On her first day as a government arts consultant in 1987, Laurel Parry was ushered to a desk
that held a typewriter, a large black ceramic ashtray, and an in-box loaded with letters and materials from Yukon artists. “The job had been vacant for quite awhile and the sport consultant had been pinch-hitting, so I had some things I had to sort out right away.”
She was also confronted by a supervisor who felt she wasn’t qualified for the half-time job with what was then the Sport and Recreation branch of Community and Transportation Services. “My boss of the day told me I was the only choice he had, because no one else really applied, or whatever,” she recalls. “Anyway, he was very disparaging about me.”
Twenty-eight years later, as manager of the Arts Section of Tourism and Culture since 2002, Parry is unquestionably the bureaucrat who’s most recognizable within the territory’s thriving arts community, and the go-to person in the public arts funding sector.
Parry was the last child born in the Northwest Territories mining town of Port Radium, on the shores of Great Bear Lake. By the time she arrived here in 1969 at the age of nine, she had already lived in “big cities and little towns absolutely everywhere in Canada.” Whitehorse had few big-city amenities, but her parents could see the potential and decided to stay.
There was no performing arts season as such, just “these massive events that used to take place at F.H. Collins that would go on forever and ever, because there was never any professional stage management.”
Parry remembers parents parking their sleeping babies atop “mountains of sweaters” and winter garments in a corner of the gym while the rest of the family watched a fiddle show, or whatever was on offer. “It would finally end around 11:00 or 12:00, and you’d bundle yourself up and walk back home again.”
When Parry was in Grade 6, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra visited Whitehorse. “I thought it was pretty interesting, but I couldn’t imagine how anybody could listen to that for three hours. That was my first critique,” she laughs.
Flash-forward, beyond the creation of the Yukon Arts Centre and a raft of other infrastructure and durable annual events, and what does Parry consider the biggest single highlight of more than a quarter-century as an arts administrator? “Organizing the opening and closing ceremonies and the cultural program for the Canada Winter Games in 2007,” she says without hesitation. “We put together a pan-Northern presentation, and we rocked it,” she boasts. “It took a lot of planning and a lot of money, and it took a lot of people doing things that were out of their comfort zone — in a tent, on the waterfront, in the winter, with a 5,000 capacity, and a national broadcast.”
When Parry recounts other memorable aspects of being “a mediator between the artistic experience and the public”, it’s like sitting in a plane beside the doting grandmother of a huge brood. “I’ll never forget Jerry Alfred & The Medicine Beat winning the Juno Award in 1996 for best aboriginal recording. I was able to hear some of the tracks of that album before they were shrinkwrapped, and it was so original and so fresh.”
Then there are the visual artists. “We had two or three long-list Sobeys Award artists in the same batch one year. That was a really big deal,” she notes. “And Douglas Smarch Jr. having his work selected by the National Gallery of Canada? Amazing.”
And Yukon touring performers such as Gordie Tentrees, or Diyet. “You see them in your offi ce, and they’re thinking of doing it this way, but they might do it that way. So you get in on a lot of that sort of back stage,” she says. “Another one would be Celia McBride and Moira Sauer’s play, So Many Doors, performed at Magnetic North (the national showcase of performing arts), which is a really big deal. “Imagine getting a piece of theatre off the ground in the remotest remote, and then touring it. It’s a miracle in some ways.”
The examples go on and on, including Parry’s pride in the Yukon Permanent Art Collection, the diversity of artistic expression in Yukon communities, the growing prominence of First Nations art, and positive networking at both territorial and national levels. “I’m really excited about what I see happening, and that our funding processes have the flexibility to meet whatever changes the arts community throws at us,” she says.
The typewriter and the ceramic ashtray are gone. The disparaging words of her first boss are just a wry memory. But Parry’s enthusiasm for her job remains undiminished. “I’ve really enjoyed watching the development of the arts community here, and how loud and proud it is,” she says.
“There’s an enormous connection between the public and its artists. That’s not anything I’ll take any credit for; it’s just the way it is here. Arts are so top of mind in the Yukon.”