Another year in the arts: A Q&A with Ken Blackburn

There’s never been a better time to be an artist in Campbell River

Ken Blackburn

There’s never been a better time to be an artist in Campbell River, according to Campbell River Arts Council Executive Director Ken Blackburn. As one year comes to a close and another is about to open, Blackburn looks back on 2016 fondly, but looks forward to 2017 even more.


Q: Tell me about the artistic culture in Campbell River as we bring this year to a close.


A: I think it’s as good as I’ve ever seen it. There’s a buoyancy in town right now that I don’t think I’ve ever felt. I think arts and culture has moved to a more central role in community thinking, and no doubt in community planning, like you see in the Refresh Campbell River campaign. Those types of initiatives have all moved art into a place where it plays a role in the experience of what it means to be in this community.

I think the message that the Arts Council has been promoting for years about the importance of art in contributing to the economic, social and cultural development of the community is finally catching on and taking hold.

It’s just such an interesting time for the arts in Campbell River right now, not the least of which is because economic development and tourism is sort of being re-thought. There’s going to be a new strategy, and I think you’re going to see arts and culture play a key role in that strategy.


Q: Okay, so what do you see as the role of the arts as the community moves forward with developing and implementing these types of strategies?


A: Well, first, I think you’re going to see much more bundling of experiences within the tourism sector.  People might come here for wildlife tours or adventure tourism of some kind, for example, but you can bundle in a cultural experience or artistic experience for them at the same time and build partnerships between operators and hotels and the arts community to make that kind of thing happen. I think that’s something that’s been slow to come to Campbell River.

It’s been going for awhile in other places, but I think it’s going to start coming to the surface here now that we’re at the point where, like I said, there’s an understanding of the role of the arts that’s just kind of present in people. I think there’s a significant change coming to Campbell River in that way, you know?

Q: What are you most impressed with in terms of the arts within the community in 2016?


A: One of the things I’m most happy about is the progress being made by the city’s Public Art Committee.

We did a bunch more box wrapping this year, and I hear from people all the time about how much they like them, and some of the murals that have been done downtown have been really great. We tried some work with the crosswalks, which was great, too.

The work in making public art something that is integral to the identity of the community itself is coming along, for sure. Yeah.

We’re not where I think we need to be, yet, but we just started, so that’s to be expected. it’s coming along.

But the thing that jumps out the most in terms of specific projects, I guess, is our new Sybil Andrews graphic novel.

Even though we’re talking the tail end of the year and we’re only getting started, we first pitched the idea back in June and we’ve been working on getting it underway since then. (More on this project in an upcoming edition of the Mirror.)


Q: So, other than the Sybil Andrews graphic novel, what are you most looking forward to in 2017, from an arts and culture perspective?


A: Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the hospital.

The potential for community engagement in that hospital and opportunity to create an environment in that hospital that reflects what this community is and what its values are is going to be huge.

We’ve been getting the ball rolling on that over the past number of years working with the Hospital Auxiliary and within the current hospital, so hopefully that will continue into the new facility.

The Art in Hospital initiative is something that started in the current hospital.

It’s a huge project, and, again, it’s nice that the arts is being recognized as being an integral part of the health of the community, and it’s nice that that’s being considered and hopefully implemented in a way that, like I said, reflects the values of the community.

So between the hospital coming on-line next fall, tourism getting a whole new outlook for next summer…and we’re hoping to launch the graphic novel on Sybil Andrews’ Day in April in conjunction with a big Sybil exhibition at the museum, it’s a year filled with huge possibilities.

Q: Okay, enough horn blowing, Blackburn. What were the fails last year?


A: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a fail, but the place we always struggle would be in our fundraising efforts. Our challenge here is because we’re not audience-driven, we’re highly invisible. People don’t even know, even after all these years of the banner project, for example, which everyone loves, they don’t know that the Arts Council does that. And that’s probably true with everything we do, unfortunately.

They don’t know that we’re behind the scenes in the hospital. They don’t know that we’re behind the scenes in building the public art program. They don’t know that we run seniors programs, youth programs, head injury programs, because they’re all done individually, within those other institutions. Our community visibility is not high.

If you ask a bunch of people what the Arts Council does, you may be lucky if one of them even knows that we’re in the Sybil Andrews Cottage, let alone what we do. Usually, they’ll think we manage the gallery. This is our challenge.

If the consciousness in the community would be that they would understand what we do, I think our fundraising would be more successful, because people, if they looked at what we do, would say, ‘you know, that actually has a ton of value.’”


Q: So just what are you planning to do about that?


A: Well, part of the problem is that when I came on as executive director about 10 years ago, it was kind of my goal for that to be our role – to just be in the background and make things happen in terms of the integration of the arts into other things, so, in that, we’ve been highly successful.

The problem with that is that when you’re in the background, people don’t see what you do, and PR or marketing – or whatever you want to call it – just isn’t really my skill. Hopefully in bringing in Heidi [Cuff, new CRAC administrative assistant], we can remedy that a bit, because she is actually of that world.

She understands that world very well, so maybe she’ll make a difference on that front.

But really, while it would be nice to have a bit of extra money, not getting it won’t affect the quality of what we do. The quality is already there and established. It would allow us to maybe have a little bit of fat for once, and start some new initiatives, but we’re not going to be cutting programs or anything if our fundraisers don’t start working out better.


Q: Okay, what’s the final word on 2016?


A: I guess it’s just that I’m really quite pleased that, after all these years of working at it, the recognition has finally come that the arts are fundamentally a resource that can be applied to almost any situation. Whether it’s private business and economic development or whether it’s social services, cross-cultural communication and working multiculturally, in healthcare and hospitals, in schools and education – I mean the arts are something that can play a positive role in all of this. And traditionally, I think the arts weren’t seen that way.

They were seen as ‘you go to art school and you become an artist, and then you show your stuff in a gallery or a museum or whatever.

The consciousness has become more that the arts has become a working resource that allows communities to build themselves into the image they want to be, and I’m happy that’s happened and I look forward to seeing it continue and find out what it means for the community going forward.