A few years I go, I became weirdly obsessed with a short-lived Bravo TV show called Work of Art. The show took the tried-and-true reality competition show formula of Top Chef and Project Runway, and applied it to the world of fine art. It was a bizarre show, and rightly canceled after one season, but there was something perversely fascinating about it—not only about the strange transplant of a low-brow reality TV format onto the high-brow world of fine art, but also about the whole concept of art as a competition. Art is so personal and so subjective, so how can you ever say that one person has the ‘best art?’
So it was with some trepidation that I arrived at the McDonnel Street Activity Centre on May 25 for the first annual Peterborough Arts Awards, which, on the surface at least, not only applied that competitive idea to art, but specifically to the small world of the Peterborough arts scene.
One of the strengths of the local scene has always been its openness. No matter what crazy idea you have, you will find a small but loyal group of people willing to come out and lend support. This has made Peterborough an essential proving ground for countless artists—from bands like Lonely Parade, to curators like Wanda Nanibush, now at the Art Gallery of Ontario, who returned to town as the guest speaker for the Awards—giving them a low-stakes, non-judgemental environment to develop their craft. What benefit could there be to adding a competitive element into the mix?
My cynicism was immediately met by a crowd of some of my favourite people all hanging out outside. Actors were chatting amiably with painters, poets, puppeteers, arts administrators, directors, and journalists, as Curtis Driedger (dressed in a fine yellow tux) played a tune on the fiddle. From the very start, the atmosphere was amiable and supportive through and through.
“When you think of the value of an award,” says Su Ditta, “It’s a lovely thing for an individual artist to get a cheque for $2000, but there’s a whole lot of ephemeral things that really matter. It’s all the things that have been in the newspaper for the last six weeks about the awards, and putting people’s names out there, and getting people talking.”
The idea for the Peterborough Arts Awards has been in the works for a long time. Ditta, along with Liz Bierk and Randy Read, first had the idea in 2007, during the flurry of Peterborough’s sesquicentennial celebrations, when the three were looking for legacy projects to celebrate the city’s arts and culture. When Ditta became executive director of the Electric City Culture Council, a non-profit funded by the City and dedicated to promoting arts and culture in town, the idea resurfaced. “It takes a while. We wanted to do research and see what other cities did.”
Following that research process, the awards were full of decisions that were unusual and unexpected, but made with intention and thought. For example, several of the award categories were broken down, not by discipline, but by stage of career. This led to some quirky matchups, such as the Emerging Artist Award, which featured two poets and an opera singer, but it’s an acknowledgement of the multidisciplinary nature of the arts in town. Few artists only stick to one thing, and frequently work together on odd projects that wouldn’t be possible without their shared willingness to break out of their bubbles.
In addition, the event included two awards specifically to highlight groups too often underrepresented at events like this. The Outstanding Achievement by an Indigenous Artist award was a recognition of the region’s strong tradition of Indigenous arts, and the Bierk Art Fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough recognized four young artists just out of high school, who represent the future of the arts scene.
Even the wording of the show was carefully chosen to downplay the competitive aspects. “We don’t say, ‘and the winner is,’” says Ditta, “we say, ‘and the award goes to’, because we want to acknowledge that they’re all winners.”
It was also an intentional choice to involve the Mayor. The event took place at the newly minted (just for this event) Mayor’s Luncheon for the Arts. The Mayor’s office was a table sponsor for the event, and Daryl Bennett was in attendance and spoke during the event. “It keeps the arts on the radar of people in the City,” says Ditta. “Whether they tend to go to the arts or not, the fact that they come to this lunch, they get to meet so many amazing people, they start to understand what happens to make arts culture happen in Peterborough. I think they understand theoretically why it’s important, but this gives them a real, personal engagement.”
In the end, the purpose of the event wasn’t to celebrate any specific artist, but the whole community of artists that Peterborough has fostered. “Artists live a very precarious life, especially in Peterborough,” says Ditta. “We don’t have grants for individual artists. Arts organizations here really struggle for funding, and to have that moment when it’s all about the artists—that’s why we want to do it. To honour them, to shine a light on them, to tell them how grateful we are that they live and work here.”
List of Winners
Outstanding Emerging Artist
Outstanding Mid-Career Artist
Outstanding Senior Artist
Outstanding Achievement by an Indigenous Artist
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Bierk Art Fund Bursary Recipients
Cover image by Clifford Skarstedt, Peterborough Examiner, courtesy the the Electric City Culture Council.