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June is Membership Month at the Niagara Artists Centre, which means there’s no better time to sign up or renew your membership. In this Q&A, poet and NAC Board member Gregory Betts talks about an artist who knocks his socks off, why it’s difficult to be an artist in Niagara, and why NAC is the “forum for the best conversations on art in the region.”

When did you become a NAC member and why?
I became a NAC member in 2009, as soon as I realized it existed. I could not resist joining in the most dynamic arts community and hub in the region. It really has become the heart of the city for me.

Are you an artist, an art appreciator or both?
I am a poet, a writer, and an art appreciator. My dark secret is an occasional flirtation with art making: I have collaborated with a number of visual artists, and even had one solo exhibition of my own at a cafe that shut down shortly after. Ahem.

What’s the best thing about being an artist in Niagara?
I hope you will forgive me, but I actually think it is rather difficult to be an artist in Niagara. As a writer, there is no institution or business dedicated to the support or enhancement of literary cultures in the region. There are used bookstores in the downtown, but nothing that sells new and recent books—and there is not even a single store that sells local authors! The lack of support makes NAC all the more important for creating a home for writers through their regular reading series and literary events. In fact, because books are always sold at the NAC events, they are de facto the biggest book store in the city.

Name a Niagara artist whose work knocks your socks off.
Duncan MacDonald continues to amaze me with the wealth of thinking in his projects. To highlight one of his projects, “Piano Tusk” (2015) involved collecting free old pianos that people now just give away for free. He has poached the ivory from these rugged, beautiful beasts and sculpted the keys into a to-scale elephant tusk. The project uses art to return the material to at least a memory of its original form. To complete the tragedy embodied in this acknowledgement, the discarded corpses of the denuded pianos were then burnt, as is commonly done with poached elephant bodies and confiscated ivory. 

Tell us about a memorable NAC experience.
I take my four-year-old son to the NAC whenever there is an opening. We walk around and talk about the art. He tells me what he sees, what captures his attention, and we usually end up laughing at something or other that is strange. After he has seen all of the art, and decided on his favourite piece, we head over to the snack table for cheese and a cookie (or popcorn or other goody). The last thing he likes to do is tell the artist which one was his favourite. This usually leads into a little conversation, and sometimes even discussions about how the art was made (materials, methods, etc). It is the openness of the NAC that allows for such moments. What a delightful education!

What’s the number one reason to become a NAC member?
For you? I don’t know. For me, it is the fact that art almost always improves when it is shared or built in a conversation. The NAC is, bar none, the forum for the best conversations on art in the region.