Photo: Ottawa has no shortage of local artists. Photo: MarkSpowart, iStockphoto

Wanted: a bold plan to reinvent Canada’s capital

Canada’s capital is about to rechart its future. This fall, the National Capital Commission (NCC) — the steward of federal lands and buildings in the National Capital Region, which includes Ottawa, Gatineau and 11 other municipalities in eastern Ontario and western Quebec — is consulting Canadians across the country about the future of Canada’s capital. The Royal Canadian Geographical Society is collaborating with the NCC on this ambitious public consultation, called Horizon 2067 (in anticipation of Canada’s bicentennial), and all Canadians are being invited to offer their opinions about how Canada’s capital should look in years to come. To get this conversation started, we’ve asked four writers who live in the capital for personal essays offering their own ideas on directions the capital is or could be taking. We hope they inspire you to join the conversation and let your voice be heard.

Tour the world’s great capitals, and it becomes apparent that they share two key traits. First, their residents are unselfconsciously proud of their culture. Second, these capitals are bold in showcasing art and ideas, in supporting artists who celebrate their nation and in allowing them the stage when they wish to question the “sacred tenets” of what that nationhood means. Great capitals engage their artists and citizens, celebrating the diversity of their creations.

In the past 20 years, the population of Canada’s capital has reached a critical mass that makes it possible for cultural entrepreneurs to develop world-class blues, jazz and chamber music festivals; the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization can count on crowd support for blockbuster international exhibitions; the National Arts Centre has outdone itself with its ongoing “Scene” series of regional artistic exhibitions; and our key cultural buildings are architectural showpieces. Yet, in 2011, our capital city still lacks a certain zing.

Since its creation in 1959, the National Capital Commission (NCC) has worked with other federal agencies as well as municipal, provincial and other counterparts to handle signature events in a solidly proficient way. I think of this as the “macro” level of our capital’s culture. Remembrance Day is sombre and moving; February’s winter festival Winterlude is a blast of fun in an otherwise miserable month; and Canada Day gathers everyone on Parliament Hill to celebrate together. “Christmas Lights Across Canada” showcases the city’s beauty, and the “Mosaika” sound and light show on the Hill provides visitors with a visually stunning Coles Notes version of our history.

But to take culture to the next level, it’s the “micro” that needs some attention as the NCC works up its next game plan. Let’s call it a 100-mile cultural diet: local artists and art at street level. The big stuff has its place, of course, but if Ottawa is to become a more vibrant capital, art at the local level must get its due. You want dynamism? Think local.

Capital cities are the seat and the showpiece of the powerful. Ottawans know this. They understand Ottawa, and they make great art based on their experiences at the centre of power. Our artists are smart and cosmopolitan. They should be blowing you away with their insights, juxtaposing the reliable grandness of the museums and festivals with whiplash insight and exposé — insights about the politics that make this city tick, but also insights about what it is to be Canadian. The NCC must work with the city more to make it easier for these artists to be unselfconscious, bold and, most important, visible. Visitors to Ottawa should be wowed by its cultural legacy and then hooked on its hip, irreverent arts scene.

Here are three quick snapshots of that scene: three photographic artists whose work has impressed me recently. I’m focusing on one genre as a way of demonstrating just how deep the local talent pool is — and to point out how challenging it can be to access local art.

Snapshot number one: Tony Fouhse is a brilliant portrait photographer whose work was recognized by the city in 2010 with the prestigious Karsh Award. Where was he showing most recently? On RocketHub, a website that acts as a platform for artists looking to use crowdfunding to drum up money for projects they hope to realize. Fouhse’s five-year “User” series, which chronicles through portraiture the lives of dozens of drug users who frequent Ottawa’s ByWard Market area, made a huge impact on the local scene. Pretty? Not necessarily. Relevant to how we perceive the capital? Definitely. 

Snapshot number two: David Trattles is a one-of-a-kind documentary photographer who, for the past six years, has split his time between Ottawa, Toronto and India. In May, he held a show of portraits taken in communities across Canada as well as in India. Unfortunately, it was a one-night affair in a studio that packed in around 50 lucky souls. From the High Arctic to the fishing villages of Newfoundland, Trattles’ revealing portraits do infinitely more to reflect what it is to be Canadian than any sound and light show ever could.

Snapshot number three: Rémi Thériault, a rising star on the local photography scene, is a transplanted Acadian Prince Edward Islander. At a springtime “One Night Stand” displaying eight photos at Ottawa’s La Petite Mort Gallery, Thériault had space to hang just two photos from his ongoing “Vimy” series. It was a battle that defined Canada as a nation — and for three years now, Thériault has travelled to France to visit the Canadian National Vimy Memorial site, documenting it in summer and winter, at dawn and dusk. The winter series, in particular, has a haunting beauty, the site desolate, a dusting of snow on the picturesque ridge that was once a churning war zone of mud and death.

Three snapshots. Three phenomenal local artists worthy of greater audience exposure but struggling to be seen and heard. Now think about all the installation artists, sculptors, painters, actors, photographers, playwrights, writers, dancers, choreographers, poets and musicians who make up the Ottawa scene. They are at the cultural heart and soul of this city.

So I say the NCC should play to Ottawa’s strengths. Make it easier for the locals to up the energy factor in my favourite city. How can NCC buildings and land be used in creative ways to showcase local talent? What types of cultural partnerships will allow the less predictable Ottawa to shine? It’s time to simultaneously think global and go local. Let’s envision a bold blueprint for the future, then go out and work like crazy to make it happen.