This month, as part of the artsUNITE / UNITÉ des arts national launch, we will be highlighting four of our partners from across the country. This week, we sat down with Yukon Arts Centre’s Programming Director, Michele Emslie, to chat about the impact of COVID-19, the YAC’s approach to programming and the future of the Canadian arts sector.
I would love to hear about the Yukon Arts Centre’s mission!
Our center is a very interesting organization. It’s one of only three in the country who are actually legislated into existence. Because we are legislated we’re a line item in the budget, so to speak. I think it speaks to the forethought of the founders of the Art Centre, and points to how important the presentation and dissemination of culture is to Northerners. We are also responsible for the whole Yukon. We are the Yukon Arts Centre and we have been trying to lean into that mandate in the last few years by rearranging, reorganizing internally, and also how we allocate budget, to allow us to get work into the communities and to develop partnerships with communities. COVID has kind of put a halt to that lately but it’s certainly something that is, I would say, one of our strongest mandates.
The Midnight Sun Moppets Childrens Festival included performances by Claire Ness and Remy Rodden, bike decorating, DJ workshop, beading and a parade.
You have an extraordinarily broad range of programming, you have permanent exhibits, live performances, a venue, artists’ residencies. I’d love to hear more about your facility!
We really try to be everything to everyone. And that’s not always easy, but we have two venues and a beautiful space. One of the silver linings from COVID is that you look at your space differently because you need more of it. So we did a lot of programming outside of our space this summer, which we’d never done before. We have three performance spaces and several gallery spaces, one being the only Class A gallery north of 60 in Canada right now.
I noticed that you had to postpone your Chilkoot Trail Artist Residency due to travel restrictions. I know that the Yukon has relatively low COVID numbers. I’m wondering how COVID-19 has affected the rest of your programming. Can you speak to what kind of tools you’ve used to adapt to our new digital, physically distanced world?
We closed for the first few months from March to August. And then we started to open up again but right away we, like many others, purchased the camera equipment we needed to livestream We did a lot of online programming and a concert series through April into May. We also did a lot of kids programming. A lot of visual arts activities, poetry readings, you name it – we did it. In August we moved back into live shows and we’ve been pretty much operating since then with limited numbers. We’re trying to kind of bust down the silos between the visual arts and performing arts and trying to really do a lot of integrated programming throughout the whole building.
You mentioned that you’re responsible for all of the Yukon, which has a vast geographical space. What are the specific challenges around cultivating an artistic artistic community in such a remote place?
Joyce Majiksi’s Song of the Whale exhibit display at the Yukon Arts Centre Gallery. The replica of a humpback whale skeleton is built with Styrofoam found in the ocean and on beaches. The Waters of the Humpback exhibit is also on display by artists Irene Carlos, Cristina Luna, Natasha van Netten. Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre.
Well, the cultural community certainly exists and they’re thriving. The Yukon’s population is around 42,000 and the majority live in Whitehorse. The communities outside are all accessible by road except for one. So we have accessibility but there are places that don’t have a cultural center, or they have community centers that are not not well funded. So the only way we can program is really to develop partnerships and relationships in those communities. And reach a level of understanding about what is wanted and needed in the community, and trying to meet those needs. We’ve been really deepening and broadening our partnerships over the last few years. It’s one of our strategic priorities.
I’m curious about the flip side of that coin! What are the merits of being located where you are?
There are First Nations here who are reclaiming language and culture and have had self government for 25 years, which makes us quite different from the rest of Canada. There are three levels of government here: there’s federal, Yukon and First Nations. Even though there’s struggles and they’re the same struggles that are affecting First Nations across the country, there are also a lot of success stories here and a lot of relationships that we’ve developed and projects that we’ve worked on with different First Nations throughout the Yukon. I think our isolation has also been a boon during COVID, because we’ve been relatively isolated from the effects. So, we are up and running. But our COVID levels, knock on wood, are really low. And I hope they stay that way. So, you know, there’s definite benefits to being isolated.
I’m wondering what, in your opinion, would you like to see more from nationally focused arts advocacy orgs, like artsUNITE?
Honestly, cost of living – just basic income. I think if artists just had a basic income so that they can still create and make a living. And up here in the north, housing is a huge issue, I know it is in many places. I mean, artists are part of the community too. For some reason, and I don’t know why, we feel that making art is a privilege, it’s not something that should be supported, or tax dollars shouldn’t go towards it, I just don’t really understand it.
Art has such a fundamental place in everybody’s life. If you’re watching Netflix, you’re watching art.
Culture Days celebrations at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre included hide tanning, raku, buskers, mystery tour ceramics and book readings.
The other interesting thing that I’m seeing, and having a lot of discussions about right now, is the way the funding models force arts organizations to organize themselves. It’s a 1970s model that we need to dismantle. And the non-profit board model is no longer working and the way that we are accountable to our funding organizations needs to be dismantled as well.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists who may be struggling to create in this moment, what would you say?
I mean, really, my heart just wants to say don’t give up and keep creating because we need you. You are valued and you will find value.
That is fantastic. As a final note, is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on yet?
I guess I’m a glass half full kind of person. I know that COVID has been extremely hard on the performing arts. But I hope that we can find the time and space to come out of this as a healthier sector.
For more information on the Yukon Arts Centre, visit their website here and follow them below: