Ken Blackburn answers: what’s an arts council for, anyway?

Community connections encourage the use of the arts and incorporate their use into other social systems

When the idea of arts councils in general took hold in B.C., “maybe 30 years ago,” according to Ken Blackburn, Executive Director of the Campbell River Arts Council, they were designed to encourage arts groups to form and flourish – to get people interested in the arts, essentially.

They were to create theatre troupes, painting workshops, writers’ circles and art galleries. In general, they would facilitate the arts on a very basic level by encouraging people to get involved in them.

That has obviously happened. Everywhere you look, all over the province, there are art galleries, theatres, stores full of art supplies, and various arts organizations promoting their work.

There are people out setting up easels on the beaches. There are group photography walks happening in the woods and there are writers circles whose members are publishing novels.

So the work of arts councils was seen by many as a shining success.

But now what? What do they do now that art is all around us – now that people are creating art everywhere you look?

What good is an organization that’s supposed to encourage something that has already happened?

“When I started, about eight years ago now, that was the question we were asking,” says Blackburn. “How do we redefine an arts council now that it has, in many ways, succeeded in what it wanted to do?”

At the time, he saw their role as one which isn’t necessarily to create new arts groups out there, “but perhaps our role is to work in connecting those groups, with an idea of community development in mind. Maybe we should be making a link between the arts and the larger ideal about community development.”

And that’s what he still believes.

So what the council did was begin to establish programs in an attempt to incorporate the arts into social and community development initiatives for the betterment of our local society as a whole.

The first of these plans was the “Art and Health Initiative,” Blackburn says.

He wanted one of the council’s focus to be on the role the arts play in the overall health of the community.

The plan, he says, was to reach out to social service agencies – health agencies, seniors homes, youth at risk organizations, for example – and partner with them to offer the arts as a resource for the work that they have to do.

They began to set up these community connections to encourage the use of the arts and incorporate their use into other social systems to improve community health as a whole.

“What does it mean to have a healthy community?” asks Blackburn, rhetorically. “There is physical health, of course, but there’s also emotional and spiritual health, and that’s equally important. So we want to be a foundational part of the community’s health in whatever way we can.”

An example of the success of that initiative is the recent partnering with the Campbell River Hospital Auxiliary which will integrate local art into the hospital.

“I don’t know if you’ve walked through (the hospital), but it is grim in there,” Blackburn says, so the idea was to integrate some art into the place to make it more conducive to healing and recovery.

“There are a ton of studies out there that highlight the influence of art on the healing process.”

Where the art for the beautification of the hospital would come from was the next question, though.

To Blackburn, it only made sense for it to come from within the community, using previous partnerships and programs that were already in place.

“We’ve already got our programs with family services, we run an art program with the head injury support group, and we have connections with the art teachers in the elementary schools already from our banner program, so we connected all these dots and made a sort of feeder system for the art, and then we’ll do the framing and put it up in the hospital. Then maybe we cycle it every few months. It’s a great solution to a challenge,” Blackburn says.

The second aspect Blackburn said, in the redefining of the Arts Council’s role in the community, was just in being a strong foundational force within the community itself.

He wanted to get people to realize it’s importance, not just it’s entertainment or fringe value.

“Generally,” Blackburn says, “(Campbell River) still hasn’t evolved past, in many people’s minds, that the arts are kind of a frill,” meaning that they see it as a nice addition to their community, but not how it’s integral to its very foundation.

“How do you make a community positive and vibrant, with a sense of culture, and a place where people want to be? A place where people want to move here to be a part of it and businesses want to locate themselves? What is community development?

“Everybody talks about it, but what is it?” Blackburn asks, before immediately answering his own questions.

“Basically, it’s the relationship between your economic development, your social development and your cultural development.

“Those are the big three that give you a community. You can’t have one independently of the other.”

When people talk about economic growth, he said, they also need to consider, for example, the social atmosphere in which that growth will be encouraged to happen.

Find out more about your local arts council by going online to crarts.ca or contact Blackburn directly by email at arts.council@crarts.ca or by phone at 250-923-0213.