As I was about to enter my 30th year at the Waterloo Region Record, the company floated yet another buyout in a losing campaign to forestall the declining fortunes of daily newspapers. I was counting down the clock to my 64th birthday, and had recently celebrated my two sons’ graduation from university and college, so I was ready to entertain the prospect of early retirement. Recalling that famous scene in The Godfather, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Timing is everything, right?
Faced with leaving work that was as much calling as labour, I began contemplating what I wanted to do as I flipped the page on the next chapter. You see, I had yearned to be an arts and entertainment writer for a daily newspaper since I abandoned the childhood dream of playing hockey for the Detroit Red Wings.
It was an improbable goal. I grew up in a working-class family, without books or music in our house. TV was the only ‘culture’ we had. I graduated from a technical high school alongside aspiring plumbers, carpenters, electricians and auto mechanics. I went to college to study drafting (before computers), decided it wasn’t for me, worked in a variety of jobs including hotel bellhop, and completed Grade 13 over two years of night school. Even though I had never attended a theatre performance or concert or entered an art gallery, I still wanted to write about arts for a newspaper.
Off to university I went, the first in my family to do so. The adventure alienated me from family and friends who wondered what the hell I thought I was doing getting so big for my modest britches.
After graduating with an honours BA in English, I scampered off to graduate school, not so much to advance my academic career as write a thesis on Robertson Davies, a writer I admired and of whom I believed I had something worthwhile to say. I paid my way through university by working summers on a factory assembly line and subsidized graduate school by working as a construction labourer. Since I had not studied French in high school, I went to university and graduate school sans second language.
Although my goal remained writing about the arts for a newspaper, I didn’t go to journalism school, as do most university grads tonguing the scent of journalism. Instead, I worked as a shipper/receiver for an independent bookstore, awaiting the opportunity to snag a newspaper job.
In those distant days, it was customary to get your journalistic toe wet on a small-town weekly, move to the infamous Thomson chain, hone your skills, and then make your way to a ‘respectable’ daily. I started on a weekly in Strathroy. Legend has it that its first press was the one William Lyon Mackenzie discarded in Toronto harbour. Then it was on to a succession of Thomson daily newspapers in St. Thomas, Timmins (where I was city editor under Dickensian circumstances) and Simcoe, before landing at the Brantford Expositor, a respected newspaper owned by Southam.
Finally I made it to the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, a family owned newspaper with a reputation for quality journalism. Soon after, it survived a series of ownership transactions reminiscent of hockey cards being traded among boys at recess in a school yard — first to Southam, then to Quebecor (owner of Sun Media) and finally to Torstar (owner of the Toronto Star).
As I moved from newspaper to newspaper, I immersed myself in the study of the arts, reading voraciously, taking courses at colleges and universities, attending as many concerts and theatre productions, and going to as many galleries, as possible. I embarked on a life-long cultural education that remained a work-in-progress throughout my 40-year journalism career. I’m still learning.
In addition to covering the arts for The Expositor and The Record, I lectured and conducted workshops, contributed to arts magazines, wrote exhibition catalogues, helped produce a couple of arts-related TV shows, juried exhibitions and judged literary contests and provided arts commentary on the radio. For a decade I conducted public interviews as part of Waterloo Region’s One Book, One Community campaign. In 2002-03 I was appointed writer-in-residence at the University of Waterloo, the first non-fiction writer ever invited to serve in that capacity. I’m forever grateful to Judith Miller, retired English prof at Renison University College and publisher of Stonegarden Studios.
So you might say the arts flow in my bloodstream — like malt whisky — even though I have never been a primary creator, with the exception of scribbling a little poetry and pounding out the same dozen songs on the guitar since I was 16 with aspirations of becoming the next Gordon Lightfoot. At least I learned to fingerpick.
This leads me to answering the rhetorical question: Why write a blog devoted to my passions? The answer is provided by another question: How could I not? It’s not an exaggeration to say I have devoted my life to the arts. My love for the arts has survived two marriages. It has survived the pain and sorrow that accompanies life. The arts are the best of who I am, despite my limitations, shortcomings and faults. If I can use a fly fishing analogy, I have to keep fur and feather in the water.
