Photo: Catherine Bischoff, board member with CAFKA, feels tech companies are missing out by not engaging more closely with artists.
It was a provocative comment and it caught my attention: “I see precious little money coming from high tech, and there is so much talk from them.”
The comment, reported in the May 2 Waterloo Region Record, was made by Frank Etherington, Kitchener city councillor for Ward 9, which includes the downtown innovation district. He was talking about support for the arts during a council meeting to discuss whether to give free or discounted space to the Accelerator Centre and a non-profit called ArtsBuild Ontario.
The statement begs the question: Is Etherington right?
I ran this question past a few people in the arts and tech communities and – as is often the case with such blunt statements – the answers were not quite so simple.
I was, however, left feeling that all of us – tech people, artists, politicians, community leaders – can and should be doing more to support a vibrant cultural scene in Waterloo Region.
One theme that came up repeatedly was the need to build stronger connections between the arts and tech communities.
When I asked visual artist Jennifer Gough if local tech companies are doing enough to support arts and culture, she called it a complex question whose short answer is “no.”
“We can always do more,” Gough said. “We should always be looking for new ways to foster the growth and expansion of our arts community,” which she called “the life blood of our region.”
On the other hand, Gough described her own experience in working with the tech community as “nothing short of excellent. I’ve had the pleasure of working with companies like Communitech, the Accelerator Centre, Christie Digital and Quarry Communications, and have found them all to be very interested in promoting the arts and providing support and opportunities for local artists.”
The problem, she said, doesn’t lie solely with either the tech or arts communities.
“There is work to be done on both sides,” Gough said. “I believe we need to foster the connection between artists and tech companies. Create more opportunity for collaboration and bridge the gap. Open lines of contact and communication and provide a starting point for those relationships to grow and conversations to happen.”
To that end, she suggested tech companies adopt artist-in-residence programs, not simply to support artists, but as a way to improve their businesses.
“There are so many talented local artists with great ideas to contribute and many ways the tech companies could benefit from their input and creativity,” Gough said.
When I met for coffee with Catherine Bischoff, she made a similar argument.
Bischoff is on the board of CAFKA (Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area), a free biennial public art event that runs this year from May 28 to June 26, and her experience in seeking support from local sponsors, including tech companies, has been telling.
“When we reach out to tech companies to talk about engagement and support, some of them say, ‘We support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities and we’re not really into supporting artistic activities,’” Bischoff told me.
“I sometimes wonder what that means, because if you look at the progression of STEM, it is STEAM,” she continued, referring to the growing recognition that art and design are of vital benefit to innovative enterprises.
To make her point, Bischoff pointed to John Maeda, the former MIT Media Lab professor who went on to lead the Rhode Island School of Design and now serves as Design Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a top Silicon Valley venture capital firm.
Maeda has been forceful in making the case that design is “not about pretty, it’s about relevance,” and in a March 2016 report, pointed out that 36 per cent of today’s top 25 funded startups have designers as co-founders, up from 20 per cent in 2015.
“For a systems design engineer going to a mind-bending, provocative art exhibit or music show, it’s inspirational,” Bischoff said. “It’s about opening people up to that experimentation, to new ways of thinking, and I think arts initiatives help channel that.”
Supporting the arts doesn’t always have to mean tech companies writing cheques to arts groups, as Etherington’s comment implied, but people from these sectors simply spending time together, Bischoff said.
CAFKA, for example, is hosting pub crawls, coffee tours, cycling excursions and lunch-and-learn sessions for local companies looking to engage with artists. It also enlists volunteers to help the biennial run smoothly.
She also pointed to the recent appointment of Krista Blake as Catalyst of the Arts, Culture and the Imagination at Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics as an example tech companies can follow.
“They didn’t hire her to create an artistic program to tickle the fancy of the theoretical physicists,” Bischoff said. “They did it because they need a conversation to take place, and conversations often take place when they are inspired by something unexpected. And art really instigates that conversation, or has the potential to do so.”
None of this is to say tech companies and their leaders aren’t already supporting and engaging with local artists, as Gough has experienced. This despite the fact that tech companies – contrary to popular perception – are generally not profitable “until they are huge,” as one tech company leader, who asked not to be identified, told me.
“People tend to assume that the rapid growth carries rapid profitability,” the leader said, “but it really doesn’t.” In other cases, individual tech entrepreneurs have quietly given hundreds of thousands of dollars to various arts and cultural entities without fanfare.
Despite slim or non-existent profits, some tech companies still go out of their way to buy local art and sponsor cultural events, among other community-oriented activities.
The fast-growing Kitchener office of California-based NetSuite, led by Joseph Fung, has been particularly active in engaging artists, in addition to working to help people affected by downtown gentrification.
“In the last 12 months, NetSuite has commissioned more than $15,000 in work from local artists and artisans, with more to come,” Fung said, adding that the company chose to work directly with artists rather than funnelling their support through arts funding bodies.
NetSuite has also pledged more than $20,000 to sponsorships, mainly for events, at local arts organizations, Fung said.
Christie Digital, makers of cutting-edge projection and display systems, has been a huge supporter of CAFKA, the FLASH Waterloo Region photography event and numerous other creative initiatives, through financial and technological donations.
Communitech has also hosted many arts-related receptions, sponsored events, and bought and commissioned works of art displayed throughout the Hub in the Tannery.
Still, there is a widespread perception, if not a reality, of the Waterloo Region tech community as operating in a silo, disconnected from grassroots cultural activities.
Bob Egan, the Blue Rodeo steel guitarist who lives in Kitchener and operates a guitar repair business, told me this silo effect points to the need for leadership in bridging the arts sector to the broader community.
“I don’t think there’s a focus,” Egan told me. “I don’t think there’s a clearinghouse; I don’t think there is an entity or a person, currently, who can bring this all together and answer all the questions.”
The Creative Enterprise Initiative, launched in 2010 with the goal of doing just that, struggled to deliver on its promise despite more than $1 million in support from local governments, and is being wound down this year.
Egan doesn’t buy the argument that there’s a specific lack of support for arts and culture in Waterloo Region, at least not from a music perspective. He pointed to three recent shows he attended in the span of a week, from blues to roots to a classical symphony performance, which were all well-attended by divergent audiences filled almost entirely with people he didn’t know.
“What’s the easiest way to get a full house? Bring in an artist people want to see. It’s not a mystery,” Egan said. “Music, and art in general, unfortunately falls under the same constraints as anything else in a capitalistic, consumerist society – if people want it, they’ll support it.”
Granted, people can’t support what they don’t know about.
Egan suggested this is a challenge local governments need to address.
“We’ve got one of the best high-tech communities in North America, that needs arts and culture, and is probably willing to bend over backwards to help,” he said. “But we don’t have that person who can pull them, in a meaningful way, into the equation.”
Even if more money for arts and culture is made available, Egan said it’s important that it be directed to projects that produce measurable results for the community.
“Funding for the sake of funding, to check a box, is not something I can support,” he said. “Funding for a measurable, predetermined outcome, and for something that’s transformative, and funding to set something on a path towards sustainability, is something I can get behind.”