A Career in Culture
Profile by Jane Ledwell
I’m a big believer that personal and professional life should be a big, long, confusing, unpredictable adventure,” says Henk van Leeuwen. He adds with an affable smile, “Maybe that mirrors a career in the arts.” His own work as executive director of Culture PEI lets him help “artists, artisans, performers, and storytellers explore what it takes to succeed” in careers in culture.
As Henk says, Culture PEI “serves as a broker to create vibrant, active communities.” The organization “is not in the direct business of creating something for performance on the stage, but we have a great balcony view. We can get to bring together partners to get projects going. Sometimes projects need that kind of voice. We’re an avid voice for and advocate for arts and artisans and culture.” He laughs, “We’re a Switzerland kind of voice.”
Henk says, “Industries such as aerospace ... are courting people to move to PEI, and as they are recruiting, they are telling people about PEI quality of life. Well, who creates quality of life?” The answer? Artists and cultural workers.
Culture PEI’s has worked with Holland College to create a short course on the business of crafts and with Skills PEI and the Island Film Factory to “deepen the pool of expertise” in film-making. An event called Connecting Cultures through Culture engaged newcomers: “PEI is now definitively growing within and because of the newcomer community. Many newcomers have not only experiences from their own cultures but artistic and creative skills, too,” Henk enthuses.
Henk says, “I worked for the CBC across Canada for 15 years—I got my start in Charlottetown. The last few years, my work was more on the managerial and administrative side. I wanted better ways for me to participate in my community.”
He says. “What can be one of the limitations of journalism is that you can’t publicly get behind things because you might have to do a story about them. Now, part of my job is going to a book launch or an art gallery opening and getting behind it. I can write a letter to the editor. I can sit down with someone from the government and say what I think.”
What he loves best, though, is that “Every day is different.”
Growing up, Henk says, “I was always an avid reader. We were not economically well off, but my mother worked very hard to make sure there were lots of books in the house, and music… I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Now, I love that I don’t know what I will be doing five years from now.”
Helping people explore careers taps that excitement. A favourite Culture PEI project is the Careers in Culture series of short videos. “We got feedback that we don’t see enough of ourselves, of Islanders, in promotional material,” Henk says. “It is important for Islanders to see themselves in career outreach. In the videos, the artists and artisans are all saying—I think to a person—that, ‘This is a business, and this is what it takes, and this is what it is like.’
“I love that career promotion, and I hope people look at it and think, ‘These people are doing it, and so can I.’” Presenting the videos in schools is a highlight: “If three or four kids are looking at you and at the videos, and you can see the lightbulb starting to flicker,” you know a light comes on for them that they could make a career from the creative work they love.
“PEI, pound for pound, punches far above its cultural weight,” Henk says. “It’s amazing how often I’ll become friends with someone and then find out, oh they also paint—or write poetry, or make pottery… Even in a small place, it is amazing how sometimes we can not know everything that is going on.”
Bringing experience from media and the appreciation of an audience member, Henk says, “I’m a big believer that more communications are better than less. I want to make Culture PEI as an organization accessible by talking, brokering, being a catalyst, being present.” There’s a lot to do as well as see from the balcony.