Written by Maggie Burton (WeavEast Fellow, Newfoundland and Labrador)
Throughout the nineteenth century, rural Newfoundland’s fishing economy depended on the “truck system” of establishing credit with a local fishing merchant. As a seasonal, family-based enterprise, families often traded salt fish for goods early on in the season, before the price of cod was necessarily known by merchants, leaving labourers in debt, often at an unfair price.
In part to fight inequality in the fishing industry, in 1906, Sir William Ford Coaker established the Fisherman’s Protective Union (FPU), a union and political party and later a service organization for members, seeking a better distribution of wealth in the island’s main economic driver. Within six years of establishment, the FPU released a 31-point manifesto calling for radical change in fishery, social and governance policies. These changes included co-operative marketing, government regulation of fish grading, reduction of tariffs on food staples, free and mandatory education, and a minimum wage.
Port Union exists because the FPU built it, starting in 1916. Including its own hydro-electric energy system, the town was designed with a mixed-use planning philosophy, including 50 affordable rental units.
Now, in 2019, the Foundation has just officially launched Union House Arts, an experimental venture based in contemporary arts and skill sharing. It is located in a fully-renovated historic building in the town centre amongst a row of iconic red duplexes that provided important density in the core of the community. The Foundation provides affordably-priced rental units in some of the restored historic homes in the community. Even back in 1995 when work on the Foundation was just beginning, they had the arts and artists in residence as part of the vision for the row-housing on the street.
We’re always trying to be socially-conscious, we have always tried to partner with people that way over the years. - Edith Samson, Executive Coordinator, Sir William Ford Coaker Foundation
Union House Arts was set up as a subcommittee of the Foundation, a supportive organization that is truly committed to partnering with people in the area on projects such as this to help them as they get started and ensure the work is beneficial to the local economy and community.
Union House Arts helps bring together artists, researchers, and community members with the shared vision of restoring valuable built heritage, building community resilience through the arts, and mentoring the next generation of artists by trying something new. Through place-making initiatives such as Makers Nights, they strive to be a safe space for creative youth, for youth that are interested in exploring their relationship to creativity. Having contemporary art and artists that are fully integrated within the community of Port Union is what Union House Arts has in mind.
Visual Artist Jane Walker and others involved with the concept plan for Union House Arts came to the Foundation with an idea that fit into the existing vision.
“Union House Arts would be an experimental space to support people of all ages in this area. The number one thing for me is that I wouldn’t want it to be a tourist arts centre: it will operate all year round and we will take into consideration how the artists’ practice might fit into the area.” - Jane Walker
Having an artist program in Port Union means that there will be a body of work based on the experiences of the town in the 2010s and 2020s, which is invaluable to the intangible cultural heritage of any place.
The biggest challenge is accessing enough funding to accomplish all they aspire to in the town. The future vision includes expanding the Artist in Residency program, including hopefully a space for artists who have children to be able to bring them along on the residency, with childcare provided. They hope to have an official youth mentorship program, and continue to work with local craftspersons in settings such as Makers Nights that bring together people across artistic disciplines. The Foundation, Samson indicated, hopes to continue to support start-up initiatives such as Union House Arts, nurturing new ideas that the community may have.
There has been a surge of activity in the craft sector in the Port Union area in part because of the work of the Coaker Foundation since the early 2000s, starting with a Targeted Initiative for Older Workers and following up with starting a co-op with the local craftspersons which involved fostering skill sharing in areas such as quilt-making.
The Women’s Institute has 45-46 members now. It is thriving. We have a lot of women’s institute members coming to our making nights at UHA. A lot of crossover between local craftspeople and visiting artists. - Edith Samson
At the first week of the Makers Nights in 2019 they had 16 people attend, the second week 21, and the third week an estimated 25, bringing together the Artists in Residence with the community. The participants are trying everything from knitting, to print making. This is a project that refuses to ignore the needs and appetites of the community while catering to the tourism industry.
“I did my Masters in Rural Arts Engagement in NL and Scotland. It was inspired by all the romanticized artist residencies popping up all over the place that perpetuated dangerous stereotypes about a place—that you can go in and create work about a place without having a meaningful connection with it.” - Jane Walker
What can we learn from Union House Arts and the Coaker Foundation? If you want to foster social change through arts, culture, and heritage it is possible if you nurture a sense of place and evolve to meet the needs of the people who live there year-round.