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Art in the Time of COVID-19: 2020 in Review with ACWB

In a world that seems to make less sense every day — especially in 2020 — it’s not surprising that the arts continue to be misunderstood.

“It must be hard for Arts Council with nothing to do during the pandemic.”  “I guess there aren’t many people creating art during quarantine.” These are just a few of the comments that Arts Council staff have heard since the world began shutting down in March 2020 to address COVID-19.

To be fair, many have wondered about the future of the arts — including many artists. However, as we approach the end of 2020, it’s reassuring to see that artists have adjusted by expressing their art in new formats: online, through social media, or in physically distant contexts.

So what is the role of art in the time of COVID?

 “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” says Toni Morrison (Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, editor and professor).

Art of Conversation

The Art of Conversation is a perfect example of fearless creativity. In late April 2020, as the world was focusing on quarantine, Arts Council Wood Buffalo began paying to commission local artists to create art based on phone conversations with isolated seniors and Elders across the region. 

The project was a collaboration with St. Aidan’s Society, and the idea was to have artists engage in phone conversations with seniors and Elders, then create a new piece of art inspired by that conversation. Arts Council would purchase the artists’ completed pieces, with the goal of having it gifted to the partnered senior or Elder.

Artwork produced includes crafts, paintings, poems and songs. But the most beautiful result has been the new friendships and experiences created through over 36 pairing — 31 artists and 34 attendees (seniors and Elders) — for a total of 65 participants.

Originally, The Art of Conversation was meant to be a series of face-to-face workshops, which would culminate in a collaborative design for a mural to be installed in Fort McMurray’s Arts District. COVID-19 has prevented those in-person meetings (for the time being), but the pandemic made the program more important than ever as art helped participants make personal connections, enhance their health and mental wellbeing, and overcome feelings of isolation — despite physical distancing.

In early December, a virtual exhibit of the art produced during Art of Conversation was released for viewing on Arts Council’s website, along with stories about the project and reactions to the work.

Artist in Residency & Mentorship Program (AiR)

While quarantine and physical distancing became the new reality, Arts Council Wood Buffalo made it their priority to adapt how they support artists across the region.

The first program to be adapted was the Artist in Residency & Mentorship Program (AiR), presented in partnership with Keyano Theatre & Arts Centre in March 2020. Originally, AiR was planned as an in-person series of workshops hosted by award winning, multi-disciplined theatre artist Michelle Thorne, while she directed The Great Gatsby for Keyano Theatre.

The program was quickly adapted into a series of free online workshops. This was the first time AiR had been held in an online format, and participants reported the workshops to be informative, exciting, and an effective strategy for dealing with the pandemic.

Later in the summer, Arts Council hired Geoff Jones (a former Fort McMurray resident) to be the Artist in Residency Project Coordinator and would develop resources to support future AiR programming. Geoff quickly got to work with ACWB Programs Manager, Luay Eljamal, on the second AiR session of 2020, which began in the fall with local humourist and storyteller Carla White

White’s residency includes writing, publication and creativity workshops offered to the local community while she develops a script dramatizing the events, demographics, learnings, and community-building that arose out of the 2016 Horse River Wildfire. The project will end in a stage reading of White’s final script, which is scheduled for December 11, 2020. 

Around the Campfire: Music, Stories & Songs

Another example of adapting the arts to a new format was Around the Campfire, hosted in May 2020, and inspired by the traditional Nashville-style guitar pull. This virtual livestream event was hosted in partnership with Friends of Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts (FoSECPA) and Country 93.3, and featured local singer-songwriters taking turns playing songs, and swapping stories and personal recollections. 

Performing artists included Éva LaPrairie, Shantelle Davidson, Dan Gillies, Max Noseworthy, Aaron Deslandes, and Mychela. With over 13,000 views, the event was in the style of a traditional guitar pull, as artists shared stories about their songs and their playing style, and engaged with the audience in between performances of their original music. 

Arts in the Rural Communities

Arts Council also adapted to artists’ needs by enhancing their connection with rural communities. The first step was to hire two Rural Arts Support Liaisons (RASL): Donna Aubichon, based in Fort Chipewyan, and Jules Nokohoo, based in Janvier. The RASLs’ task is to work with rural residents to co-envision and develop new initiatives, programs, and services to meet their unique artistic needs. Additionally, the RASLs’ goal is to enable communities to engage with the arts, crafts, and traditions of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

For many, tradition has been turned on its ear, but the RASLs have been using this as an opportunity. Recently, Aubichon combined tradition with innovation by hosting an online beading workshop in Fort Chipewyan as a way of sharing knowledge and staying creative. Aubichon also coordinated a mask-making workshop as a way of using the arts to mitigate and cope with COVID-19.

The Arts Awards (a.k.a. The Buffys) have become an annual tradition in Fort McMurray, but haven’t typically been as prominent in the rural communities. In October, Fort Chipewyan residents took part in their first Arts Awards watch party (observing health and safety protocols). Residents, artists, Elders and community leaders joined together in a small group to recognize award nominees and recipients in the community. 

