Originally posted in the Centretown Buzz
by Sarah Gelbard
October 11, 2013
Being a national capital is both a blessing and a curse to the creative community. Venues like the National Gallery and National Arts Centre are able to attract world-class exhibits and performances. Between our two universities and countless national organizations and institutions, conferences and lecturers of international repute abound. The big festivals – jazz, blues, folk – bring the big names right into our backyard.
The world-class “Big City” image that is easy to paint in one’s mind doesn’t always live up to expectation on the ground. My move to Ottawa from London (. . . yes, Ontario) wasn’t the big cultural shift I had imagined.
I’m not the first to say it: “Ottawa is not Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver.” It may compete in terms of its national and international attractions but its local scene is much more modest. And that’s perfectly fair and realistic given the context.
But Ottawa isn’t boring. It just takes a bit more conscious effort and active participation to make stuff happen and to find the stuff that is happening. In the past few years, we seem to have finally hit a critical mass of people complaining of Ottawa’s seeming lack of creativity, and more importantly, people willing to start doing something about it.
The shift, I think, reflects my own; from big city envy and wishing someone would make something happen, to trying to build and connect to a community that can make it happen here.
Creative communities form around events and shared moments. Events take a lot of support and organization, which is one of the reasons they tend to take root in larger cities – they take a certain momentum and mass.
I see Ottawa as tackling this challenge in two ways: first, focusing on developing a creative community that is broadly defined and multi-disciplinary; and second, connecting to the global dialogue on creativity through local events.
Ottawa perhaps isn’t big enough to sustain separate communities in art, music, design, etc. That can make finding an audience a struggle. We do, however, have a big creative community. While I personally would love to fill my calendar with architecture and design events, that just won’t happen in Ottawa. I had to look outside my field and am very excited by what and who I found. Circles and opportunities start to overlap and broaden.
Another interesting trend I’ve noticed in a lot of the cultural events popping up around the city in the last few years is their connection to international multi-city organizations and movements. Why? Because this isn’t a uniquely Ottawa experience. Medium sized cities, previously obscured by the big cultural capitals, are becoming extremely active cultural hubs. And what makes it really interesting is how these places connect to each other to foster creative communities around the world beyond the big city limits.
It’s one of the great impacts of the growing “creative commons”, aka “crowdsourcing”, aka “viral”, aka “DIY” mentality: no one is reinventing the wheel or giving us something we’ve never seen before or couldn’t see elsewhere. And that’s ok. The point is it’s getting done and has a positive impact on the liveability and connectedness of the community, both locally and globally.
Below are a few examples of the great creative community building events, all relatively new to the city, that I’ve participated in either as an artist, as a friend of an artist, or as a previously unconnected and now engaged attendee.
Nuit Blanche is an all-night distributed arts festival that turns the city into a temporary one-night all-access gallery for local and visiting artists. Over 120 cities around the world now host their own version. Ottawa/Gatineau recently joined the list with its second annual Nuit Blanche last month with over 150 artists exhibiting work. On the more technical design, craft, technology, and inventor side of creativity, Ottawa held its third Mini Maker Faire this summer. The fair is a venue for local makers, artists, scientists, designers, and hobbyists to gather and display projects. “DIY [and local emerging art] is often invisible in our communities, taking place in shops, garages and on kitchen tables…” Both these events “make visible these projects and ideas that we don’t encounter every day.”
Creative Mornings and Pecha Kucha are creative lecture series events with Ottawa chapters. Both of these, though I haven’t seen specific credit, appear to be based on the very popular TED talks and the catch line “ideas worth spreading.” Pecha Kucha, which started in Tokyo, offers a fast-paced, eclectic, multi-speaker evening exposing the many facets of creativity going on often undetected right next door. Speakers, usually about 10 of them, have 20 slides, timed at 20 seconds each, to present work and/or ideas. The Creative Mornings breakfast talks, while focussed on similar types of presenters, offer a bit more time for depth over breadth, with single speakers once a month. Both have become venues to “celebrate a city’s creative talent, but also promote an open space to connect with like-minded individuals.”
After 12 years, this summer was the first time I attended a music festival in Ottawa. And not just one but two! And not the usual suspects. Ottawa Explosion Weekend, in its third year, is an underground punk (etc.) festival featuring local and out of town bands spread across several downtown venues. The similarly fledgling festival, Arboretum, celebrating its second year, describes itself as a “boutique music and arts showcase”. Both festivals “showcase Ottawa’s established and emerging music alongside notable national and international artists.” While both of these are locally conceived and organized, unlike the local chapter/editions format of the events listed above, they still find their creative roots and models in the growing number of similar independent music festivals around the world.