From Arts Hubs to an Arts Network: the process behind enhancing community arts in Toronto

Starting in 2002, the Toronto Arts Council (TAC) saw an increase of applications to its Community Arts program. Stemming from this influx, the TAC hosted a series of symposiums to identify the challenges and opportunities of artists and organizations working at the community level. In this process a pulse was generated, and a variety of reports have since been released discussing what is needed to better support and enhance capacity for community-engaged art in Toronto. On Thursday April 8th, I spoke about some of these ideas with Leslie Francombe, Community Investment Manager for the Toronto Arts Foundation.

Different neighbourhoods need different things, and there are different artists living in different neighbourhoods, and different neighbourhoods have things happening already that they can activate

How did the concept of Arts Hubs evolve into the Neighbourhood Arts Network?
It’s a bit confusing because it evolved over a few years. We had to figure out what community arts organizations really needed by hosting symposiums and consultations to throw about ideas. We originally wanted to build capacity for community arts and get more funding for artists in Toronto. So we had this grand idea about initiating neighbourhood arts hubs throughout the City. It could be something in a library, like a booth where people could access information about arts in their neighbourhood. It could be a place already there in the neighbourhood, where we would label it as an ‘arts hub’. At that time we wanted to establish hubs in neighbourhoods that were lacking any sort of visible arts activity. But that was a huge project. There were a lot of people working on the ground already, and it really wasn’t going to help them. Every neighbourhood is different.

There is no way to create a specific model for a hub to replicate throughout Toronto. But you can have guidelines, helpful hints, mentorship, and become a resource for communities that are interested in building arts hubs

There is no way to create a specific model for a hub to replicate throughout Toronto. But you can have guidelines, helpful hints, mentorship, and become a resource for communities that are interested in building arts hubs. So that’s what the Neighbourhood Arts Network (NAN) is doing, as well as connecting all the artists together. We couldn’t access great partners without knowing who they are. So in order to get everybody together and make sure they are accessing information to get the most out of partnerships, NAN came forward. It was something that we could launch and get going right away as opposed to trying to build 30 hubs across the city… they are just too big a mountain.

Do you think the creation of arts hubs is a mountain that will never be climbed?
No not at all, because the NAN activates different organizations and people throughout the city. People can now see all the different things that are happening and say, “Wow – I want that in my neighbourhood!” It becomes organic. That’s the way it’s most successful – if the neighbourhood wants it to happen. Not if we come in and just plant a hub and say, “This is what you need.” Different neighbourhoods need different things, and there are different artists living in different neighbourhoods, and different neighbourhoods have things happening already that they can activate. Some neighbourhoods have schools that are empty or storefronts, they may not need a physical space, it all depends on that neighbourhood. We want to be a catalyst, and a resource to help people along.

connecting and getting to know each other is a huge move forward

A series of reports on community arts have been developed and released by the Toronto Arts Foundation over the past few years. What kinds of changes have you seen since this research has been done?
I think we’re going to see more over the next year now that we have the NAN. For example, we had a workshop run by TELUS on helping organizations put together proposals for funding from them. We have a plan for a series of networking events. I think we will really see the impact over the next year. But already at the TELUS event we were able to discover that a lot of the people in the room didn’t know each other. So connecting and getting to know each other is a huge move forward.

How does community arts, as a grassroots movement, work within the Culture Plan for the Creative City and the Creative City Planning Framework?
There’s been a lot of talk about the Creative City documents speaking the language of big powerful people. However a lot of this Creative City stuff is more about business creativity as opposed to the creativity of actual artists working with communities. So we have to educate the Creative City movement and keep it informed so it can truly see the advantage of community arts. We also have to let community arts practitioners know that they’re [city planning] not the enemy. We shouldn’t just shut the door because the language is different, because it may be a great way into the bigger picture. We want art and community-engaged art to be in that language and discussion.

we have to educate the Creative City movement and keep it informed so it can truly see the advantage of community arts. We also have to let community arts practitioners know that they’re [city planning] not the enemy

If you could waive a magic wand and make something happen today for community arts in Toronto, who would you waive it at, and what would you make happen?
Of course it would be good if the City just increased their funding and made a real statement to everybody to say that art is important to our neighbourhoods and to our city. Increase the pocket of money [for community arts] without taking away money from any of the other disciplines. Increase it by at least 4 times the amount they currently spend, if not more. The sector is huge and they have no operating money! It would make a big statement that community arts are important. The impact would be huge.

To join the Neighbourhood Arts Network visit http://www.neighbourhoodartsnetwork.org

To learn more about the Toronto Arts Foundation visit
http://www.torontoartsfoundation.org

Robyn Shyllit is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and a student in the Cities Centre Community Development Program at the University of Toronto completing a Masters degree in Planning.

New Study Maps Artists and Cultural Workers in Toronto

Map Showing the Concentration of Artists in Toronto Neighbourhoods
Concentration of Artists in Toronto Neighbourhoods, from the Hill Strategies Inc. report ‘Mapping Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada’s Largest Cities’

According to new research, Toronto is home to 66% more artists than in any other city in Canada. The artists living in Toronto account for 16% of all artists in the country. Where can these artists be found? The recent Hill Strategies Inc. report, Mapping Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada’s Largest Cities, indicates that in Toronto, ‘most of the areas with highest concentration of artists are fairly centrally located’.

“…Strategies to encourage the arts should include the development and maintenance of neighbourhoods that are accessible and desirable for artists.”

The distribution of artistic neighbourhoods across the city is far from balanced. Of Toronto’s top ten neighbourhoods for artists and cultural workers, every single one is found south of St. Clair. Out of these top ten, ‘the top four neighbourhoods are all located west of Yonge Street’. The neighbourhoods that made the Canada-wide top ten are: Parkdale, West Queen West, M6G (College to St.Clair between Bathurst and Ossington), and M5R (the Annex and Yorkville).

“On an individual level, the arts can stimulate, inspire and entertain. At the neighbourhood level, strong artistic environments may contribute to changes in local economies, social environments, neighbourhood character and demographics.

So, what are the implications for other Toronto neighbourhoods, particularly those north of St. Clair? As noted in the report, ‘cultural development in cities is partly an issue of neighbourhood development’. Most artists and cultural workers are already familiar with the significant role that they play in the development of home communities. In addition to maintaining the level of artists residing in downtown neighbourhoods, it is important to consider the development of other areas of Toronto. As Toronto continues to expand, how can we support the growth of artistic neighbourhoods in outlying areas?

“There is a large body of research that shows that the arts can contribute to the quality of life as well as the social and economic vitality of cities….In short, a strong artistic community anchored in strong local neighbourhoods can enhance the whole community’s well-being. For these reasons, it is important to identify and track creative neighbourhoods – areas that are attractive to artists for a number of reasons: inexpensive housing, access to employment and self-employment opportunities, access to resources (such as studio space, galleries, rehearsal and performance space, artist-run centres and associations), social networks, physical environment, family reasons and more.

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Skye Louis is currently serving as Coordinator of the Neighbourhood Arts Network.

Mapping Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada’s Largest Cities was jointly commissioned by the Cities of Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Ville de Montreal and published in February 2010. The full report and summary are available free online from Hill Strategies Research Inc.