Eating the Elephant

How to Build an Interactive Arts Scene

by Jody Farrell

For Dan Arberry, what began as a passing statement following his first exhibition in years, has emerged into something of a personal mission. He’s determined to establish a viable, interactive arts scene in the Peace Region, and, if recent turnouts at arts events offer any indication, his own proactive contribution to that end appears to be working.

Finding Balance Exhibition by Dan Arberry, Fall 2010

In May 2010, Dan blogged about his exhibition, Once Upon a Still Life, which had just opened at the Unique Gallery in Grande Prairie. A blog is one of those wonders of online communication; a collection of personal entries posted on a computer site for others to read and, when inspired, offer comment. Arberry wrote:

“My first showing in approximately 5-6 years. In the beginning I didn’t know what to expect. I have been living in Grande Prairie under the rocks and in the shadows for all these years and was scared to see the reception that I would receive. Since last November, when I started producing again, I have slowly submerged myself into the Grande Prairie Art Scene. And some might laugh when I say “art scene”, but the truth is…there is. Perhaps it just isn’t getting the exposure that it deserves. But, I also think that this group of skilled and modest artists sit back and watch…”

People agreed; the show was indeed a success. Arberry himself knew that his own online presence, along with a concerted effort to gather and forward timely announcements of his opening to as many Grande Prairie and Peace region residents as possible, was at least partly responsible for the large number of visitors that night. But he was also awed at the vitality of the crowd. People were hungry for art and eager for discourse. “So many elements of the night made it a success,” Arberry blogged. “The people. The laughs. The creative conversations. Emerging talent coming out. And the support that I felt throughout the evening.”

Arberry continued to document his feelings and insights on his own webpage, but also made a serious effort to let others know of other upcoming art shows and events. His goal was to build as big and as visible an arts community as possible. He began, he explains, the process of “eating the elephant.”

“It’s not something you can do all at once,’’ Arberry elaborates on the metaphor that aptly illustrates his long-term plan to effectively expand both attendance at the actual shows, and an ongoing, widespread discussion about exhibitions and art. “It requires little bites,” he adds, noting that anything large and lasting usually does.

Early information regarding exhibitions had always appeared on the Art of the Peace website and in its newletters, but the society’s board members, including Arberry, were forever tackling the problem of less-than-optimal communication and participation of artists and art lovers throughout the region.

Dan Arberry reviews the Prairie Ranger Photography exhibition, The Red Carpet

Arberry began gathering his own list of email addresses of anyone remotely linked to the arts in and around the Peace Region, and many from further afield. As months passed, he continued to announce, attend, and blog about exhibitions. He saw a marked increase in attendance. From 20 to 30 participants, exhibitions grew to 60 people or more on opening night. And these included a newer, younger crowd that arts groups had not reached in any sustainable manner before now.

July’s official re-opening of Grande Prairie’s Centre for Creative Arts was a big success, with hundreds of all ages attending the all-day outdoor activities, entertainment and ribbon cutting, and indoor exhibitions, including a live (clothed) model drawing class. The fine summer weather and the opening coinciding with Grande Prairie’s annual Street Performers Festival may have helped matters, but the interest was strong.

Another big surprise was the standing room only attendance at last September’s Wearable Art Show and exhibition at the Centre for Creative Arts. That entire Arts Days weekend, which featured a variety of activities throughout Alberta, was locally deemed a colossal success. The province-backed festival had funding for posters and ads, but lots of information circulated for free online. Alberta Culture and Community officials were thrilled at the public attendance and participation in and around Grande Prairie.

Recent discussions with fellow Art of the Peace board members resulted in Arberry’s creation of a more general arts blog on both the magazine’s website, and its Art of the Peace Facebook page, another online tool that allows for more visible and immediate interaction among followers.

“I try to write about and go to as many exhibitions as possible. I also invite anyone out there to go, and to share their impressions. Some people are scared to walk into an art exhibition. It can be intimidating. I tell them I’ll go with them.”

Small bites like these are how Arberry approaches the elephant-sized task of establishing a larger-than-ever-imagined arts scene in the Peace.

Visit Art of the Peace’s online blog at artofthepeace.ca, and become a friend of Art of the Peace on Facebook.


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