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Comment: Why innovation in the arts matters

Traditional arts groups such as orchestras, ballets, operas and theatres that neglect to think about how they fit into the broader social context and respond accordingly will fail.

Traditional arts groups such as orchestras, ballets, operas and theatres that neglect to think about how they fit into the broader social context and respond accordingly will fail. This might not happen today or the next day, but the writing is on the wall.  

While the arts are inherently creative, the need to be innovative is particularly important right now, given how our communities have changed and how people want to engage with the arts.  

Perhaps the most important factor is the growing disconnect between the audiences of traditional artistic productions and population demographics. If you walk into a typical theatre or opera performance and glance around, you will likely observe a relatively homogenous audience in terms of age and ethnicity. It is unclear at this time who is going to replace these audiences as they age.

 We know that Canada’s population has become more diverse and that this trend will continue. By 2031, visible minorities will account for 60 per cent of Vancouver’s population. Nationally, visible minorities are expected to account for 33 per cent of the population and those numbers are significantly higher in major urban centres such as Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Winnipeg. We also know that European art forms do not necessarily resonate with groups from different ethnic backgrounds or, if they do, there is an appetite for a more diverse menu of artistic offerings.  

Hamlet, Carmen, the Nutcracker, Beethoven are always going to be important works to perform, but leaders in the arts sector are recognizing that they are unlikely to attract new audiences in sufficient numbers.  

At the same time, the rise in technology has changed how people engage with the arts. Instead of having a select group determine what “art” is and is not, artists are able to post information directly to the web and connect with audiences around the world. At the same time, people are able to curate their own lives and to decide what types of art they want to experience and support.    

The challenge for traditional arts organizations, then, is to think creatively about how they can attract a younger, more diverse and technologically savvy audience to their productions.  

The good news is that many arts organizations are well aware of this issue and are working hard to come up with interesting and creative solutions to the challenges ahead. Alberta Ballet, for example, has been working for the last few years on something called portrait ballet, which features popular music and creates a performance around a musician’s story. The contemporary music, bright costumes and dynamic choreography is particularly interesting to young people who want to see a different interpretation of music they love.  

Vancouver theatre companies have been pioneering something called site-specific theatre, which develops plays that can be performed in a variety of spaces. This allows the actors to bring the production to the people by enabling them to perform in coffee shops, courtyards and public parks around the city rather than requiring the audience to always come to them. It also liberates small theatre companies from the expensive and limited confines of conventional performance spaces.

Companies like Globe Theatre in Regina are working hard to develop the talent and capacity of local artists. They focus on works that have been written by Saskatchewan playwrights and feature non-linear plot lines, contemporary themes and local issues. They are telling the story of their place, and by doing so, are connecting with the community in a new way.  

These are precisely the types of innovations that need to happen for traditional arts groups to be successful going forward. It’s not going to be good enough anymore to crowd people into a stuffy theatre to see productions that were originally written a hundred years ago.  

There will always be an important place for the classics and for traditional performance spaces, but to meet the needs of the next generation, our arts groups need to be thinking innovatively about how the social context is changing, how they can express that change through their art and how it is presented if they want to be successful.

The importance of arts and culture in creating a great place to live is one of the ideas explored in Canada West Foundation’s new book, A Place to Call Home, that I co-authored with Sheila O’Brien.


 Shawna Stirrett is senior policy analyst and interim director of operations for the Canada West Foundation