Lighting up the ecosystem

Anna Beard

Waterloo Region is still finding its feet in terms of an established arts and culture scene but with a bright future ahead, the artists establishing their foundation are a force to be reckoned with. Somewhere close to the centre of that foundation is photographer, maker, and visual storyteller, Darin White.

“Art has been a lifelong pursuit in a variety of mediums,” explained White when asked how he got involved with the arts. “Communicating through art just made sense with the way I was naturally wired.”

White studied fine art at the University of Guelph for a time but moved away from the program because he “didn’t know how to be passionate and possessed.” Entering the field of Computer Science, White kept his passion for art on the back burner. In 2009, White was part of the group that founded Kwartzlab Makerspace.

“That was a ton of work, in part because the maker movement wasn’t yet in the more popular public consciousness. We had to explain we weren’t hackers trying to break into banking systems, but rather a cross-discipline group of creators banding together to support each other and extend new possibilities,” said White.

Using a talent for capturing experiences on film, White took to sharing the makerspace story through photos, video, and promotional items, with the hopes of making Kwartzlab an engaging, accessible, and public space. Honing that skill eventually led White into the larger arts community. Eventually, White changed his focus from Kwartzlab to his storytelling project, makebright.

As of August, White has made makebright his full time job and relies on the project as his only income – no small challenge.

“There are some interesting challenges figuring out how to make a living doing this thing I love and that I think offers a lot of value to the community, both in arts and tech,” explained White.

Using the makebright blog as a portfolio to show what’s possible, White works with organizations to tell a story that “connects with people in the gut, in a different way than pure facts and figures.”

White believes Waterloo Region’s cultural ecosystem is ripe for the molding – we just need to jump into the mix and push forward.

“Change is so simple. We are burning an incredible amount of time and money head scratching with nervous sideways glances waiting for the other guy to fund this cultural evolution. Make 200 events and fund them with $1000 each,” says White.

“I say enough talk; enough analysis and study and consultation and administration. Put cash into content creator hands and say, ‘Go!’ Be a catalyst, an activator. To create this rich cultural fabric we need to do a lot of very pragmatic, non-glamorous things like establish a large and steady supply of venues for shows.”

White thinks that there is friction between artists and the community that is holding the Region back from having a vibrant arts scene and as a result, we’re losing potential and opportunity.

“…in my wanderings I find all this cool cultural stuff that is just below the waterline that most people don’t know about. I shoot it and write it up and show my readers this cool thing in Waterloo Region. Hopefully they engage those gigs,” said White.

“More worrisome is the unrealized potential of our arts scene, which I whiteboard as a dotted line above the waterline. This represents all the lost opportunity because artists cannot make a living doing their art, so they bail out of art production or never enter it in the first place.”

One way to increase exposure to art is by encouraging people to interact with it. White believes that showing up to cultural events and talking to artists is the first step to helping the ecosystem take shape.

“Show up, buy directly from artists, and repeat. Talk with artists. Visit artists in their studios. Keep an open mind. Ask questions. Snack on art, which is to say, go to a show for a half hour instead of three hours. Bring a lot of friends with you. Go see art on your lunch break. Make some art yourself. But above all, show up.”

Support and interaction doesn’t stop there, White also believes that helping the arts in-kind can be a huge help – regardless of the sector you work in.

“We need property developers and owners to open up cheap/free spaces for showing art, even temporarily – especially temporary. We need insurance folks who get what’s going on here and fairly balance risk with what is charged to insure art events,” says White.

We are, in a sense, all participants determining the success of our arts scene. Want great art? Help make it possible with whatever toolset you have.”

An established arts ecosystem not only leads to a vibrant Waterloo Region but also, an economically diverse one. White advises however, that arts and culture cannot be handled the same way the tech, education, or insurance industries are.

“There has been a lot of so-called place-making talk recently, and the economic development necessity and benefits of that,” he said. “I think that does a disservice to artists. We’re not a tool to feed industry a workforce – we’re a channel to feed the soul.”