Home » Explaining the Winnipeg Art Scene: Part Two

Explaining the Winnipeg Art Scene: Part Two

Here is part two of fascinating article written by former Winnipegger Edwin Janzen, an artist and writer currently based in Ottawa. The article was previously published in Drain magazine – you can read the full article ,HERE, (under Related Essays) or click HERE for previous posts on VoCA. Stay tuned as we publish it serially, every week.

The City of Winnipeg welcomes visitors. Image: eclairefare.com

The Power of Myth
How Did Winnipeg and Its Art Become such a Big Deal?

By Edwin Janzen

Part Two: Booster Town

Winnipeg in its early days was a boom town, but the dream went south with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, and the city entered a decades-long economic winter. To be sure, Winnipeg has many things going for it. Ukrainian perogies and Mennonite farmer sausage are easily had. Every summer the neighbourhood streets are transformed into cathedrals of foliage by rows of towering elms. And the city’s electorate tends to return NDP legislators, a successful record undermined in part by its record of electing silly mayors.

The best thing about Winnipeg is hope, which allows Winnipeggers to put aside the fact that the factors in favour of their city are outnumbered by the factors against. Winnipeggers turn a brave face to their city’s seemingly intractable social and economic problems, even as they lack, and lament the lack, of the resources to address them.

Poster from Cree artist Kent Monkman’s show at Urban Shaman, Winnipeg, 2008.
Image: urbanshaman.org

This sad but hopeful reality has given rise to a longstanding tradition of civic boosterism, as leaders and citizens alike have strived to foster civic pride by whitewashing the city’s quotidian grit. Drivers entering the city are greeted by signs proclaiming “Winnipeg: One Great City.” Every Winnipeg child of the 1980s will forever recall the nauseating “Love Me, Love My Winnipeg” campaign — and strive in vain to forget the little-lamented “101 Reasons to Love Winnipeg” campaign of the 1990s. Boosterism went province-wide in 2006 with “Spirited Energy,” a crypto-racist, multi-million-dollar Manitoba rebranding effort that paradoxically mingled northern hydro development with images and styles appropriated from First Nations.

Between 1996 and 2000, the Aboriginal population in Winnipeg was projected to have grown to approximately 50,000 – just over 7% of the population. Image: gov.mb.ca

I’ve sometimes felt that Winnipeg’s particular form of self-promotion had a certain arrogance or meanness. First, civic-pride campaigns are well tested vehicles for local politicians to score points with voters while doing little of tangible worth to earn them. That’s bad enough — but this meanness is something deeper.

At some point in the mid-nineties I attended the impressive Du Maurier Arts New Music Festival, just the kind of event Winnipeggers should have rightly been proud of. Sadly, the single detail that remains with me from this festival was the host, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Maestro Bramwell Tovey, goading the audience to boo whenever he said the hated word “Toronto.” Embarrassingly, the audience ran with it.

These were no shock-jock talk-radio fans, snitch-line callers, or that tedious, tie-a-yellow-ribbon sort of goofball patriot. These were sophisticates, well-heeled urbanites, a university-educated set that might well frequent the city’s art galleries and book readings.

Incidentally, HERE‘s a good blog, called Winnipeg Love Hate, of photographs of the city by Bryan Scott.

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