Five Questions with Abigail Smith

Category: community 334

Abigail Smith is an integral part of Saint John’s arts community. Her unwavering support of both artists and audiences alike have helped further the culture of resilience and inclusivity Saint John’s artist community has long been known for. 

Photo by Amelia Bailey.
Matt Carter 

Saint John artist and organizer Abigail Smith is co-owner of the soon-to-be-opened Haven Music Hall. Over the past several years she has played an integral role in the city’s music and arts scenes. Her unwavering support of both artists and audiences alike have helped further the culture of resilience and inclusivity Saint John’s artist community has long been known for.  

Through the many initiatives she has been involved in – Saint John’s community radio station 107.3 FM, Quality Block Party, or Haven Music Hall to name a few – Abigail has always carried a deep respect for the artists on stage, the crowd in attendance, and the way those two seemingly separate worlds connect and co-exist. Her fascination, curiosity, and enthusiasm for her hometown scene is contagious and something we could all learn from. 

You’ve been involved in various aspects of Saint John’s music scene for several years. From your work at Local 107.3, Quality Block Party, and now Haven Music Hall, your work has helped make accessibility and safety a big part of Saint John’s live music culture. How has your experience as a show-goer and later as a promoter informed your work in these two important areas?

That’s so nice!! I am a show-goer first and I always want that to inform the experience of the projects I work on. The DIY projects and shows I was inspired by never have a clean line between attendee and performer. The musicians from the earlier folk show are attending the late-night punk show and are doing sound the next morning and volunteering at the door later. People really pull their weight in creative scenes in the Maritimes, so when I started working on events for Local FM and then Quality Block Party, I never felt like conversations about ‘artist hospitality’ were siloed to the artist pass, because that made no sense. I’ve learned a lot from Cole Savoie, a QBP co-founder and organizer. He has always been a leader in that way; that volunteers should get the same treatment as musicians, and everyone that comes through the door should have someone saying ‘thank you for coming’ to them. 

My business partner and best friend Sidney Foy and I always called ourselves professional fans, which was sometimes slightly tongue-in-cheek but it does warm my heart to imagine our younger selves having the sense that we were a part of the artistic ecosystem. Now we’re opening our own music venue, so it’s sort of narratively tidy that we devoured and debriefed shows. But you don’t need to open a business to have your role in a community be important and worthy of acknowledgement. Also, anyone who goes to DIY shows knows that communities are sources of support, but also sites of harm. The approach I take to Safer Spaces isn’t an accusatory one. It’s just a belief based on personal experience that the people in charge of the event are the ones responsible for setting up a light in what would otherwise be a dark corner. 

Quality Block Party was among the first festivals in New Brunswick to incorporate Safe Spaces into its mandate. Where did you first learn about the concept of Show Buddies and the act of involving supporting staff at live music events to help combat unfair, unkind and oppressive behavior among audiences? 

I started delving into researching Safer Spaces and Bystander Empathy programs when I was at Local FM. A lot of the programs that inspired me and seemed to be leagues ahead were in the electronic/rave scene. I just loved how practical and holistic a lot of those policies were. I was also inspired by the street team in Vancouver called Good Night Out. My main takeaway from the programs I respected was that it is crucial to the program’s success that it be specific to the context and community it serves, and be understood and organized by every level of organization. I’ve been to festivals with a safety program tacked on at the end, and I just knew that wouldn’t work or be meaningful in Saint John. At the end of the day, we’re asking people to come be in crowded venues, so as the organizers we have to care the most about their safety. 

I wrote the Show Buddy policy, but the reason that program is so amazing is QBP organizer and Volunteer and Show Buddy Coordinator Julia Rogers who connected the program with the Saint John Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) and Avenue B (formerly AIDS Saint John). It was her initiative that brought SART into our Show Buddy training to talk about assault and local resources, and Avenue B to conduct naloxone training. Bringing in community experts and social workers made the program sing. I learned so much from Julia’s approach to volunteer coordination and leadership. That program runs on trust and care and Julia is the most rock-solid person for a volunteer to come to. 