Our celebrity culture has spawned a mutation of personal, self-referential journalism. Nonetheless, I have tried to remain in the background, subordinating my own interests to the understanding, appreciation and celebration of the arts. I have avoided the social trough that attracts so many arts journalists. Although it is a prevalent practice in arts journalism (aping sports journalism and travel writing), I have avoided schmoozing and glad-handing. I have met wonderful people deeply committed to arts and culture, but have struggled mightily to avoid personal friendships that could potentially compromise my ability to do my job without fear or favour. It was not easy, believe me.
In contrast to the editors and writers I accepted as colleagues by holding my nose, I have always held that reporters, reviewers and critics do not serve arts and culture by being fawning, pusillanimous, sycophants who love everything they experience and trip over their tongue telling the world about it. Arts journalism, which is a form of critical writing, is not public relations. It is neither advertising, nor promotion. Rather, arts journalism is honest, passionate description, interpretation and evaluation.
I once heard an editor tell an intern who was interested in arts reporting that The Record does not publish negative stories or reviews. (This is a direct quote.) In terms of the crap I sniffed over the years, this statement ranks among the most odious and offensive.
Although I sometimes expressed judgments that were unpopular with the artists about whom I was commenting, I always held them in enough regard to be as honest as I possibly could. Similarly I tried never to sneer, unless I was dealing with what I perceived as pretentious, self-congratulatory or self-serving — in a word, dishonest.
Wannabes and pretenders have no place in the arts. Journalists, who are not themselves wannabes and pretenders (Jian Ghomeshi and Evan Solomon take note), must expose the fakes and frauds.
I joined The Record in May of 1986. I came after developing a local arts section for the The Expositor, the first in that paper’s history.
Originally I covered theatre and the visual arts, but as staff was reduced, I became a generalist covering theatre, the visual arts, books and literature, popular music and pretty much everything else the arts had to offer — whether or not I was qualified (i.e. ballet and opera). I wrote news stories, features and profiles, advances, reviews and columns, in addition to occasional opinion pieces.
Before the inevitable cutbacks that accompanied corporate concentration, I cast a broad coverage net encompassing London to the west, and Hamilton and Toronto to the east. I’m grateful I was able to continue covering the Blyth and Stratford festivals throughout my tenure.
When I started I was one of four full-time, staff arts writers, including the late, abundantly gifted John Kiely. For a number of years I was the sole full-time, staff reporter in addition to the late TV reviewer Bonnie Malleck. I reported to five entertainment editors — Don McCurdy, who hired me, Kathy Storring, the late Phil Bast, Susan Chilton and Neil Ballantyne.
When I arrived Waterloo Region’s arts and culture scene was an anorexic shadow of what it is now. I arrived in the wake of controversy and scandal that dogged the construction and early administration of Centre in the Square, the jewel in the region’s live performance crown — then and now, despite its frayed, weary edges.
It’s shocking to think back at the cultural paucity.
No Kitchener Blues Festival, Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival or Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music, let alone KOI Music Festival, Kultrun or upstart Big Music Fest.
No Open Ears, CAFKA or IMPACT. No Starlight Social Club or Jazz Room, not to mention Registry Theatre, the region’s most stimulating, multidisciplinary, live performance venue thanks to the stewardship of Lawrence McNaught, who understands the symbiotic relationship between community and the arts.
No Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, Waterloo Community Arts Centre (otherwise known as the Button Factory), THEMUSEUM (which evolved from The Children’s Museum), Waterloo Region Museum (built on the foundation stones of Doon Pioneer Village) or Cambridge Arts Centre. Cambridge Galleries (now Idea Exchange) was a modest version of what it has become.
The cultural juggernaut, otherwise known as Drayton Entertainment, had yet to spread its creative tentacles throughout the region — and beyond — thanks to the creative vision and brash innovation of local wunderkind Alex Mustakas, who cut his thespian teeth on KW Musical Productions and the local Gilbert and Sullivan society.
There was no Mel Brown, the late, beloved blues artist who found a home in Kitchener and unselfishly mentored a generation of musicians including Sean Kellerman, Steve Strongman and Julian Fauth, among others. Colourful blues impresario/restauranteur Glenn Smith had yet to open The Circus Room and Pop the Gator, let alone Ethel’s Lounge. The generation of singer/songwriters who emerged from the region — including Lucas Stagg, Craig Cardiff, Rob Szabo, Danny Michel, Lynn Jackson — were mere babes in arms.
Wordsworth Books, Old Goats, Second Look and KW Bookstore, not to mention Encore Records, were yet to make their marks on the burgeoning arts scene. Gen Ex, a boutique video store, and Twelfth Night, a boutique music store, came and, sadly, departed as home entertainment technology changed. Far Out Flicks has held on despite the challenges.
