Winnipeg Arts Council

Arts are integral to vibrant downtown

Arts are integral to vibrant downtown

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday October 8, 2022, p. A9

Downtown is the heart of a city. In Winnipeg we understand this – we sing about Portage & Main, we paint and photograph the skyline and we write poems about the place where the rivers meet. For many Winnipeggers, our earliest experiences with the arts happen downtown. For me it included attending live theatre for the first time with my school. For others it might have been music lessons at the Manitoba Conservatory, trips to the Winnipeg Art Gallery or dance lessons at a downtown studio. As an adult I choose to live downtown in part to be closer to the venues and festivals I love.

Downtown is where our major cultural institutions are found. But it’s also home to many small arts organizations, and to independent artists and the studios where they create their work. It’s the hub of the creative industries sector, the film industry and new technology centres.

Downtown is where people gather together – whether it’s the Jazz or Fringe Festivals, attending concerts, visiting galleries and museums, or simply enjoying restaurants and bars. Ask any of the thousands who came out to explore the surprises of Nuit Blanche: downtown is where culture is concentrated.

Winnipeg needs a thriving downtown and the arts can play a valuable role in achieving that goal. Americans for the Arts, the leading research and advocacy organization on the continent, has demonstrated repeatedly that the arts enhance property values and the profitability of surrounding businesses. The arts attract the skilled work forces that cities want to be known for.

Here in Winnipeg we have our own data that shows just how integral the arts are to our economy. Culture to the Core, commissioned by the Winnipeg Arts Council and released in 2020 just as the pandemic set in, shows the incredible numbers of jobs and wages supported by the City’s arts funding and that the returns outweigh the dollars invested. The study can be found here.

But Winnipeggers know artistic expression isn’t just about economics. Culture to the Core shows that 9 out of every 10 citizens say arts and culture are important to quality of life and 8 out of 10 people participate in the arts. While both downtown and the arts and culture sector have suffered enormous impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic, the arts offer a powerful source of inspiration for communities aiming to reignite their downtowns.

Maximizing these benefits requires more investment in facilities, public art, and people. Other cities in Canada, including Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal have regularly increased funding to their arts councils while Winnipeg’s annual investment has declined. Artists need venues to exhibit their work. But a concert hall without performers and audiences is just an empty shell. The venerable but neglected Pantages Playhouse Theatre is a perfect example.

When we invest in the arts and artists, Winnipeggers have seen great dividends. The Creative City Network of Canada gave its first award of excellence in public art to Winnipeg in 2016. This year, a Winnipeg-based team of artists and architects won the international design competition for Canada’s LGBTQ2+ National Monument.

Downtown Winnipeg has enormous work to do to address poverty, housing inequality, addictions and the continued response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t want to downplay the magnitude of the challenge – I see it every day when I walk around my neighbourhood. Investing in the arts won’t replace the need for healthcare professionals, emergency responders or crisis workers. A vibrant downtown needs us to face these issues and will require a combination of public and private efforts. But the arts can challenge us to confront difficult subjects, document our journey and help us celebrate our successes.

The path forward needs to acknowledge Winnipeg’s complex history and include everyone. All of those who find a home in Winnipeg – First Nations, Metis, Inuit, and people from every corner of the globe – should be able to find their stories reflected in music, theatre, dance, visual arts, literature, poetry, film, video, and digital media.

I encourage everyone to ask their candidates in the upcoming municipal election about their vision for downtown and the role arts and cultural investments have in making that vision a reality.

When the arts prosper, downtown prospers – and when downtown prospers, all of Winnipeg sees the benefits.

Andrew McLaren is the volunteer Board Chair of the Winnipeg Arts Council, a partner in a downtown-based business, and a long-time downtown resident.