The Creative Enterprise Initiative has learned nothing from the errors of its ways in the not-too-distant past. This is sad and regrettable, but not unexpected given its tenuous leadership.
Waterloo Region tax payers remain in the dark as to what really happened when Heather Sinclair, CEI’s founding CEO, was unceremoniously fired in 2014 following a couple of years of abject failure — at considerable cost to taxpayers. The lack of transparency was matched only by a lack of accountability.
The beleaguered— and justifiably maligned — local arts advocacy group has been undergoing an organizational review conducted by a combo of outside consultants and inside board members. A summary progress report presented to municipal politicians last week proved underwhelming in the extreme.
Assurances by the always obtuse interim director Roger Farwell failed to offer much hope that the organization has a feasible vision to truly benefit local artists, arts groups and cultural institutions.
Before looking at what was reported by Paige Desmond in the Waterloo Region Record pertaining to the organization’s ‘new strategic direction,’ lets review some of the things that went so terribly wrong when Sinclair was parachuted into the community, where she remained a cultural tourist throughout her tenure. By the way, when will local cultural institutions realize that parachuting leaders into the region is akin to jumping without a net?
The first thing Sinclair did was build an expensive bureaucracy. This, unfortunately, is all too typical of executive officers with unearned money to burn — and nobody watching with a fire extinguisher in hand.
The creative hub she presided over at the old LCBO store on Erb Street in Waterloo was nothing more than a tattered copycat replica of KOR Gallery. Located in Kitchener’s Victoria Park, the art gallery/recording studio complex folded when government funding evaporated. The mistakes of Kor Gallery — such as housing a recording studio that competed with the independently operated commercial recording studios in the region — were repeated by Creative Enterprise. Reinventing the creative wheel is not a substitute for imagination and vision.
Another expensive Creative Enterprise failure appears to be on the cusp of being repeated not for the second time, but for the third time.
The Grand Social website is an idea whose time is past. The former Waterloo Region Arts Council partnered with the University of Waterloo to create a website devoted to community arts in 2001. I witnessed this idea from the inside when I was the University of Waterloo’s writer-in-residence in 2001-02. It failed for a number of reasons.
Contributions were invited and welcomed from artists spanning all disciplines, as well as from a broad spectrum of arts groups and cultural organizations. The unedited contributions of volunteers, hobbyists and amateur writers were nothing more than self-serving promotional advertorials. There was no critical writing or commentary of any kind.
Conversely, the cultural organizations with staff were funding and operating their own websites, which now involve multifarious social media platforms. These organizations viewed the community arts website as competition, as did The Record and other news outlets that cover the arts.
Fast forward to the present. Social media technologies are now so advanced and inexpensive that virtually all independent artists, not to mention arts groups and cultural organizations, operate their own websites, blogs and Twitter accounts, complete with schedules and calendars and promotional news. For example, when I want info on the next folk concert at the Registry theatre, I have numerous options including the Registry Theatre and Folk Night at the Registry websites, not to mention Grand River Folk Community website, in addition to the weekly arts calendar published in The Record’s Night Life section.
This renders the Grand Social website redundant and unnecessary for the second time. The first version was ridiculously difficult to negotiate, making it useless for both contributors and readers. But had it been user friendly, it would have still been irrelevant and inconsequential — even with staff to operate it, which the regional arts council’s website lacked.
To me this is a crisp $50,000 flushed down the ‘digital arts strategy’ toilet — on top of the money wasted on the first version launched by Sinclair and company amidst much overblown ballyhoo.
The big question remains: exactly how has Creative Enterprise spent the $960,000 of taxpayers’ money it has received since 2010? That’s a lot of dough!
Public arts funding has always been a sitting duck for those who place no value in arts and culture. There’s always a new arena, skateboard park, ball diamond or basketball court that needs to be built. Roads and sewers, not to mention social programs, require deep municipal pockets.
Creative Enterprise, along with the Waterloo Arts Fund — a tightly knit clique that awarded money to one another under the guise of conflict of interest protocol that amounted to a wink and a nudge — give those who dismiss art and despise culture the ammunition to condemn what they are already inclined to hold in contempt.
With friends like Creative Enterprise and Waterloo Regional Arts Fund, local arts and culture doesn’t need enemies from without. The enemy lies from within.
Taxpayers need to see a clear vision and a viable strategy from Creative Enterprise before any more public money is placed in its coffers. This is more than a rebranding exercise or building bridges eroded through mistrust and self-interest. And this is declared by a former arts and entertainment reporter who devoted the last 45 years to celebrating arts and culture above all else.