Covid-19 Killing Arts Programs

The artists of this city have been hit hard by the Covid19 lockdown, according to Stephen O'Shea, Executive Director of the Arts Council of New Westminster.

“Social distancing measures were very rapid,” he says. “I remember getting an email on March 5th from one of our member groups being like: 'Are you developing any policies around this?', and by March 16th, our art gallery was closed and all arts events around the city were being cancelled.”

The Royal City Musical Theatre, which was preparing for its annual big musical production, had to put a stop to this season's event, “Crazy for You”.  Art galleries closed, exhibitions were canceled, various music and dance performances were postponed or cancelled. And as of this date, O'Shea said that it is unknown whether any of their summer programs will go forward.

“The Arts Council has really shifted because our work has been programming based,” says O'Shea. “We've had to now shift to a more service-based approach, highlighting the artists within our community.” The Council had recently started a series of podcasts featuring local artists, so they have decided to continue with that. The Council also hosted a virtual market for NewWest Crafts for 35 artists and vendors, who used Instagram and Facebook stories, which were linked to their online stores. He says that a lot of artists are embracing digital platforms for live-streaming or broadcasting and people are engaging. The council is also looking beyond the City Arts Grants to other levels of government and other sources to find funding to support artists more directly. Stephen says that the council is optimistic that we will have a real direct impact.

The council has hosted Cultural Round Tables to “give people forums for expression”. Artists really need a safe place where they can talk about how difficult things have become, and to get supported emotionally, he says. “Many people who live on the margins are artists. I think we often forget that a large portion of those people are artists, who are using creative expression to help them with their mental health, to help them with their daily lives. People have an idea of rock stars and movie stars as your traditional artists.” For some, he says that the impact of social distancing has been direct and immediate. Some are having to choose between buying food and paying for rent.

O'Shea had a heartfelt message for New Westminster citizens. “I remind people just how rich the cultural fabric is within New Westminster. I think its really important to continue supporting the arts and our cultural activities. Be considerate in your purchasing power, in what you choose to buy, and what you choose to support. But know that it's the community members in and around you that you are supporting.... Artists live and work here, we are among you, so please consider us as essential.”

As he reflects, a city's character is defined by its culture. He points out that New Westminster has a very vibrant, rich and extensive arts community. The people of New Westminster have a strong sense of place, according to O'Shea, and they are very proud of its artistic culture, which is has great depth and breadth. New Westminster, having been the first city in British Columbia, has a long tradition in the arts,which has been built on for nearly 150 years.

If you have the intention of supporting the arts, you can check out the Arts Council Website, www.acnw.org which provides a directory of arts groups and artists and information on what's going on. You can also donate to the council, which is a charity. The money will flow to the artists, he says and you'll get a tax receipt.

As O'Shea says, “It's a small town, but it's a potent town. It has a great culture and it's a great community to be part of.        

By: Susan Millar

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