Appalshop

“Being Unrealistic” or Innovation Through Collective Imagination: Notes on Dr. Kathryn Carter’s Keynote at Salon #3

The key point of Dr. Kathryn Carter’s talk is to implore us to “be unrealistic” when it comes to building a future for “Arts & Culture” in Brantford/Brant. By letting our imaginations flourish, we can build the sort of creative ecology that we want as artists: one that nurtures us to create and innovate, and that is sustainable so that we can be experimental in our work. We shouldn’t ask questions but, instead, give ourselves permission as imaginative creatures to think really big and to carve out a space in which we can imagine and create. Only by taking these risks can we chart a path for those who are feeling more timid about new possibilities.

Why “be unrealistic”? Because it works.

We have an unrealistic goal at the Arts Ecology of Brantford/Brant: to change the entire dynamic of Brantford/Brant so that “Arts & Culture” is recognized as one of our sociocultural pillars. It is more than just a means for self-expression, but is the very medium we use to experience and explore life. We believe that, at this point in our history, it’s impractical to think small and to do small things; we need to think big in order to make big change or risk missing current opportunities in “Arts & Culture” development, especially around the digital revolution, mass gamification, and the endless possibilities for new kinds performances and engagements including visual and aural storytelling. As we enter further into a postsocial reality, we want to create an artistic and creative community that has more space in it for “Arts and Culture” so that we are not only free to be creative, but also to contribute actively to important sociocultural conversations in our community.

Post-Massey Trauma


If we think back to the golden era of Brantford/Brant – during the 19th and 20th Centuries when there were folks like Pauline Johnson, Sara Jeannette Duncan, and Alexander Graham Bell – our community considered itself a centre of innovation and recognized its place in the national conversation and the larger, global sociocultural movement. Unfortunately, “we lost that somewhere along the line” as Kathryn and many others believe. While developing herself artistically and professionally, Kathryn recalls that Brant County in the 1980s was not known as a hotbed for “Arts & Culture” or as a centre for innovation in Canada. We had experienced an economic shock with the closure of Massey Combines Corp., a company that had supported Brantford/Brant and its families over generations. Furthermore, since the 1960s, we had been witnessing the gradual collapse of the Brantford downtown core and the dramatic feedback from the missteps around space management and urbanization in Canada. Brantford, it appeared, had fallen from its roost as a place of innovation. And so, Kathryn implores us to “increase our imaginative capacity” in order to, once again, cultivate the mindset of greatness that our community once shared. We need to “recognize our heritage to think big and to do big things,” and focus on re-energizing the processes and conditions to develop imaginative initiatives and innovations.

On Mindset & Collective Power

In 2015, Kathryn visited with Fluney Hutchinson; a Professor and Liberal Economist at Lafayette College. She met him at Appalshop, an inspiriting centre producing arts and culture founded in an ex-mining town that had been struggling to remain viable after the mining businesses left. Whitesburg, Kentucky was seeking to create something new and imaginative as a means to keep the city thriving and to retain their youth so that the community and economy could continue to prosper for the coming generations. Kathryn recalls a particularly meaningful piece of advice from Fluney that has stuck with her: “you can have all the infrastructure in the world, you can build a 250-seat theatre or a studio space to make documentary films, but nothing will be made of it if you don’t have the mindset.”

As a proponent of using “Arts & Culture” to revitalize economies, Fluney Hutchison proposed that Whitesburg needed to work on developing their imaginative capacity or ‘mindset’ so that they could build, by first imagining, a new future for their community. Fluney and his team of researchers do reflexive consulting to determine a community’s needs and how they can best enable that community’s most inherent creativity. The key thing their are looking for is mindset: to help a community both discover imaginative capacity and to create the processes and conditions to harness and develop it. As Fluney might argue, “if the community is not ready to imagine their brave new future, they are never going to get there and always limit themselves.” Mindset, for Fluney, is a means of harnessing power and a way a community enables transformation collectively.

Appalshop is now a thriving artistic and sociocultural development space that produces radio, documentaries, and music, among other works, which are featured at their annual festival. It has completely transformed the way the community runs, with “Arts & Culture” being a beacon of the city. We believe that this sort of transformation can happen in Brantford/Brant: as Kathryn shared in her keynote “many of us, artists and cultural innovators, have felt that there is a limit that we can reach in Brantford but we shouldn’t have to feel that way, we should feel like we want to and can innovate and that we have the freedom to think big.”

