Colin Mercer (1952-2013): In Memoriam

As 2013 draws to a close, it seems appropriate to reflect on the highs and lows of the past year. In July, the world lost one of its most original thinkers in cultural policy and cultural planning with the passing of Colin Mercer. I was honored to have called Colin a friend and a mentor for almost 20 years. He kindly contributed two chapters to my book Rediscovering the Wealth of Places: A Municipal Cultural Planning Handbook for Canadian Communities.

I first encountered Colin when I returned to school in the early 1990s to complete a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Waterloo. After worked for senior levels of government in one way or another for fifteen years, I had become convinced that the next breakthrough’s in cultural development were not going to come from leadership from Federal or Provincial policies and programs but from better integrating culture at the local level as an essential component of planning and development. To my surprise, there was a considerable body of theory and practice emanating from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe dating back to the early mid-1980s.

The most important and influential source for me was The Cultural Planning Handbook: An Essential Australian Guide published in Australia in 1995 by Colin and 2 colleagues[1]. There are moments when you read something you know will fundamentally redefine or reframe how we view an issue. Cultural Planning Handbook provided such a moment for me.

Two concepts underpinned this reframing of cultural development: cultural resources and cultural mapping. Today the notion of culture as a resource seems a self-evident. But for many years the cultural field struggled with the idea of culture as an asset. In part this resulted from cultural policy frequently being understood through an arts lens and a resilient “arts-for-arts-sake” legacy. The unabashed embracing of culture as a resource for economic and broader community objectives was powerful. “Cultural resources” was powerful for a second reason. It provided an overarching idea that smashed through discipline-based traditions in cultural policy (e.g., the arts, heritage, libraries, and creative industries).

Cultural mapping was the second transformative idea. The original vision for the book was not cultural planning but cultural mapping – the Cultural Mapping Handbook – signalling how fundamental mapping was to the broader vision of local and regional cultural development emerging at that time. Cultural mapping was a community-based and community-driven process of identity, recording and valuing local cultural assets. It was a process that valued cultural resources as both tangible and intangible or literal and symbolic and represented a radical democratization of cultural policy.

The Cultural Planning Handbook was just one of an enormous body of writing captured on Connect CP (Cultural Policy). Most recently Colin had been a lead instructor in the University of British Columbia’s Certificate in Cultural Planning.

I corresponded with Colin and he was generous in his response. Our paths continued to cross periodically in the years that followed up until shortly before his death last year. During this time he continued to exhibit this combination of extraordinary intellectual insight combined with a generosity and affection for his friends and colleagues.

He will be missed.

[1] Grogan, David; Mercer, Colin; Engwicht, David. (1995). The Cultural Planning Handbook: An Essential Australian Guide.  Allen & Unwin..