number of Real Canadian Super Stores on 152nd Avenue in Surrey? And when those poets and painters return to their home towns, enriched by their experience at the festival and inspired to create new works, there will inevitably be communication between them and their own communities.

So what’s so important about artists communicating with the rest of society? Indeed, why should the provincial government fund such a festival in the first place? Because artists show us our world in a new light. They not only entertain us, but deepen our experience both individually and collectively. They draw connections we may not have seen, build bridges we hadn’t thought to imagine. Like the grass that breaks through at the edge of the strip mall parking lot, they emerge to witness the world we’ve created. Sometimes they even point out the bulldozers to us when we can no longer see them.

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