We believe that once you start to think big, you attract big things and suddenly amazing things start to happen. But our first and most important task is to bring our creators and innovators together so that we may have a collective voice. It is much easier to get the support and resources we need collectively versus when we do so individually. Something that Fluney learned as he was working in Kentucky, Jamaica, and Africa is that asking for money for Arts is not a moral argument; instead, it should be about having a collective understanding of our social and economic profits and contributions and using that to sustain and propel our community. In the case of Kentucky, the story shifted from “a mining town that has fallen on hard times and deserves funding” to a story about identifying “what our assets are, realizing their value, and communicating that in an effective way to the larger society.”

Organic Development & Asset Mapping

Using reflexive consulting, the Arts Ecology of Brantford/Brant is mapping our community’s assets and working to harness a collective momentum so that we can begin to imagine new possibilities for our own future.

We start by asking: “What do we already have in Brantford/Brant?”

Asset Mapping is a keystone activity that can help mitigate the big challenge in finding common language between “Arts & Culture” and government & industry so that either side can understand a shared vision wherein they grow and prosper. “Arts & Culture” is also the language we use to understand our shared collective identity – or ‘who we are as a community’ – which helps us to better understand ourselves as individuals. Furthermore, this language is pivotal to sociocultural agency which operates as a foundation pillar in our communities. Asset Mapping leads into organic development; when we start to build something out of the assets we have, we start to attract new things and, soon, our artistic and creative communities start to develop and grow organically “even if we don’t know what that future may be.” Kathryn did this when she was developing Laurier Brantford and the Game Design and Development program. In order to have a unique offering and attract people to Laurier Brantford, they capitalized on what Brantford already had: the Personal Computer Museum and one of Canada’s largest video game collections. This was the basis of the new Game Design and Development program and what is now attracting students, industries and researchers to Brantford. What started as building out an asset unique to Brantford, has developed into an centre of innovation for gaming in Canada.

Kathryn’s Unrealistic Vision for Brantford


Kathryn closes by sharing her unrealistic vision for our community: we can be the creative and nurturing answer to the technology development happening in the Quantum Corridor between the GTA and Kitchener/Waterloo. We can be the imaginative thinkers that can come up with ways to use their new tools and innovations. Those technological innovators know how to “create the cool tools” but they won’t always know “what to do with the cool tools.” For that you need artists; to imagine, hack and play with these new innovations so that we may find real world uses that their inventors did not consider. Together with the Arts Ecology of Brantford/Brant, we are seeking opportunities to have companies invest in Brantford and we are confident they will do so, because: as real estate climbs in the GTA, our community is a smart investment opportunity; we have a surplus of creative and imaginative talent; we are situated in close proximity to the Quantum Corridor and the GTA; and, as we already know and are re-learning, Brantford has a history of being an innovative centre in Canada. We can help our community prosper even if, in the present moment, we only focus on a budding idea and dream of the future. We need to think unrealistically and focus on imagining a thriving arts ecology, collectively. We need to act more like 19th Century Brantford so that we see ourselves, once again, as sociocultural innovators and focus on developing the processes and conditions to make change and to be leaders in regional, national and global discussion.

About the Speaker

Dr. Kathryn Carter has been a key participant in the creation of the Brantford campus of Laurier in her faculty role and a variety of administrative positions. She was the lead developer of the Game Design and Development program. In Paris, she has worked on major arts projects such as the Cobblestone Festival and the re-imagined Bawcutt Centre. Kathryn’s most recent projects include the Watershed Project – a cross-industry and inter-disciplinary project seeking to develop a new economy for artists in Brantford/Brant – and, also, the Arts Ecology of Brantford/Brant for which Kathryn works to build imaginative capacity for the arts in our communities as a founding Research Fellow.

Works Cited

Carter, Kathryn, and Bob Egan. “Increasing Imaginative Capacity for the Arts.” Arts Ecology Salon #3. Arts Ecology of Brantford/Brant, 24 July 2017. Web.