I’ve always believed that artists hold a special role in society. Their desire to make the world just a little more beautiful has a way of inspiring those around them. I’ve become fascinated by the role that artists play in rejuvenating communities and creating societies that are open to new ideas and embracing change.
I grew up in the core of a small city in Canada. It was the late 70s and many city centres were suffering because big box stores and sprawling suburbs had pulled people out of the city core. In our city, most of the old homes were boarded up and the tree-lined streets had seen much better days. Our local government was desperate to find a way to rejuvenate the city and had thrown all their funds behind an arts centre. It was the best decision they could have made.
The art centre acted like a beacon, drawing people in from the sprawling suburbs. It attracted all ages with programs in painting, ceramics, weaving etc. The classes were the normal arts offerings you might expect, but what we didn’t expect was the way the centre worked to ignite creativity within the community. Over just a few years the boarded up homes started to be fixed up, people moved back in from the suburbs. The video arcades and discount stores that had taken over the main street were replaced by restaurants and high-end boutique shops. The families that moved into our neighbourhood were entrepreneurial and creative.
There is a lot of research on the impact the arts have on cities, but what caught my attention were the articles on struggling communities that improved significantly simply because a non-profit, or a social enterprise, created an art centre for creative learning.
Like the small town in Canada where I grew up, many communities around the world have felt the positive economic impact that creative education stirs up. Take for example Ballycastle in Northern Ireland. Ballinglen Arts Foundation was founded by an Amercian couple who wanted to “boost local confidence and economic security by bringing international art practitioners to stay and work in the area.” They offered residency programs attracting artists from all over the world. Over the years hundreds came, people moved into the area and the local economy grew. There are hundreds of stories of small towns that have created learning opportunities in the arts, that have invested in culture, and have become stronger and more sustainable because of their investment.
A study done by the University of Pennsylvania found that “In lower-income neighborhoods, cultural resources are “significantly” linked to better health, schooling, and security.” Studies in education have shown a direct connection between success in academic subjects and the participation in arts programs.
There is something very powerful that happens when people learn the arts. The process of learning creativity opens people to new ideas, to new ways of thinking, and questioning the world around them.
The arts and culture industry also enhance support for environmental initiatives. When a community is open to ideas, and working collaboratively, they become a cleaner and greener community.
There are many places that still cling to old colonial views of the arts as a charitable endeavor rather than a strong economic industry. And these communities all seem to suffer under the belief that their children must become doctors or lawyers or they will be failures. It is no wonder they also lack entrepreneurs and the creative thinking that contributes to a strong economy.
Now that we are living in Barbados I find there is a feelingof hope that seems to be igniting change, not just at the government level but within the community. I have visited Barbados for over 3 decades, and never has the drive for change been as strong as it is now. Where the arts were once viewed as an endeavor needing charitable support, the industry is just starting to be recognised for the economic value it produces.
My family and I moved to the island last year to explore the possibility of creating an environment centre, but what we found was that the need for an arts centre to feed the community desire for creativity was a much more pressing issue. With the government struggling to carry the massive debt burdening the island, there is little funding available to sustain an arts centre.
Research on changes in the tourism industry has found that both culture and environment experiences are big draws for travellers. So we decided to combine them at a centre where travellers and the community will come together. By building a centre that offers environmental programming and arts workshops, we can attract local participants and affluent travellers and by combining this with a boutique hotel we can sustain the centre.
I have spent the past year meeting with community organizations, artists, and business leaders and the support, advice and encouragement they have given is overwhelming.
We have formed Canvas and Cave as a social enterprise with a mission to ignite creative education in the community, inspire entrepreneurs, and build the foundations Barbados needs to become self-sustaining. I know that we won’t succeed without support and direction from the community. When I look at the future, I believe that the process of creative learning will unlock ideas within the community, build collaboration, and inspire entrepreneurs to address the larger challenges facing Barbados.
First published in Visual Arts Barbados April 2019 Edition