Fogo arts innovator shares thoughts

SSNAP events continue through Oct. 21

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The Salt Spring National Art Prize month can be an exciting time for people who like to think about questions of art and community. In addition to hosting the main exhibition and associated shows, SSNAP organizers strive to keep the dialogue going through art talks by the finalists and other events.

In the first two years, panel discussions were on the program; this year a presentation by just one amazingly charming philanthropist created more than enough to chew on. Zita Cobb’s Sept. 28 illustrated talk at ArtSpring discussed some of the history behind the Shorefast Foundation and the Fogo Island Arts Corp., both based on her rocky and windswept home island in Newfoundland.

Cobb’s strong accent and warm personality are matched by an endearing commitment to her community. She returned to Fogo 12 years ago after cashing out early on a successful career in finance and technology, exercising $69 million in stock options from JDS Uniphase. She created the Shorefast Foundation with two of her six brothers to revitalize the community in ways that foster cultural resilience.

Among its charitable programs, the Shorefast Foundation has created a contemporary art gallery, fully supported artist and academic residency programs, and programs for heritage restorations, boat-building and micro-lending. To help support these programs they run three social enterprises: the inn, a furniture business and a hand-line cod fishing business.

“You can do anything with money. You can turn money into fish. You can turn money into fresh air. You could fix the ocean if you want to; we just have to turn the money into those things,” Cobb told the Driftwood. “And that’s what we try to do, is turn money into things that actually help us make meaning.”

Fogo Island may seem dramatically opposed to Salt Spring in many particulars. Before Cobb created the Fogo Inn as a luxury destination and dotted the landscape with architect-designed artist studios, there was little reason for anyone to make the trek. When Cobb introduced her idea for boosting the economy with art, she said, people on Fogo weren’t too sure what art was, but decided it probably wasn’t harmful. 

Fogo’s blank slate and desperation may have created the perfect vacuum into which a well-intentioned multi-millionaire with time on her hands could step in to create a new reality. Our island has many people interested in growing local potential, but perhaps lacks that singular vision (not to mention the $10 million of personal funds that Cobb spent to get the project up and running).

“I think part of the problem on Salt Spring, if there’s a problem at all, is you have too much — we have so little,” Cobb said. “We have 2,500 people and a bald rock in the North Atlantic. It wasn’t like we had a lot of options.”

Cobb feels we could perhaps learn from the exercise her group put into play to determine what would best suit Fogo’s gifts, called Asset Based Community Development. Developed by John McNight as a way to build community resiliency, Cobb breaks it down to a series of questions about what the community wants and what strengths it has to offer.

“If we went through the process of Asset Based Community Development to try to understand what the inherent capacities and dreams of the people here are that we could now coalesce into something that’s going to give new energy to the island, what might that be? That would be an exciting thing to do here — I mean, you have a tyranny of riches here,” Cobb said. “Because otherwise you’re just waiting for the next developer to come up with some idea that he or she wants to do.”

SSNAP’s official events wind up this Saturday, Oct. 19 with the awards gala, which runs from 6 to 10 p.m. at Mahon Hall. Islanders will also have the chance to meet with 2017 SSNAP grand prize winner Judy Anderson and her son, artist Cruz Anderson, at a reception at The Point this Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. The final day to see the SSNAP finalists’ exhibition is Monday, Oct. 21.

For more on this story, see the Oct. 16, 2019 issue of the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper, or subscribe online.

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