Can a virtual conference still build meaningful connections and relationships when everyone is communicating through screens for four days?
That was the question for Island Mountain Arts (IMA), as it hosted the annual Northern Exposure conference virtually last month. For Julie Fowler, IMA’s outgoing executive and artistic director, the answer is yes.
“It’s definitely not the same as being in person — I think nothing can replicate that — but it definitely can work to build relationships and build community,” she said.
The Northern Exposure conference draws together music and arts industry from rural and urban British Columbia to share ideas and knowledge on the sector, access professional development, and foster growth and support networks. It also shines a spotlight on emerging and professional musicians through artist showcases.
Facilitated by Carla Stephenson, founder of the Tiny Lights Festival in Ymir and creator of the Rural Arts Inclusion Social Innovation Lab project, this year’s conference, held Oct. 22-25, had a strong emphasis on sustainability in the sector and the need for systems change to ensure more support overall for working artists and cultural workers.
This was the sixth annual Northern Exposure conference, and while it looked quite different from previous years, Fowler was happy with how the four-day program went.
“I was really thrilled at the level of participation,” she said. “There were definitely people who were there for almost every session. At the end of the day, it was just over 90 people participating — that included the panelists and the people who registered, so that was great. That’s more than what we usually have in person, and we never had less than 25 people at any session. That was also a fear I had, for any speaker, but definitely for the artist showcases, I was nervous about being able to actually give artists a platform and promotion and support, so I was really thrilled that we had good participation for the artist showcases and for all the sessions. Definitely my fears were a couple people tuning in — we just didn’t know what would happen.”
Fowler says they’ve had a lot of great feedback from participants, and people who attended have expressed a lot of gratitude for the event.
“I think people were really seeking that chance to connect,” said Fowler.
Northern Exposure also served as an introduction to Elyssia Sasaki, IMA’s new artistic director and executive director, as of Oct. 31. Sasaki worked for IMA on contract as the main conference co-ordinator.
Sasaki, who is originally from Port Alberni, comes to Wells from the Yukon and has a background in performance, film, organizing and administration. Fowler first met her when Sasaki organized the N3 arts summit in Whitehorse.
“I feel so lucky she’s come,” said Fowler. “I gave a pretty long transition time to the organization because I wanted to make sure, after me being there for so long, that we’d have the time to find someone new and bring them in, and I could work with them, and I’m just so happy it actually all happened that way. I really am so pleased that she is here and her passion and caring and her skills. Her skillset is perfect.”
Fowler says they learned a lot about working with Zoom, and it worked really well — much of that due to Sasaki.
“We really learned a lot, and huge kudos to Elyssia for really digesting the technology and figuring out how to use it to its fullest potential for what we were wanting to do,” said Fowler. “I think also it was a great learning experience for other organizers who participated who can learn how to use that technology in the same way. It definitely was great learning on lots of levels, and once you do it, it makes it clearer how to do it better.”
Fowler is very grateful to Stephenson and all the presenters and artists who were involved.
“After so many years of being involved in this sector, it was cool to be able to bring those different people in based off different relationships I’ve had over the years and share their voices with more people and build more connections,” she said. “That’s what I love and that’s what I’ve loved about this job is connecting people. I feel that we actually had relationships building in a meaningful way, which was definitely one of the things I was skeptical could happen through online, but I think it actually happened.”
Topics covered in this year’s conference include systems change in the B.C. arts ecosystem, building community, what could real inclusion and equity look like, accessibility in the arts, digital realities for rural presenters and festivals, and livestreaming 101.
“It’s interesting the majority of the conference was actually programmed before COVID-19, so this idea of systems change and a need to really look at these systems that are in place that are not allowing us to change, or how do we actually change the systems — COVID really just amplified that need in a way, and we have to look at new ways of looking at things,” said Fowler. “It’s interesting how that became even more resonant.”
Inclusivity and diversity was also an important theme this year, and it has been an ongoing theme in previous years as well. Fowler was really interested in bringing diverse voices to the table and letting them tell whatever story they want.
“I think just hearing those other voices that often you don’t hear is a big part of the learning, just hearing the stories and the experiences of often-marginalized voices,” she said. “When you get to know the person and it becomes personal, I think that’s such a great way to learn and realize about the systems of racism and privilege and all the different things we kind of talk about, but then when you actually hear someone telling their own experience, that just can be all the more powerful. I really am so appreciative of the different speakers that were vulnerable and brought their stories forward and felt comfortable telling their story in that space.”
Self-care was also a theme running through the conference.
“I think that’s a really important topic to talk about in everyone’s life, but I think artists often don’t get the support they need and they live close to the margins, and I noticed it for sure with ArtsWells,” said Fowler. “I think it’s a big topic for us to shine a light on and really find ways to better look after each other … how to sort of be gentle with each other and look after each other, and I think that kind of gets to the heart of why these events are so important, connecting each other and building community and getting a chance to learn from one another and hearing other voices and how we can all help one another and be in this together and not feel alone. We’re certainly not alone. There are so many others going through the same thing, and if we can go through it together, it’s so much better.”