Story Seeker: Anju Singh
Person interviewed: Emma Hendrix, Executive Director
Interview dates: July 14 and 19, 2021
Like many artist-serving organizations, Video Pool Media Arts Centre (VP) faced challenges to continue meeting artists’ needs throughout the pandemic. When provincial health restrictions came into effect in Manitoba, this Winnipeg-based organization was required to shut down many of its services, disrupting support for artists who relied on VP for equipment rentals, training, and facilities. However, VP’s team, led by Executive Director Emma Hendrix, viewed these restrictions as an opportunity to gain deeper insights into the access barriers that VP’s members have been facing since before the pandemic.
Based on his previous experience leading artist-run centres, Emma was already aware of some of the access issues with which organizations like VP grappled, such as ensuring that the venue, studios, and workshops are accessible. For him, “the concept of access was just highlighted [for VP] because of the pandemic, so it gave us a new way to think about these things”.
These insights ultimately steered the organization to explore new ways to run its operations and deliver its programs and services. As VP reflected on the question, “How do we change the way we work, given the way things are during the pandemic?”, the centre engaged in adaptive and flexible thinking, which led to significant changes in the artist-run centre’s processes and approaches.
The Innovation: A thorough self-assessment with an eye to “What does an artist-run centre look like in 50 years?”
Video Pool’s equity and inclusion work informs the solutions and intentions of its response to pandemic-related obstacles. By listening to the communities that it serves, including artists in Manitoba’s rural and urban communities, VP is able to ask large and meaningful questions like what the future of artist-run centres should and could be in 50 years and what a decentralized, more accessible, and virtual centre could look like.
During the pandemic, a key realization for VP was that artist-run centres need to reflect on their role in the larger arts community and assess their effectiveness after decades of standardized structures and models. Emma reflected that, “because nobody could access the space during the pandemic, and it wasn’t safe to be trading gear off [for equipment rentals], and legally we weren’t allowed to, we started to think about how this highlighted that this is how it is for some people all the time.“
VP took the opportunity to review access restrictions that impacted the artists served, and the centre wanted to ensure that any improvements to the accessibility of its programs and services would continue beyond the pandemic. Emma explained that a combination of factors moved VP in the right direction to make significant changes: “examining the physical barriers to access due to the pandemic (pandemic access restrictions, physical proximity barriers, even the uncertainty of what was safe) combined with anti-oppression workshops with Future Ancestors Society and a Disability Justice workshop with Melanie Monoceros”.
One area of focus for the organization was its education programs. The stability afforded through emergency funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Winnipeg Foundation, and federal emergency programs allowed VP to shift its resources toward the development of a free online workshop series entitled “VP Learning Laboratories”, led by Heidi Phillips. This series provided professional development opportunities to artists at home during the pandemic and offered much needed income for the facilitating artists at a time when there was little to no work due to the pandemic.
While Emma doesn’t think of the Learning Laboratories as a technical innovation per se — the workshops were “still just on zoom” — the positive response to the virtual format encouraged VP to seek funding to further expand its workshops into a “HyFlex” (Hybrid-Flexible) learning approach. Emma explained that:
The basic idea is that it’s a flexible learning environment with both online and in-person options, and these options are flexible in that a student should be able to participate in either way at any time and get the same learning experience. For VP, we want to be able to host workshops that are theoretical and practical/hands-on and offer outreach to people outside of Winnipeg.
Thanks to the virtual format during the pandemic, the centre did see workshop participants from a broader geographic area, including some from outside of Manitoba. VP is working closely with consultants to develop this learning approach to ensure that it meets the needs of the centre’s artist communities.
Video Pool first had the opportunity to experience HyFlex models of learning through its participation in the Digital Dramaturgy Initiative (DDI) – a partnership that VP participated in with the Manitoba Association of Playwrights (MAP). A chance encounter with a playwright participating in the initiative where VP was providing technical and conceptual support for artists provided VP with the opportunity to learn about HyFlex learning, which inspired VP to aspire to “post-pandemic, support folks who want to come in person and those who want to join online — with accessibility and equity in mind”.
Informed by these experiences, Video Pool, led by Technical Director Eusebio Lopez-Aguilar, developed a portable equipment rental service/program, including laptops, livestreaming kits, and video kits. These portable kits complement or replace the desktop studio computers currently provided in VP’s facility, by allowing artists to work remotely in a COVID-safe way. The equipment was photographed, weighed, and measured to help with logistical planning of getting the kits around. To improve access for artists during the pandemic, VP moved all of its bookings to an online system that provides members with 24 hour access to sign into their account and book equipment.
