Our economy is morphing in new ways every day, from an older industrial system founded on raw materials to a creative economy bound only by the limits of human talent and imagination.
– Richard Florida, Flight of the Creative Class
On a slow boil for several years – like a pot of creamy, chocolate fudge – the creative energies of Cape Breton are together again, mingling in a most appealing manner. A city, town, municipality, province, country is nothing more than the sum of its people. And the creative collective of Cape Breton is coming together to define the next steps of the island.
During the past two years at least four collectives have gathered to formally galvanize their artistic passions: The Cape Breton Stage Company, Cape Breton Filmmakers Association, Cape Breton Music Industry Cooperative and the Coastal Arts Initiative.
“All of these groups want to make the community more liveable,” says writer, director and actor, Michael McPhee. Co-founder of the Cape Breton Stage Company, McPhee says its sole intent is to bring theatre to Sydney’s downtown. Originally from Glace Bay, McPhee moved back to Cape Breton from Toronto in 2004. “Home is great, but it’s just missing a few things.”
Nelson MacDonald of New Waterford agrees with McPhee. A founding member of the Coastal Arts Initiative, he says they wanted to build a place where artists could gather, collaborate and display.
“There was a big void – a lot of visual artists out there without a venue,” says MacDonald. “We’d seen each others’ work on-line but no place to actually see the art.” Based at the Mount Carmel Centre, the group of mainly young artists produced six diverse visual art shows just this year.
“I think it says people of Cape Breton are ready to make things happen,” MacDonald says of all the groups coming out of the woodwork around the same time. He’s motivated by the collaborative nature of things. The Filmmakers Association used their space in the past, and the Coastal Arts Initiative sponsored a member to attend a film workshop with Cape Breton’s award-winning writer and filmmaker Michael Melski. This summer, Coastal Arts Initiative will partner with Stage Company and Todd Hiscock, director of CBU’s Boardmore Playhouse, to bring visual arts and live theatre to downtown Sydney.
McPhee says Sydney’s downtown business community recognizes the economic benefits and provided them with some funding for the summer theatre project.
“It’s young artists re-imagining Cape Breton for themselves,” says Cape Breton University Community Economic Development professor, Doug Lionais. He says the groundswell in the arts can be tied to social transformation from industrial times to now. Lionais says he doesn’t entirely buy into Richard Florida’s Creative Class argument that creativity as a commodity is the answer to economic growth. “I don’t believe the cultural factor can be the economic driving force in and off itself, but it makes for a place people want to live it.” And, he says, there are the economic spin-offs of more activity around the island. “I see it as a new energy taking place downtown – people feel it.”
McPhee attributes much of the burgeoning vibe to the grass-roots music scene which boomed here in the mid-late ‘90s. “It started with the music. Gobblefest, then Sunfish received a Much Music nomination, then you have Slowcoaster – all these musicians committed to making it happen.”
When asked if this resurgence of activity might keep people in Cape Breton, Nelson MacDonald doesn’t miss a beat. “It already has! When you get involved with a group in the community you start to have more roots in that community, and more reason to stay. It’s not just because your family is here.”
Michael McPhee echoes those thoughts. “It’s a convergence of a group of people who would normally have moved away, but didn’t. The big reason is because we’ve chosen to stay.”
With these burgeoning arts groups, built upon a tradition of creative endeavors, folks across the island can expect to experience plenty more photos, paintings, stories, films, theatre and music – examining the questions of who we are and, in the words of Slowcoaster, where are we going?