First Alberta Arts Day 'just a taste' of what's to come

by Todd Babiak
Edmonton Journal
September 8, 2008

Saturday, Alberta Arts Day, provided an uncommonly glamorous evening for Edmonton playwright Stewart Lemoine. In the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, the site of the gala, Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett announced Lemoine was the inaugural winner of the $50,000 Tommy Banks Performing Arts Award -- part of $170,000 in Arts Day awards and scholarships.

In his acceptance speech, before a crowd of over 1,500, Stewart treated the Calgarians as surrogate Edmontonians. "The audience I work for is not here," said the author of over 50 plays, most with his beloved company Teatro La Quindicina, based in the Varscona Theatre. "But you're an audience. So I'd like to thank my audience in Edmonton, by extension, through you."

One could hear the collective shuddering -- the very thought of being Edmontonian. Walking offstage, with his cheque, Lemoine nearly bumped into Joni Mitchell. The surprise guest at the Arts Day gala is extending her collaboration with Alberta Ballet, The Fiddle and The Drum, into a full-length work. Blackett gave her a special gift on behalf of the province, and she introduced two spectacular excerpts of The Fiddle and The Drum that would close out the evening.

The ballet is a critique of our environmental, economic and military status quo. Mitchell said the spirit in which the ballet has been received here and around the world, so far, shows "there is optimism for our stupid planet after all."

In Alberta, it wasn't long ago that optimism and the arts went together, in the words of gala host Tim Tamashiro, describing a Saturday night country-rap collaboration between Edmonton's The Swiftys and Calgary's Dragon Fli Empire, "like butterscotch and fish."

But in a matter of months, Premier Ed Stelmach recreated a Culture Department, released a bold provincial cultural policy and appointed a curious, intelligent and explosively energetic minister in Lindsay Blackett -- inspiring a new feeling of cautious confidence.

In the Jubilee on Saturday morning and afternoon, Calgarians attended literary readings, film screenings and music, dance and theatrical performances in the lobby. At mid-afternoon, it roiled with dancing families. Down the street at the Alberta College of Art and Design, some of the province's top cultural administrators and media commentators joined Peter Boyd, CEO of Calgary oilfield services company Arcis, for a panel on the arts that seemed too short at two hours. Cold Lake painter Alex Janvier took home the Marion Nicoll Visual Arts Award and Southern Alberta author Sid Marty won the Grant MacEwan Literary Arts Award, both worth $50,000.

When the idea for an Alberta Arts Day was hatched in the spring, cynics abounded. There wasn't enough time to put it together, it wouldn't work, no one would care. "For a lot of people in my department, sure, this exceeds expectations," said Blackett, who complained he was the only man at the gala to actually wear a tuxedo. "But this is really what I expected in the first year. We had 81 events in 30 communities today, and it's just a taste of what we'll accomplish next year and the year after that."

In the future, centrally planned celebrations will take place simultaneously in Edmonton, Calgary, and one, two, or three other communities, and they'll be linked by video. The hope is that every city, town, community league and arts organization in the province will join the party. "The buzz in the room is incredible," said Blackett, "and I know it's going to be the same all over the province. Albertans are happy with this direction, happy that the arts are finally getting the attention they deserve."

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