The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Niagara’s vibrant arts community particularly hard, with impacts radiating out all across the region, says a new research brief from Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory.
Live performances, gallery showings, workshops, educational arts training and many other activities associated with the arts community have stopped or been greatly reduced, yet the implications for Niagara aren’t clearly understood, says the brief’s author, Associate Professor of Educational Studies Kari-Lynn Winters.
“The arts need to be continually supported,” says Winters. “The arts do more than what we think they’re doing: they bolster self-confidence and mental wellness, they leverage community building and reconciliation, and bring about self-actualization, inclusion and embracing diversities.”
In the NCO brief, “What’s Art Got to Do With It? The role of arts and culture in a community’s survival during a global pandemic,” Winters presents three vignettes to illustrate how the arts have made a huge difference in people’s lives.
One story outlines the situation of a homeless middle-aged woman associated with Start Me Up Niagara. After enrolling in an arts program, she was able to express herself confidently, raising awareness in the community about poverty and homelessness.
The second vignette describes a play that Brock scholars and graduate students created to help audiences better understand critical issues of forced migration, marginalization, truth and reconciliation, and co-existence.
The third story is about a drama workshop for Niagara students in Grades 4 to 8. After watching a play about body image, students were asked to role-play as experienced designers tasked with constructing the perfect mannequin.
The exercise enabled a 10-year-old boy with autism to stand up to the scenario’s hypothetical boss and explain why he designed his mannequin the way he did.
The NCO brief says the vignettes support research findings that a “central element of any community’s resilience is the critical mass of cultural activities — making up its life, outlook, creativity and ethos.”
“The arts really make us human because they enable us to empathize with different perspectives and positions; it’s a great way to re-frame thinking,” says Winters, who is also an artist, art educator and the 2020 recipient of the St. Catharines Arts Award for Arts in Education.
Therefore, it is very important for the broader Niagara community to support the arts and assist the arts community to recover from the devastations of COVID-19, says Winters.
The NCO brief makes three recommendations that would support the arts in Niagara:
- Set up artful spaces in public places: outdoor galleries and street theatre in various locations across the region “to broaden audiences, expand knowledge and offer spaces for critical and creative thinking.”
- Create educational programs that build relationships between mentor artists and community members.
- Establish grants for businesses to hire local artists, which makes the Niagara region more aesthetic and has the potential to bring beauty and joy to community members while appealing to people’s sense that Niagara is a quality place to live.”
The brief also notes the ways the “resilient and creative” arts community has bounced back, including Carousel Players creating Zoom plays, musicians playing music behind thick plastic in Niagara Falls hotels or on outdoor patios at Niagara wineries, and musicians performing on St. Paul St. in downtown St. Catharines.
There are about 1,200 creative and performing artists in the region, with performing arts companies supporting about 786 jobs not including promoters, agents and managers, as well as independent artists, writers and performers, says the brief.
“We need to appreciate the economic vitality of Niagara’s arts community,” says NCO Director Charles Conteh. “We’re talking about a sector not only with an economic value of more than $2 billion in direct and associated spending, but also with an incalculable value in the overall quality of life, advancing social awareness, promoting inclusivity and providing portraits of our shared stories.”
He says there are high hopes the sector will revive as vaccines become more accessible, but it still needs financial and other supports so as to contribute to Niagara’s economic, social and cultural vitality.