Creating a Thriving Art Practice as a Rural Artist
I moved from Vancouver to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in the summer of 2018. At the time, I had many people ask me why I would make such a move. To many, it seemed like a move that was the exact opposite of the accepted formula for success. Of course, at that time, no one knew the huge changes that were about to affect the whole world with the onset of the global pandemic.
It has been interesting to exist in this rural space, on both sides of that paradigm shift. Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen a questioning of urban life and renewed interest in rural life that has arguably not been seen in over a century. I was just ahead of that curve by coming here in 2018 but I knew coming here would give me a life and a home that I never could have had in the city. In the city, I was trying so hard that I was burnt out and I couldn’t grow as an artist that way. I was willing to take that leap of faith.
But that is not to say that living rurally doesn’t come with its own set of barriers. So how do you navigate that as a practicing artist, in a world where “arts & culture” has become almost synonymous with urbanity?
I’ll give you some of my tips for success that I have learned! Let’s start with the hard things, and then the fun things.
The hard things:
1. You’re going to have to network harder and go out of your way to raise your hand.
Volunteering is the key to this. Obviously within reason! Don’t take on any more than you reasonably can, you don’t want to be burning yourself out. That being said, the arts community is exactly that, a community. You get what you give, so you may find that doors open for you when you participate and people know you more. Reach out to artist-run centres, community festivals, non-profit boards, even places like farmers markets. Even if you just take on volunteering on a casual basis it can really help you along
2. Driving/Carpooling will become an unavoidable fact of your life.
This one is two-fold. Public transit is either poor quality or nonexistent in much of this country. In addition, most of the time key arts events and opportunities will still congregate in more populated areas. Travelling within your region and province will become a routine reality. If driving a car is not something you have access to, carpooling will become important. That’s why the component of volunteering and getting to know your community will also help this. As you get to know other artists, you will find that others are interested in similar events. Share resources and share rides!
The first year I lived in Cape Breton, I didn’t own a car. I got to know other artists and I got through that year by going to events in groups.
The fun things:
1. SUBSCRIBE. TO. E-NEWSLETTERS.
Seriously, it’s free info, why not? An easy way to see what’s going on in your scene, your sector. Think of all the people whose job it is to curate that for you, they want you to use it. Subscribe to anything you think is relevant to your region or your discipline. You can always unsubscribe later and you never know what you’re going to find. Here are a few good places to start:
- University art galleries in your province.
- Canadian Craft Federation
- Provincial Craft Councils ( I’m subscribed to the Nova Scotia Designer Craft Council, but every province has their own craft council too!)
- Arts non-profits ( Visual Arts Nova Scotia is one that I’m subscribed to)
- Artist run centres (Some good ones on the east coast include: Khyber Arts Centre, RADSTORM, Centre for Art Tapes, Third Space Art Gallery, Eastern Edge Art Gallery , This Town Is Small Gallery)
- Medium specific publications ( For example, I subscribe to the Textile Museum of Canada and the Textile society of America)
2. Attend events like it’s your job. Because it is.
It took me a long time to understand that engaging with the work of others is still part of the process. It’s still labour, so don’t discount that for yourself! When I lived in the city, it was easy to regard going to workshops, events, festivals, and openings as recreation, because of course I enjoy doing it, and it was all around me so I could go casually without much hassle.
When I moved to Cape Breton, suddenly it meant that going to things like that often meant a whole day’s travel to really engage and make it worthwhile. And I would have guilt for not being in the studio doing my work. But I have come to understand that travelling to participate in things IS my work, and I block time for it.
3. Don’t be afraid to fail strategically.
Hear me out: No one loves rejection. But without rejection, there is no room to grow. And sometimes a no today doesn’t necessarily mean a no forever. Sometimes a no can be a way onto something else.
Many times I’ve applied to calls that I don’t think I’ll get. Because if someone saying no is the worst-case scenario, then I haven’t actually lost anything. Applying regardless has become an important tool to make new connections in my practice. Because even if I don’t get the gig, it’s still important that the folks making the calls know that folks like me are interested and sometimes I get considered the next time around. And as a side note, sometimes you surprise yourself. Sometimes you get it!
Being a rural artist may be different than being an urban artist but if you’re intentional with how you spend your time, you have every ability to be a valuable member of your arts community. Raise your hand and get out there! It’s an amazing time to be a rural artist as we see continued changes in the nature of work in a post-pandemic world.