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Santee Smith Wins Inaugural Johanna Metcalf Performing Arts Prize

By Grace Wells-Smith
  • Photo courtesy of the Metcalf Foundation

On November 25, 2019, the five winners of the inaugural Johanna Metcalf Performing Arts Prize were announced. Among them was the artistic director of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, Santee Smith.

After making a short list of fifteen artists of various disciplines, including dance artists Bageshree Vaze and Lucy Rupert, Smith won one of the $25,000 prizes.

The goal of the prize is to offload some of the financial burdens that artists in Ontario carry. According to Hill Strategies, an organization that conducts research on arts and culture, the median salary of Ontario artists is $23,500, based on a custom data set from the 2016 census. The prize money, at $25,000, can effectively double that salary.

“I think it’s a great way to acknowledge the incredible work that many people are doing across the performing arts and for people to realize how much arts and culture contributes to our society,” Smith said. According to her, art not only makes the world more interesting but also reflects culture and humanity.

The prize was created by the Metcalf Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council after the death of Johanna Metcalf in 2018. It’s an unrestricted prize, meaning the winners can use the money however they want, and they don’t have to report back to the foundation. It’s also tax-free.

Michael Trent, performing arts program director of the foundation and former artistic director of Dancemakers in Toronto, said that artists are constantly negotiating the time between making their art and finding resources to support making their art.

“This influx of money will hopefully help that tension to dissipate to some degree for a certain period of time,” he said. “That, I think, is filling a gap or a need that I would claim many artists, if not all, are dealing with on a constant daily basis.”

He also said that Smith received the prize because of, as the foundation states, “her rigorous creative practice and impressive voice throughout her post-reconciliation performance explorations.”

Her creative practice includes more than twenty-five works, made independently and with Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, which she founded in 2005. In 2013, her work Susuriwka - willowbridge won the Dora Mavor Moore award for Outstanding Choreography. She was also named chancellor of McMaster University earlier this year.

She said this prize has come at a fitting time in her life because she never has enough time to be able to reflect on her work between production deadlines. “I really do need that reflection time, which means carving time in the schedule and also being able to have the resources to be able to devote to something like that,” she said.

The other recipients of the prize are playwright Sunny Drake, composer Alice Ping Yee Ho, composer James Rolfe and multimedia artist and musician Maryem Tollar. Each recipient was also tasked with picking a protege, an artist in Ontario who would win $5000. The proteges are Bilal Baig, Roydon Tse, Sophie Dupuis, Demetrios Petsalakis and Cody Berry, who was picked by Smith.

With this significant financial assistance, Smith hopes to continue making art that she believes is important. “My art has always been about giving voice, and by that I just mean visibility to narratives and identity that’s not represented on equal footing in arts, from an Indigenous perspective,” she said. “So I will continue to do that type of work because I’m interested as a Mohawk woman but also in service of sharing our stories.”

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