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Christina Wolf plays her violin outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on May 16, 2012. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Christina Wolf plays her violin outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on May 16, 2012. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Music

The newest cool arts hobby: going pro Add to ...

By day, Christina Wolf is the chief economist for the British Columbia Securities Commission. By night, the 42-year-old violinist is a dedicated amateur musician who is looking forward to performing Offenbach, Bruch and Dvorak at her next concert with the West Coast Symphony in Vancouver.

Jane Southey, 51, recently rented a gallery in Toronto’s Distillery District to show her photographs of birds, landscapes, architecture and swirling paint patterns. She used to consider her profession simply “mom.” Since she made her first sale last year, however, her teenage children have decided her job title also includes “photographer.”

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JP Davidson is a 31-year-old public-radio enthusiast who recently quit his paying job in an attempt to turn his hobby into a career – after co-creating 71 episodes of I Like You, a podcast about dating that can boast 200,000 downloads. He also runs a website, the Toronto Public Radio Workshop, an online community for podcasters creating their own programs for the medium they love.

“We always say the word ‘amateur’ means ‘for the love of it,’ ” says Wolf, disputing the negative connotation of the word. “… You can do something at a very professional level and still be outside the professional circuit.”

Wolf , Southey and Davidson are part of a thriving hobbyist culture that is blurring the line between the professional and the amateur. In the process, they are helping to create a new kind of artist: the so-called pro-am.

United and promoted through social media, distributed by YouTube, emboldened by a DIY culture or enraptured by the TV-talent contests, citizens are increasingly participating in the arts as creators rather than as passive consumers. They are also encouraged by a broad philosophical movement that seeks to democratize the arts by recognizing the creative spirit in everybody.

But are their dreams of public recognition and paying careers mere fantasy? And, whether realistic or not, their ambitions are challenging established cultural institutions to respond to them in ways that go beyond Saturday-morning art classes and Hallelujah Chorus sing-alongs.





JP Davidson and his collaborator Elah Feder broadcast their podcast, I Like You, out of Elah's Toronto home. They are photographed at the kitchen table where they often conduct interviews on May 16, 2012.

“Our celebrity culture creates a lot of false hope,” says Alan Brown, an American arts consultant who last fall completed a study on audience engagement for the Ontario Arts Council. “There are two ways of looking at this. [Some say]every mother with a Band-Aid is not a nurse; everyone who creates art is not an artist; the professional artist is unique and should be cherished. But there is another school of thought: If you think you are an artist, you are an artist.”

Anecdotally, the evidence points to a definite increase in serious amateurism: Wolf auditions violins and violas for the amateur West Coast Symphony – and she has seen a continual rise in the number and quality of candidates in recent years, as young players take their music more seriously. Better yet, she can now always find colleagues who are happy to join her in tackling the late Beethoven string quartets.

Meanwhile, in the media arts, technology has lowered barriers to production and distribution. “We realized you did not necessarily need professional equipment or major funding, just time,” Davidson says of his massive I Like You project.

Because a hobby is difficult to define – especially in the arts, where even many professionals make little money from their craft – it’s hard to find reliable long-term statistics tracking amateur arts activity in North America. But studies do show non-professional practice is thriving right now.

Brown’s survey for the Ontario Arts Council showed both broad and deep levels of public participation in the arts – whether “inventive participation” (say, making a film, writing a poem, choreographing a dance) or “interpretive participation” (performing or reinterpreting existing art works). Sixty per cent of Ontarians engage with the arts in those ways at least once a year. Smaller but still significant numbers practice the arts regularly: At least once a week, 11 per cent play a musical instrument, five per cent sing with a group, and five per cent write fiction or poetry.

Arts groups have always valued amateurs: They know that people who practice the arts attend more arts events. But the OAC commissioned the study because it recognized that, increasingly, engaging audiences is about engaging active creators rather than passive participants. Events such as Culture Days, launched in 2010 as a nationwide celebration of the arts, are purposely participatory. The annual September event offers thousands of hands-on activities, from a chance to play a Steinway piano in the Cowichan Theatre in Duncan, B.C., to a day making pottery at the Village Pottery in New London, PEI.

Meanwhile, individual institutions are reinventing their education programs to become more interactive. The Art Gallery of Ontario’s newly renovated Weston Family Learning Centre now offers community art projects led by professional artists: For his current Album project, Toronto artist Max Dean donated his 10-year collection of 600 amateur family-photo albums, dating from the 19th century to the present, to the AGO, which could physically house only 200. Dean is inviting members of the public to take over custodianship of the remainder and to interpret that trust however they wish. Several participants have begun posting the images on social-media sites in an attempt to find out who the pictures are of or where they were taken. In other words, they have become amateur curators.

“I find it a really positive development that ‘citizens,’ ordinary citizens, have more opportunity to share their creativity,” says David Moss, national project director for Culture Days. “We and they might be the same people. The lines are blurred.”

But are these citizens truly artists? And does their output qualify as art? Opinions vary on how realistic the creativity movement is being as it extends dreams of an arts career to every hobbyist – without any mechanism for enforcing professional standards. The Canadian Film Centre has made the point succinctly with the ongoing promotional campaign for its Worldwide Short Film Festival, which commissions professional directors to remake a couple of viral YouTube hits as short films. The campaign’s slogan: “Anyone can upload. Few can act … direct …write … edit.”

“Justin Bieber’s mum puts stuff out there [on YouTube]and look what happens,” says Gryphon Trio cellist Roman Borys, who is artistic director of the Ottawa ChamberFest, where he has started a workshop to give professional coaching to amateur ensembles. “But if you are not working with someone who knows the difference between the mediocre and the good, you are skipping the mechanism that regulates what is professional.”

Borys, a firm believer in encouraging recreational musicians, doesn’t think most adult hobbyists are delusional about their skill level. And certainly the motivations, goals and achievements of amateurs vary widely.

For Davidson, the public-radio buff, his hobbyist podcasting is the stepping stone to a career. He is currently working on the pilot episode of a reality show about dating that CBC Radio is considering as a podcast for its website.

Wolf, on the other hand, says she would never issue a recording – and makes a clear distinction between her amateur activity and the work of professionals, saying there are levels of performance in classical music that only the pros, practising hours every day, can attain. For her, the violin is a hobby – a hobby to which she is passionately committed.

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