Waterloo Region has never been hospitable to theatre. When I arrived there was community theatre in Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge, but no semi-professional, let alone professional, theatre. Waterloo Stage came and went without fanfare.
Theatre and Company arrived on the scene with a bang, only to implode with a whimper thanks to carpetbagger Stuart Scadron-Wattles, whose ‘theatre with a mission’ legacy is the white elephant cowering under the marquee of the Conrad Centre for the Arts, sporting the character, acoustics and seating comfort of a high school gym.
The local theatre vacuum has been filled by an assortment of fringe companies — I use the term ‘fringe’ complimentarily. Like a phoenix, Lost & Found Theatre rose from the ashes of Theatre and Company. Gary Kirkham grew into an important Canadian playwright. Majdi Bou-Matar and MT Space planted an international footprint on hitherto parochial soil. Paddy Gillard-Bentley took drama out of the theatre and put it on the street. Pat the Dog Playwright Centre reached out to theatre from across the country.
When I arrived Eurocentric classical choral and orchestral music ruled. Not so much anymore.
The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony was bathing in the glow of Raffi Armenian, only to lose its way through a series misguided hirings of big-name, off-shore conductors. Surf-loving music director Edwin Outwater seems to be treading water. In contrast, the passing of the baton to Mark Vuorinen from Howard Dyck has rejuvenated the Philharmonic Choir. Although choral groups play a diminishing role in the region’s cultural life, there remains an array of small-scale choirs from Tactus Vocal Ensemble, through Da Capo Chamber Choir, to Renaissance Singers.
The three decades I’ve spent covering arts across the region have witnessed their share of trials and tribulations, boardroom skirmishes and tempests in teapots.
Waterloo’s Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery found itself not only on the ropes, but down for the count, until bright-light curator Virginia Eichhorn resuscitated an institution passing out from asphyxiation. Director Bill Poole arrived in the nick of time to take the beleaguered gallery off life support.
The Children’s Museum was on the verge of extinction, resembling one of its dinosaur exhibitions, until it was re-visioned and revitalized by David Marskell, who brought big-city marketing savvy to a deteriorating downtown Kitchener.
Centre in the Square prospered under Dan Donaldson, only to move on to greener pastures that proved not so green. Jamie Grant came from the Maritimes with some fresh programming ideas, but after a dozen years, preferred the golf course to the boardroom. The Centre has floundered in recent years as programming has stagnated, rendering the institution increasingly inconsequential and irrelevant to the community it serves.
By the way, blaming the Centre’s financial woes on not having sufficient prime performance dates because of the symphony’s preferred schedule, obfuscates the more serious programming problem confronting the Centre. That said, I have never understood how Waterloo and Cambridge can gorge themselves off the Centre table without paying their share of the bill.
Like the Centre, the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery has surrendered its status and stature as the region’s primary fine arts institution. I’m not a fan of blockbusters, but when was the last time there was any buzz generated by an exhibition at KWAG?
Recalling renegade, American, journalistic gadfly Hunter S. Thompson, cultural politics fill me with fear and loathing. Nonetheless, the notion of ‘the creative class’, coupled with the politicization of art and awareness of the economic impact of culture on urban development, have spawned some well-meaning, but woefully misguided, support initiatives with political dimensions.
The Creative Enterprise debacle was doomed from the outset. Money was squandered on building a bloated administrative infrastructure. Rather than serve as a springboard for making art, it copycatted previously failed cultural ventures (i.e. KOR Gallery and Waterloo Region Arts Council’s cultural website).
Meanwhile, the Waterloo Region Arts Fund engaged in a disingenuous game of sleight-of-hand by awarding money to those who served on the committee.
Both initiatives gave arts and culture a black eye. They also provided ammunition for dumbing-down arts-haters to fire cheap shots at the integrity of the arts.
I have one final observation — for now. Whoever appointed cultural dilettante Tim Jackson as Waterloo Region’s cultural guru has some serious answering to do. Talk about being a disruptive force!
With this thumbnail autobiography, personal overview of the local arts scene over the last three decades and opinionated rant, I hope you have been sufficiently enticed to be a regular reader of Reid Between the Lines — dedicated to passionate living. While I will concentrate on arts and culture, my other passions, including malt whisky, dining and travel, outdoor activities and, especially fly fishing, will be celebrated. I invite you to cast your fly on friendly waters.