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.

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