Island Mountain Arts generally hosts the Northern Exposure Conference in Wells and Barkerville each fall, but this year’s conference will be entirely virtual, including online showcases. Here, 2018 conference participants attend a session in Barkerville. (Mary Matheson/Contributed Photo)

Virtual Northern Exposure Conference will focus on sustainability and systems change

Bursaries are available to make the Oct. 22-25 rural arts conference accessible

Julie Fowler expects the upcoming Northern Exposure Conference will be a learning experience in many different ways.

The sixth annual conference, hosted by Island Mountain Arts (IMA) in Wells, is going virtual this year, and all programming for the Oct. 22-25 event will be online, including artist showcases. This opens the doors to bring in people who wouldn’t be able to travel to Wells and Barkerville for the physical conference, but it presents uncertainties and challenges as well.

“This year will be a learning experience in new technologies, and, ironically, from the beginning before COVID hit, the theme of the conference was systems change and sustainability, but also digital strategies was one of the main focuses because that’s something we’ve known we need to become more literate with just in general, but now, it’s become more important,” said Fowler, IMA’s executive and artistic director.

IMA already presented an online ArtsWells Festival this summer — and will continue to release extended videos from festival artists until the end of the year — and turned its annual Harp and Cello School into a virtual event.

“I’ve been amazed at how well the online thing has worked,” said Fowler. “The Harp School, we totally did that virtual and had great registration and great participation. For the mostly women, they were a demographic that was mostly older, and I think they were in a demographic that had been particularly isolated. Some of them had never used Zoom before, and I think it was a really empowering experience. We did a full five-day program, and you really got a sense of community at the end of it that people connected, and I think we all were kind of surprised at how well it actually worked.”

The Northern Exposure Conference draws together people working in the music and arts industry from rural and urban British Columbia to share ideas and knowledge on the sector, access professional development and foster growth and support networks.

“People working in rural settings, we’re generally pretty isolated, and usually, in a lot of cases, these organizations are being run completely with volunteers, so there are not really the resources to get professional development or even connect with your peers — so we’ve tried over the course of the different conferences to just really make it accessible,” said Fowler. “It’s building support networks, so you know you’re not alone out there and that there is help and resources. I feel really lucky that for Northern Exposure, Canadian Heritage has been a supporter from the beginning. More recently, since the creation of Creative B.C., they’ve been a big supporter of this event, and also this year, we’ve got some support from the B.C. Arts Council. With that funding, it allows us to make this conference as accessible as possible.

“In a way it’s more accessible because it’s online, although the other challenge is if you don’t have a great Internet connection, it actually could be not accessible at all. Everything will be recorded so those folks who have a better time of watching it afterwards or if you glitched out during one presentation, you can go back and watch it. Being in Wells, we know the challenges of the Internet.”

Fowler says they are looking into having American Sign Language interpretation this year to increase accessibility as well.

READ MORE: Northern Exposure Conference in Wells and Barkerville ‘was very valuable for people who attended’

Facilitated by Carla Stephenson, founder of the Tiny Lights Festival in Ymir and creator of the Rural Arts Inclusion Social Innovation Lab project, this year’s conference will have a strong emphasis on sustainability in the sector and the need for systems change to ensure more support overall for working artists and cultural workers.

Inga Petri, who facilitated the very first Northern Exposure Conference, will be back this year to share information about digital strategies in the arts.

“It’s interesting that [Petri] has been lined up to be part of this since last year; it all seems all the more relevant now,” said Fowler. “Our facilitator this year for the entire conference is Carla Stephenson, and she has been part of Northern Exposure every year. She got funding from the Vancouver Foundation to do systems change in the rural arts and especially looking at decolonization practices and how do we actually have more diversity and inclusivity in our organizations. I think we’ve actually all been really good at starting that process through our programming, programming diverse artists and bringing in other voices, and I think the next step for all of our organizations is to see more diversity actually within our organizations, from our board and our staff perspective.

“Certainly Black Lives Matter has really shone a light on why this is important work to do, and continuing our conversations also that we’ve started at Northern Exposure over the last few years on how to really do meaningful Indigenous engagement. That will definitely also be a topic that we’ll be diving into. One of our storytellers is going to be Ronnie Dean Harris, and he has performed at ArtsWells as a hip hop spoken word artist, but he’s also a visual artist and an actor. He’s just got a really amazing perspective to share.”

Mental health and finding ways to support and value artists is another focus for this year’s conference, and functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner and holistic health coach Chandler McMurray-Ives will be working with IMA to weave self-care into every session.

This year’s conference will feature showcase artists from across B.C. and further afield, including Airik Clark, The Northwest Kid, G.R. Gritt, Naomi Shore, LAL, Sarah Osborne, and Melawmen Collective. Fowler says most artists will be pre-recording their performances, and IMA has funding to help with the costs of recording these videos.

This year, when you register for the conference, you can pay $0 to $240 by choosing a bursary option.

“With the funding that we have, we just really want to make it accessible to people and have people included,” said Fowler. “Some of the content will be really pertinent to individual artists, and it wouldn’t have to be just music artists or organizers. G.R. Gritt will do a ‘how to livestream’ workshop, so we’ll definitely have content that’s applicable to anyone in the arts. We’d love to have everyone’s voice at the table, and even if you can only make a few sessions, it would be great to have people connect.”

The Northern Exposure Conference is an initiative of Island Mountain Arts, made possible through support from the Department of Canadian Heritage, Creative B.C., the British Columbia Arts Council, and Arts B.C.

The Northern Exposure Conference is an initiative of Island Mountain Arts, made possible through support from the Department of Canadian Heritage, Creative B.C., the British Columbia Arts Council, and Arts B.C.

For more information about this year’s conference, visit, email or call 250-994-3466.

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