How Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador Builds an Amazing Creative Community

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Creatives come to Newfoundland and Labrador for work-life balance, the cost of living and the rugged beauty of coastal Atlantic Canada

Greater St. John’s is the capital region of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, and its largest city. The Island population has grown relatively slowly in the 70-plus years since it joined Canada, but the composition of greater St. John’s – including important regional towns like Bonavista – has changed more significantly. There has been a meaningful migration of artists, artisans and other creatives from urban centers like Toronto and Vancouver, and as far away as Munich.

Creatives come to Newfoundland and Labrador for work-life balance, the cost of living and the rugged beauty of coastal Atlantic Canada. In turn, they’ve contributed to a unique and important arts ecosystem that’s produced some of Canada’s best-known artists: Alexander Colville, Christopher, Mary, Barbara and Ned Pratt, David Blackwood, Scott Goudie and Anne Meredith Barry, to name a few.

What makes them come, or stay, is an ecosystem that’s been built around the arts. An amazing environment and low-cost living attract, but the community and lifestyle support keeps them. St John’s matters to the #freelancerevolutionbecause other regions are trying to achieve what Newfoundland and Labrador has accomplished: renewing its population by attracting young professionals. Understand how St John’s region accomplished this may help U.S. states like Vermont, legacy cities and even the rural Spanish countryside to do likewise.

I asked Christina Parker, one of the best-known gallerists in St. John’s, and a native Newfoundlander who’s worked with artists since 1984 to explain how and why it works:

“Somehow it all works together. Established artists attract a new generation from within the province and around the world. Government has developed a good grants system through peer juries in art, music, dance, and theatre. Galleries like mine take chances with younger talents and mentor them. Artists feel supported and can make a living while pursuing their art and are involved through a variety of publicly funded arts organizations and events. And the beauty of Newfoundland – assisted by amazing resorts like Fogo Island Inn – attracts tourists and grows the economy.”

“When the St. Michael’s Printshop opened in the early 70’s, we were a fairly isolated island. Don Wright and Heidi Oberheide developed the printshop for professional artists and set the bar high, committed to bringing printmakers around the world to visit, produce, and share their work. Their goal was to expand the art scene, introduce them to varied influences, and it worked. Over the decades, dozens of students visited from many universities from many countries. The printshop has truly expanded our understanding of the art world and introduced us to the world.”

The printshop is a steady pillar of the arts community, offering formal internships and informal mentorship. It’s just one of the ways “community” play a role in the arts ecosystem. The Bonavista Biennale is another, engaging the Bonavista Bay region, a stretch of several towns. Bonavista mayor and social entrepreneur John Norman explains, “The Biennale is a unique bi-annual exhibition of contemporary visual art by Indigenous, Newfoundland and Labrador, and other Canadian and international artists, and just one of many attractions that brings 80,000 visitors to the region each year.”

Communities help in other ways as well: working with the Provincial and Federal government and engaging Chambers of Commerce in providing low-cost space for artist’s studios and gallery shops. Global sponsors like UNESCO benefit the region by providing additional publicity. Bonavista has even appointed a full-time “Economic, Cultural and Heritage Officer”.

Governments also play a critical role by funding young artists, holding competitions, staking institutions like the Memorial University Art Gallery, investing in cheap studio space, and underwriting exhibits in venues like the Sound Symposium and The Rooms, the well-known museum of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Other initiatives reinforce the region’s attraction. Fogo Island Arts, launched in 2008 by Zita Cobb on Fogo Island, supports a residency-based contemporary art program, offering visitors an ultra-luxury resort and the opportunity to interact with artists through studio and gallery visits. Just recently the region welcomed a new home for the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador, another way in which communities and government works together.

And St. John’s growing reputation is impressive: Artists and other creatives are telegraphing the world that this is a place that supports artists and the arts: For Ginok Song, a talented young Korean-Canadian painter who moved to Newfoundland, that support includes the ability to supplement artistic income by teaching in the studio she built behind her home. Ned Pratt, a member of the celebrated Pratt family who grew up on the Island, and an important contemporary photographer, describes his experience of support:

“I can say, for the most part, the community has consistently offered me sincere support. We’re in the same boat: We chose careers in art that aren’t easy, the work is deeply personal, and in a place we love. You’ve got enough going against you making it in the arts – not just painting and photography – to want to support each other. And we’re all proud of our contribution to our Province.“

John Norman, community leader, and a major active art collector, reflected on the progress Newfoundland and Labrador has made in our interview. “This is a collaboration among all the stakeholders: Artists, municipalities, the Provincial and Federal government, and social entrepreneurs. We believe by changing the way we live and work, we can stem the brain drain from Newfoundland, and turn it around to attract and retain wonderful creative people of many kinds to communities like St. John’s and Bonavista. “

Together, the greater St. John’s arts region has created a place that supports and encourages freelance artists and artisans professionally and commercially. What does this say about experiments to bring creatives and other freelancers to legacy cities like Tulsa or rural Spain?

Newfoundland teaches us three lessons. First, it takes visionary leadership and investment – the kind Christina Parker, John Norman, Zita Cobb, Don Wright, Heidi Oberheide and others have provided. The work started in 1949 when the island joined Canada and continues to this day. Along the way, community leaders have continued to provide essential support.

Second, it takes all hands on deck. Community organizations work in concert with artists and commercial partners – gallerists, property owners and investors, tour operators and hospitality venues – together creating a community life that attracts creatives to the region. Active and involved community engagement is essential.

Third, it requires thoughtful planning. Inexpensive housing and one-time payments attract people, but it won’t keep them. Freelancers leaving San Francisco are looking for a place to fully live their life and work. The great movie Field of Dreams promised, “build it and they will come” but smart city leaders know there are no quick fixes. As Pete Saunders explained, the smartest cities are reinforcing the attractions of city living; investing in and tirelessly marketing the city services that respond to freelance and remote professionals’ interests and preferences; making the most of academic centers and cultural attractions; and, collaborating with industry. Do these efforts help? Cleveland boasts a 76% increase in university educated Millennials over the past 20 years. And St. Louis ranks as Millennials’ fourth most popular destination.

The greater St. John’s and Newfoundland and Labrador project reminds us that it takes time, attention, community and government leadership, and continuing support to create a community that attracts and keep freelancers. But it can be done! One-time payments and inexpensive housing is a start, and a good one, but only. Creating a community that is compelling to artists – or other freelancers – is a never ending construction.

Viva la Revolution!


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