This watch party was just one of many activities planned to create more inclusivity with the talented artists that live and create in the rural communities.

The Buffys – Wood Buffalo Excellence in Arts Awards

The Buffys – the local equivalent of the Oscars – was broadcast on October 17 as a free online cinematic experience as a way of respecting the health and safety of the hundreds of artists and supporters that attend the event each year. Instead of inviting people to an awards event typically held at Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts (SECPA), it was broadcast for free to homes across the region and beyond, with an estimated 13,800 viewings (some as far away as Japan).  

The awards showcase also featured a number of collaborative performances by local talent and a raucous steampunk storyline written by Elizabeth Wells and Zachary Barrett, who hosted the show. Performances included a diverse range of dance pieces, original and classic music, comedy, and theatre supported by visual arts, functional sets, costumes, props and puppets, all of which were tied together by local video artists Matthew Lorenz, Matthew Piercey, and Neville Video Productions to create a cinematic steampunk experience.

Getting to Sold & Marketplace

As local businesses and residents have struggled from economic pressures resulting from COVID, and recovery from flooding in downtown Fort McMurray, a special project was created to support artists wishing to build their business know-how in the arts world. In August, Arts Council hosted a series of four online workshops (free for members). The Getting to Sold workshops were designed to help crafters, artisans and new artists get their products to market, and was a huge success with 21 registrants. 

The Getting to Sold project will culminate in an online resource called Marketplace. Marketplace is an online portal hosted on the ACWB website where artists can sell their arts and craft, build their following, and develop their dream of getting their art on the market. Art lovers can search, sort and shop for local arts and craft that have been made with community spirit. As an added bonus, it’s an opportunity to shop local, support local, and participate in the arts community.  

In August, Arts Council made the call for artists to pre-register and help with populating Marketplace and testing before launching the platform to the community. Over 50 artists registered, ensuring a robust group of vendors would be listed in the Marketplace with their arts and craft to be sold to the community in time for the Christmas holiday season.

Arts Incubator

While discussions and engagement has been ongoing for a couple of years, the process of creating an Arts Incubator in Fort McMurray began in earnest in early 2020. An Arts Incubator is a community space that can support and nurture a diverse range of arts and culture. The wheels are now in motion to remodel the old Landmark Cinema 6 building in downtown Fort McMurray and transform it into an Arts Incubator space for the region.

After completing a feasibility study and public engagement throughout 2020 — including a public survey with more than 400 responses and dozens of conversations with stakeholders — ACWB has now started creating their funding plan and branding for the facility. 

The arts incubator will be located in downtown Fort McMurray, but will be available as a centre for artists from across the region to gather and work. It will also be used as a venue for performances, workshops and showcases, as a community gathering space, and to host events and festivals that offer a broad opportunity for engagement with the arts.

Membership Extensions and Giving Tuesday

In March, Arts Council began issuing free extensions for memberships that were set to expire. Memberships were extended until November 30, and since March, over 70 extensions were given free of charge.  

The goal was to ensure that despite COVID, flooding, or any of life’s challenges, artists still had access to membership benefits, news, artist calls, opportunities, and connection to the arts community. This small gesture was intended to support those who have had other priorities in their lives beyond thinking about paying for membership fees.

Arts Council also created a new Membership Bank as part of the Giving Tuesday campaign in May – and will do so again for December 1 – to make sure memberships are barrier-free, so anyone in the region can have access to the benefits of ACWB membership and be a part of the unified voice for the arts in Wood Buffalo.

Giving Tuesday is a global movement, and on December 1, ACWB is inviting Wood Buffalo residents, businesses, and organizations to participate in Giving Tuesday on a local scale by becoming an Arts Champion

Support yourself and others through the arts by being an ACWB member, sponsor, donor, or volunteer. Take part in this regional movement and ACW-Be an Arts Champion for Wood Buffalo. This movement aims to support the ongoing response to COVID-19, recovery from flooding in downtown Fort McMurray, and the well-being of residents across the region.

Arts Council in 2021 and Beyond

To those who have been wondering what the arts community has been up to during 2020, this is just the tip of the paintbrush. The arts have been alive and vibrant throughout 2020 despite the misconception that the arts have stopped to wait for COVID-19 to quietly go away never to return. View the Art in the Time of COVID-19 infographic for further information about how ACWB has been advocating for the arts community in 2020.

Now you might be wondering what’s in store for the arts community in 2021. Canadian cultural icon William Shatner has a simple philosophy: “The good life is one that’s artistically made.

With that said, from everyone at Arts Council Wood Buffalo, we look forward to supporting the growth and success of the arts in Wood Buffalo for many years to come — especially in the midst of uncertainty. Learn more about local (and beyond) arts initiatives, opportunities and achievements at or follow Arts Council on social media to stay connected with the arts community: @artscouncilwb.