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Bringing RAFT (Rozsa Arts Fundamental Training) Home: The arts in Lethbridge

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

By Derek Stevenson

I started teaching the Rozsa Admin Fundamentals Training (RAFT) program for the Rozsa Foundation in 2018. The program was originally designed by my colleague Geraldine Ysselstein, and we have since collaborated to improve and add to its initial design.

I have been fortunate enough to teach over 80 individuals from over 70 different arts organizations across our province. Initially we only offered the program in Calgary and Edmonton, as they are cities with larger populations of individuals working in the arts in Alberta.

However, one of our strategic goals at the Rozsa Foundation is to continue to grow our reach beyond Calgary and Alberta with our suite of professional development programs. As such we wanted to find a way to take RAFT on the road, and so as an initial step beyond Alberta’s two major cities, we decided to offer the program in Lethbridge, in partnership with the Allied Arts Council of Lethbridge.

Lethbridge was an obvious next place to offer RAFT program, not only because it is the third largest city in Alberta (sorry Red Deer), but it’s also my hometown. After working in Calgary for over one year, I realized that I bring up my roots in Lethbridge arts more often than people likely care to hear it. One of the reasons for that is that the arts in Lethbridge are thriving.

For most people, Lethbridge is that place we drove through one time, the place that a friend of theirs went to university, or the city with the big bridge. It is all of those, however it is also an arts hub with a professional theatre company, a symphony orchestra, a nationally recognized gallery, and a university with a strong fine arts program.

These institutions are the building blocks of a strong arts community, but also have inspired several successful grass roots organizations which access the state-of-the-art community arts centre Casa, and the newly renovated Yates Memorial Centre.

Lethbridge has a strong entrepreneurial attitude when it comes to the arts; a can-do, “let’s make it work” approach to making the arts happen. I have seen this same approach in Calgary, but the context of that attitude in each city is quite different, due in no small part to the fact that there is no municipal arts funding in Lethbridge. There are some small event-based grants, but nothing for new or emerging arts organizations to draw annual operating revenue from.

This has not stifled the creativity of Lethbridge arts organizations in coming up with creative structures. Theatre Outré, one of the only queer theatre companies in Alberta, has been producing quality professional works for over 7 years now. They manage their own space, which has developed into a community hub focused on being welcoming and open “providing uncensored and uncompromising voice to those in [Lethbridge] who are considered to exist beyond the fringes of social propriety, sexual norms and gendered expectations.” The theatre space itself is managed as a club with a membership, but is also sustained through special events, bar sales and space rentals.

Many of the larger arts institutions in Lethbridge have been fortunate to work under a structure similar to Calgary’s Arts Commons, but called a fee-for-service model, in which a not-for-profit manages a city-owned building on their behalf, and is able to program it and manage it as a community space. This model isn’t exclusive to the arts in Lethbridge, as the pools, the curling rinks, and the Japanese gardens all function this same way. Although this structure has benefited a few organizations in the community and helped them establish an incredible history of recognized artistic practice, like at the Southern Alberta Arts Gallery, it also excludes many of Lethbridge’s arts organizations who are not operating city-owned buildings.

Having managed New West Theatre for 3 years, one of my more difficult struggles was trying to justify the need for municipal support for our organization. Without any municipal funding for arts organizations, many of the theatre events that get programmed must justify expenses with successful ticket sales, which in the long run may not be conducive to the most vibrant or risky artistic choices. It was fascinating to see the efforts of Creative Calgary in 2018, which worked to increase the municipal funding for the arts in part by recognizing the major gap between Calgary and other major Canadian cities, and I would be interested to see how big the gaps are in smaller centers across our country too.

One interesting note when it comes to municipal funding allocation is that property tax rates in Lethbridge are among the highest in the province, while Calgary’s are among the lowest. This may be a better indicator about the number of potholes in the respective cities, but either way feels relevant.

Regardless of some of the challenges facing the arts in Lethbridge, new organizations continue to pop up, other seem to fade, the institutions continue to exist, and life in the arts continues.

A reality of living in a city the size of Lethbridge is that many passionate individuals have come and gone, young arts graduates often seek out brighter lights, arts administrators find opportunities in bigger centres, and often the University brings talented and passionate individuals into the faculty of fine arts, but frequently only on short-term adjunct teaching contracts.

All of this has made the sustainability of arts organizations challenging, but there has been no lack of creativity and passion. The city itself continues to grow every year, and with growth comes an influx of talented individuals interested in the arts and cultural sector, including the RAFT participants this year who represented seven unique arts organizations in Lethbridge.

Some systematic changes could really help the sector thrive, but the city is full of passionate and talented arts leaders who will continue to hold the mantle of this small arts hub south of Calgary, and it was a pleasure to work with a few of them as we brought the RAFT program back home.

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