The other piece of the puzzle is our incredible roster of Show Buddy volunteers, amazing people who want to spend their night sober and observant in wild show environments. Some people volunteered once, a lot of people volunteered every time, and each one of them changed the program a little bit for the better. The Show Buddy program was truly conducted by the community. Between that and Julia’s guidance, it’s really special. 

How do you plan to continue this work with your new project, the Haven Music Hall? 

Julia, along with some of the same organizations she brought into help train Show Buddies, is helping us design something specific to Haven that will be very similar to the Show Buddy Program. It’ll have a lot of the same vibes. Sober volunteers who are trained to be the liaisons between crowd and security. It will be interesting to see how it develops as we get in the rhythm. Julia was the person who tapped me into exploring how to empower musicians to take control of their rooms, that performers are a spoke on the wheel that includes the venue owners, the venue staff, the policy in place, the community. That’s something we encouraged at QBP, but I think we’ll really be able to explore that deeper since we’ll be programming in one space. Again, it’s on Sid and I as the venue owners, but making space for musicians to say how they want the show to go feels like a really cool and practical opportunity. Personally, in part, I wanted to start Haven because I wanted to know how I could grow as an organizer if I had more control over the space where I worked. But ultimately it’s not going to be about control. It’s going to be about being receptive to audience and artist experiences and expertise. 

You’ve had an enormous outpouring of help from the community in getting Haven Music Hall ready for operation. Can you share an update on the project? 

We have had so much help from the very beginning. We started talking really seriously about this at the end of 2021 and our community has rallied around us. Right now, the things that are under our control are down to the finishing touches. The main hold-up has been that our space is in a building that is under major construction which includes the sprinkler system that services our unit as well. Basically, when the fire suppression system is signed-off on we’ll be good to go. In the meantime, the incredible Corey Bonnevie has been helping us so much with sourcing and designing our sound system which is largely being paid for by the generously supported GoFundMe that we ran this winter. The Saint John Tool Library has been helping us hugely with tools and moral support. They also installed our bar top. Shout out to Chi, Brent, and Duke! 

Our dear friend Kelly came in to help us with renos this winter at a point where Sid and I were basically at our wits end. We learned so much from her while also getting a huge morale boost that we’re still benefiting from. We were able to hire our first employee through a life-changing Music NB program. And luckily for us, that person was the multi-talented Amelia Bailey who brings so much energy and expertise into Haven. Some days the delays have weighed heavy on us, but for the most part we’re grateful to have had the time to set up things like our booking system (thank you Amelia), find our espresso machine (thank you Down East Coffee and Meta Cafe Services!), our website (thank you Weaver-Crawford Creative!) and our ticketing system (Yay Tixr!!).

We’re going to share good news about our opening date soon. In the meantime, we’re throwing a soft-open show on August 12 with Like a Motorcycle, Skunk Motel, and Sleepover. It has truly been humbling to have a whole community turn out to make a place that is purpose-built and we are so excited to make some noise!

Can you take a moment to reflect on the Saint John scene? From your perspective, how is it that despite the struggles faced in relation to venues and the shifting demographics in the uptown core, Saint John’s music community continues to thrive, creatively? I feel like we could all learn a lot from Saint John’s resilience. 

That’s a tough question, and I rewrote this answer a couple times with varying levels of salinity. I don’t pretend to speak for Johners as a whole. What I can say is that I’ve always loved the sense of irreverence that the music and art scene has here, which keeps its humor while lacking the kind of resources that are needed by an arts sector. The government of New Brunswick is not sufficiently supportive of artists, and so any art you make with your own money in your own home is resilience and resistance. 

Penelope Stevens made a textile piece for Flourish Festival that said PLEASURE IS VICTORY, and that piece meant a lot of things for me. One of those things is that making art out of love and guts is important because of the making of it. I’m inspired by New Brunswick and Saint John artists and audiences because you can make weird, cool, specific art and people will connect with it. If the powers at be aren’t going to support the culturally significant art that’s being made here right now, people will still find a way to make it and celebrate each other. If you don’t want to come to the kitchen party, that’s fine. We’re still having the fucking party! 

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