Meet Alberta’s Mr. Culture

Blackett promises arts funding will hold steady in budget

Ask Premier Ed Stelmach who his favourite Alberta artist is and he squirms uncomfortably and rambles about playing the tuba in his school days. Put the same question to Alberta Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett and he offers an obligatory disclaimer (“it’s almost like picking one of your children”) before giving a real answer.

“You know who really blows me away all the time? The Alberta Ballet” says the former electronics salesman and rookie Calgary MLA. “I’ve watched them now five or six times. And the accompaniment whether it’s the Edmonton symphony or the CPO is phenomenal…. They’re one of the top ballet troops in the country.”

Blackett 48 had hoped to make a career in the arts before he studied criminology in university. “I wanted to go to Ryerson to take dramatic arts but my parents being from the Caribbean didn’t think that was the way to go” says the U.K.-born Ontario-raised politician. “So that dream got kind of killed but even in university I still performed in different theatre projects.”

The Alberta government didn’t have a Lindsay Blackett five years ago — a minister focused on culture. Former premier Peter Lougheed had culture ministers in the ’70s and ’80s but by the time premier Ralph Klein left office in 2006 culture was tagged onto a department responsible for campground outhouses and picnic tables (Tourism Parks Recreation and Culture). “Buried” Blackett recalls. “…People were frustrated because Albertans give to arts and culture more per capita than anywhere else in the country. They believe in it and they speak with their wallet.”

Then last January Stelmach released a new cultural policy and a funding increase to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. A provincial election followed and mere days after he was elected as an MLA Blackett was heading up a new ministry: Culture and Community Spirit. “We haven’t had somebody out there since [culture ministers] Mary LeMessieur and Horst Schmidt in the Peter Lougheed days saying how great we are” says Blackett.

Blackett became culture minister in the heady days of $100-a-barrel oil and perennial budget surpluses. That’s obviously changed. The province now plans to run a deficit and cut costs — but Blackett says arts funding will be untouched in the 2009 budget which comes out April 7. “There will be no funding taken back for either arts or culture or for film and television for that matter” says Blackett. “In this time that’s quite significant because a lot of people thought that’s what we would do.” Local arts groups are warmly receiving Blackett’s assurance. “It’s great news” says Calgary Arts Development’s Terry Rock.

Fil Fraser Edmonton author of Alberta’s Camelot: Culture & the Arts in the Lougheed Years says the province has come a long way since Klein’s “anti-arts comments and behaviour.” Klein he notes hardly went to arts performances. Both Stelmach and Blackett regularly attend concerts and other events. “Minister Blackett has repaired some of the damage created by Klein’s abrupt 1996 closing of the Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation but he has a long way to go to restore the level of confidence and fiscal support for what was once a thriving Alberta film industry” says Fraser.

Blackett hints that in the future arts funding in Alberta may do more than hold steady. He says his ministry plans to hold “regional discussions” with arts and culture groups over the next year to find out what they need “so when that tap comes back on we’re ready to go and we’re poised to make a statement.”