Tradition is a funny thing. It’s something we hold on to when the lights go out—guiding, connecting, grounding us. But what happens when some no longer serve us? Can we be brave enough to ask why? Is it ‘radical’ to strip it all away to start from a better place? Or does it make space for respect, inclusion, and love in unconventional places?
A visiting elected official recently asked me if I could measure the social impact of the Campbell River Art Gallery’s Art Hive program. Where would I even begin? The Hive has transformed our organization, our lives and world views, and Campbell River’s downtown community. How do we measure the impact of true and active reconciliation and decolonization? Of love and respect?
I began my role as Executive Director of the Campbell River Art Gallery (CRAG) in August 2020. I walked into an organization that had already established a social justice direction and had a goal of decolonizing its practices in a newly released Strategic Plan. It was inspiring but vague. What can a historically colonial and elitist organization like a contemporary art gallery actually do to advance reconciliation? A space that is traditionally reserved for the ‘enlightened’ and ‘privileged’ to appreciate fine art and its nuances; those with the time, means, and confidence to walk among artists and scholars, learning, critiquing, and conversing.
The reality of contemporary art, however, is that it often serves to challenge the viewer—to bring to light the unseen and question the status quo that perpetuates injustice. This is particularly true of work by artists from traditionally underrepresented positions: the 2SLGBTQIA+ and IBPOC communities. The CRAG was already showing this work inside the Gallery but was that enough to truly be impactful?
I knew we had to extend beyond our physical walls to reach communities that had historically been excluded from contemporary art-making practices so that they too could benefit from opportunities for self-expression and engagement with professional art. And so we launched the Satellite Campus program, where the CRAG supports art-making projects in remote Indigenous communities around the North Island. These are entirely community-led, facilitated by professional artists hailing from those territories. So far we have supported linocut printmaking in Ucluelet, public murals in Fort Rupert, screen printing in Alert Bay, cedar weaving in Cape Mudge, and totem pole carving in Kyuquot. It’s been amazing to watch this unfold and see the ripple effect of the opportunity to create without barriers.
“While feeling positive about decentralizing our efforts to provide increased access, I continued to feel like we could do more here at home—particularly as I watched the ravaging effects of addiction, toxic drugs, intergenerational trauma, and the housing crisis unravel right on our doorstep, quite literally. What could an art gallery, located in the eye of the storm, do?
Enter Walk With Me, who rented our studio space in 2021 to gather and share stories from Peers with lived or living experiences of addiction and homelessness. Through their program, our team got to know the community members who live and sleep around the Gallery—many of whom come from the same remote Indigenous communities we serve. We welcomed folks into our space, listened to their stories, and started to break down our own internalized prejudices. In doing so we came to understand their desire for opportunities of their own, for safe spaces and community connection. Indigenous Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and Peers all told us the same thing: keep your doors open—keep upholding their voices, supporting their existence, and honouring their humanity. Keep the art strong and the love stronger. And so we did.
Inspired by the work of Dr. Janis Timm-Bottos, the CRAG opened its Art Hive in January 2022. Part of an international network, “an Art Hive is a community art studio that welcomes everyone as an artist … at its heart, an Art Hive is about inclusion, respect and learning. It’s a welcoming place to talk, make art, and build communities. Responding in creative ways to things that matter.” We partnered with Nadine Bariteau, who comes from a long career in printmaking and education, as our lead facilitator. She immediately got to work inspiring the crew to express themselves. We have folks who cook, some draw and paint, others sew, bead, and weave, and many come just to visit with family. Every Thursday brings a new adventure. Most weeks our space is filled with laughter and camaraderie, some weeks are hard and filled with grief, and others we celebrate together or head out on the land to harvest traditional medicines. No matter what, we show up and hold space; Peers teach us important lessons in community care. The pursuit of hope through creative endeavours keeps us all going.
In its first year, the Hive received over 300 visits. Peers have learned new skills like printmaking and have been able to earn thousands in revenue from sales in the Gallery shop. We have received contracts for custom shirts and have shown Peer work in professionally mounted exhibitions in both our Main and Satellite Galleries. And we have participated in several large public events like National Indigenous People’s Day, Pride, and National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, with Peers on the front line interacting with visitors and making artwork.
Most days I’m baffled by the sheer luck, kismet, serendipity, or whatever else it took to bring it all together: colleagues who share a desire to do better and do right by, artists with a passion for social justice, funders who embrace our radical ideas and support our program, and Peers willing to trust us with their hearts and hopes.
So I can’t really ‘measure’ the social impact of the CRAG Art Hive—not in a quantitative way anyway. It’s changed lives, it’s changed the way we do things, and it’s changed how I perceive the world. That’s why I’ll close with words from the incredible team of Peers and professionals that pour their hearts into this program every week. Because ultimately, they are the social impact of the Hive.
“A partner I lost asked me to keep on with art. If she had never encouraged me to be here, to do this… I have no idea where I’d be. I would have been lost.”
—CJ, Art Hive participant
“The biggest challenge I had as a contemporary art practitioner for over two decades was how to address social and environmental issues while working alone in my studio. The Hive gave me the chance to fully embrace my socially engaged practice because I was not alone anymore but surrounded by other mindful people that are looking after the well-being of a vulnerable community. Interaction through artmaking is what the Hive is—an array
—Nadine Bariteau, Lead Artist Facilitator for the CRAG Art Hive
“It helps me clear my mind and express myself. Gets me off the street. Brings us all together, so it’s a community. Somewhere to go, somewhere to be.”
—JJ, Art Hive participant
“Collaborating with Peers in the Hive has placed a mirror in front of the way we do things. When we consider how to support and integrate them meaningfully into projects, we have to re-examine the ways we work, ask ourselves why, and then make changes that come from a place of care. This process affects the whole organization. We have an opportunity to redefine the parts of a system that have excluded people through practical resistance.”
—Jenelle Pasiechnik, Curator of Contemporary Art at the CRAG
“I wish I could have had this when I was younger because I’d probably be way further ahead. But I’ll tell you, the gift this place has given me, as an artist, but also knowing that I’ve been seen. That people actually see me. They actually listen.”
—GS, Art Hive participant
“The Art Hive was built under the principle of having an open door, but also understanding that it’s a space for positive change in people’s lives. A space for our unhoused community to express themselves, away from the stigma. People aren’t racing here to make money. They know this place is readily available to house their feelings and emotions, in a loving, caring, respectful way. That, if nothing else, is a success. The fact that we’ve gone beyond that is like winning the lottery for some of these people. Because never, ever has there been something like this in Campbell River.
“And the fact that it’s being conducted in a colonialistic, modern world, but in a cultural and Indigenous-driven way shows that we’re really breaking walls, every single day when we come through this journey. And just to be a part of that is pretty magnificent.”
—Shawn Decaire, Li’ʷiɫdax̌ʷ Knowledge Keeper and CRAG Art Hive Cultural Safety Advisor