Eusebio also created a series called BIPOC Tech Talk partially in response to the pandemic. During a BIPOC artist roundtable pre-pandemic, participants had expressed interest in a BIPOC centered space for conversations about technology. Emma shared that “Eusebio leads the program and part of his desire to host it was to continue to build community during the pandemic and to do so in a safe[r] space for BIPOC folks. Eusebio has been active in the community for a long time so it’s a natural and comfortable place for him.”
In addition to its programs and services, VP is also evaluating its membership structure by interrogating assumptions that are widespread in artist-run centres, such as the idea that “organizations should pay more for equipment rentals”. VP recognized that not all organizations are in a financial position to pay more than the artist rates and that such access barriers need to be removed.
Rather than rushing to implement temporary COVID-19-specific measures, Video Pool opted to work toward long-lasting strategies to increase access to the centre’s services. The organization has implemented some supports — such as helping artists to move gear, changing workshops to online formats so that artists can create work more freely and flexibly, developing new bylaws and policies through an anti-oppression lens, and creating safer spaces policies for both in-person and online activities — but believes that there is much more to do.
The Challenges: Time, maintaining operations while innovating, and longer-term funding
While VP is strategizing new processes to improve access and is working toward transformative organizational change, it has identified some key challenges: time, on-going operations, and funding.
In order to be intentional about developing solutions to address access needs of its members, it was necessary for VP to take the time needed to engage in deep and empathetic listening to centre the leadership and voices of communities that are underrepresented or not typically invited to the table for strategy conversations. This consultative approach contributed to the success of the BIPOC Tech Talk group led by Eusebio. Rather than telling the group how it should look, VP encouraged the group to be led and developed by the participants. VP also committed to taking time needed to create safer spaces for participants to engage with the centre and its work.
Keeping up with day-to-day operations while making “huge structural changes” is another key challenge for VP. While disruptive of the centre’s regular activities, the pandemic gave the organization a chance to reflect and ask larger questions during a temporary reprieve from their usual workload. As COVID-19 restrictions start to lift and the centre’s activities are returning to normal, there is concern that there will be limited capacity for its transformative organizational work as operational obligations return.
VP is also anticipating longer-term funding challenges after pandemic-specific funding stops. It is common for arts funders to prioritize projects with “high impact” — often interpreted simply as serving a large number of people, rather than serving a small number of people in a deep, focused, and meaningful way. This is the obstacle currently faced by one of VP’s youth-focused mentorship programs, which provides career development opportunities to four artists in northern Manitoba. While VP’s equity and community consultation work has identified this as the correct strategy to serve underrepresented and underserved communities, funding bodies have yet to fully grasp the importance of quality versus quantity as a crucial evaluation metric.
The Financials: Using COVID-19 support funding to plan for a more inclusive artist-run centre
Video Pool received emergency COVID-19 funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Winnipeg Foundation, as well as support from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. For VP, this meant that the organization had the financial resources and the capacity (i.e., staff time) to pursue organizational process innovations. This funding along with a lighter operational load due to COVID-19 restrictions meant the organization had more opportunity to discuss, think, learn, listen, and innovate.
With the support of the centre’s Board of Directors, VP decided to invest in long-term solutions for the organization rather than temporary pandemic-oriented solutions. Emma said that VP asked itself:
If these supports are here, is there a way that we can take them and transfer them through to the community and/or improve our organization, so that when the pandemic is done we are a much more inclusive organization or at least on the right path towards that?
The Takeaway: Smaller steps rather than grand gestures
For VP, a key question is “What are the ways that we can be supportive of various communities, whether they’re in Winnipeg, in northern Manitoba, or anywhere else?” The act of slowing down to make intentional, thoughtful, and consulted decisions means that the organization can build for the future with everyone in mind.
Emma shared that VP learned the importance of starting with small changes, like changing door knobs to be more accessible for an artist-in-residence, rather than making grand gestures. Smaller changes can heighten impact and improve access for VP’s members and the communities that it serves. Keeping “community” at the forefront of its decision-making has helped the organization move forward without leaving important artist communities behind.
Finally, Emma reflected on the importance of partnerships:
Partnerships are so, so important. We don’t do it alone, we do it with others. And that is really informative, and difficult because you have to be willing to be in a vulnerable space. You just spend the time and the effort to really think about how you take care of each other.
VP has worked closely with the Arts AccessAbility Network of Manitoba on the DATA project (Diversity through Access to Technology and Arts), as well as accessibility audits which have helped the organization understand that it might need to start including elements such as quiet space during events for some attendees. This can help ensure “that anybody who comes in has the sense that whatever their needs might be, they’re welcome.” VP also partnered with Creative Manitoba and New Media Manitoba on the Merging Mindsets conference, which aimed to connect artists and industry members who work with technology. This conference was successfully executed but cut short due to the pandemic.
VP’s approach of nurturing and participating in a community of care has supported the important innovative work that the centre is undertaking, while moving at a pace that hasn’t left people behind.