Discussion on Artistic Excellence and Community-Engaged Arts

On March 17, 2011 at Montgomery’s Inn in Etobicoke, MABELLEarts and the Neighbourhood Arts Network hosted a discussion and networking session focused on the topic of Artistic Excellence and Community-Engaged Arts. Read on to discover NAN Membership Intern Teodora Porumb’s thoughts on the event.

Who Decides?

The Neighbourhood Arts Network’s networking  events are meant to catalyze new discussions and stronger relationships among community-engaged artists, organizations and cultural workers of the GTA in an effort to strengthen their capacity to enrich our cultural landscape. These events are dynamic, progressive and exciting as the community arts field is continuously expanding, redefining and transforming itself.

The theme of the second round-table event of this year was organized with MABELLEarts and took place at the historic Montgomery Inn on March 17.  The topic centered around artistic excellence and community-engaged arts.

“The term artistic excellence stirs up many definitions and some feelings of discomfort within the community-engaged arts field. Community-engaged art signifies a particular art-making practice emphasizing community collaboration, empowerment and some form of social change. Does it seem then that this field, compared to the institutionalized ‘art world’, requires a separate standard for artistic merit evaluation?”

Perhaps the solution can be found by working to expand community-engaged workers’ ability to express the existing diversity of excellence that emerges from this practice. Leah, MABELLEarts facilitator, reminded us that we, as community-engaged artists, are at the forefront of defining our own criteria for artistic excellence.

Representatives from four organizations, Jumblies Theatre, Asian Arts Freedom School, Whippersnapper Gallery, and the Ontario Arts Council, sparked the discussion by presenting their goals, examples of recent projects, and their views on artistic excellence’s relevancy. The lively discussion that followed provided NAN members with an open space to ask questions and raise issues, concerns, as well as possible approaches to dealing with them.

Jumblies Theatre starting off the discussion

Jumblies Theatre's Sean Frey starts off the discussion. From left to right: Leah Houston (MABELLEarts), Loree Lawrence (Ontario Arts Council), Beth Helmers and Sean Frey (Jumblies Theatre), and Gein Wong (Asian Arts Freedom School)

Beth Helmers and Sean Frey of Jumblies Theatre focused on the extent of an artist’s control over the direction of community arts projects and their need to trust in the community members with whom they working. A dialogue of holding on and letting go is critical, as demonstrated through  Jumblies’ recent collaborative project  with MABELLEarts, “A Light in Mid-Winter”. The artist facilitators asked participants to create sculptures based on ‘what winter would look like’ and ‘vocabulary of movement’.  Group members were able to explore their individual visions because the facilitators chose a  form of expression that suited the skills and abilities of the group.

“It is often difficult as community-engaged artists to find the right balance between taking and relinquishing control, as we must overcome our own assumptions and expectations of the group with which we are working.”

The theme of power dynamics between artists and communities came up in the group discussion. It is often difficult as community-engaged artists to find the right balance between taking and relinquishing control, as we must overcome our own assumptions and expectations of the group with which we are working. We reached an understanding that an aesthetic can embody a power structure but it must make room within a given art form for new aesthetics to emerge, that are beyond the structured aesthetic forms. Indeed, Michael Burt’s understanding of power dynamic has changed with the Parkdale Community Centre community in which we works, as members are taking on stronger roles. This is what we all ultimately hope for; community members to develop their skills, explore their passions, expand their confidence, and make a difference in their community.

Gein Wong, from the Asian Arts Freedom School, stressed the importance of building relationships between artists and participants. This radical Asian history and activism program for Asian/Pacific Islander youth has the long-term goal of providing a nurturing, consistent space for arts development to flourish as part of the youth’s entire lives so that once students finish the programs, they can continue to make art. For example, the organizations’ media arts program has enabled participants to emerge onto the film festival scene. Relationships of this sort usually naturally evolve. Asian Arts Freedom School reminds us to take a look at our own practices, as individual artists and organizations, to see in what ways we could be fostering more profound and longer relationships with those we work with.

“Building relationships with the community at large (community members who are not active participants in a particular arts-engaged project) is an essential aspect of community building in general. A relationship of trust within the community establishes, or at least aids in, the reception of the created art.”

Whippersnapper Gallery representatives Joshua Barndt and Adrian Dilena  talk about some of their recent exhibitions.

Whippersnapper Gallery representatives Joshua Barndt and Adrian Dilena talk about some of their recent exhibitions. From left to right: Sean Frey, Gein Wong, Joshua Barndt and Adrian Dilena.

Whippersnapper Gallery’s approach cannot necessarily be named ‘community-engaged art’ in the sense I have been using it as the gallery does not primarily facilitate community-engaged projects.  The focus of Whippersnapper Gallery is to ‘offer young artists an opportunity to mount conceptually engaged and aesthetically resolved exhibitions’. Artistic excellence, for them, is found in the realm of curation, in the selection of artists of the new generation under thirty, who create work that is informed by contemporary arts issues that are relevant to the community. Content as well as context are essential deciding factors in terms of what they view an artist to be: “free, responsible, and courageous.”

Joshua Barndt and Adrian Dilena mentioned that they are interested in developing long-terms relationships with emerging artists to develop their careers, but they are also passionate about sparking thought-provoking dialogues with passers-by. The gallery location at 594B Dundas Street West (at Augusta) and its grand window provide the opportunity for the community surrounding the gallery to become engaged in the artist’s exhibit. Artwork is sometimes spread onto the street as it transforms into a larger artist space.

During Nader Hazan’s recent Whippersnapper show featuring taxidermied animals, discussions about the artist’s concept and choices were encouraged, showing that  the artists’ themes and concerns  actually overlap with those of community members. The exhibit was concerned with ’…dead animals as having a small part in this very ancient relationship between the living and the dead, a relationship which is often denied or disguised in contemporary society, but which is, as the artist points out, concrete, material and ultimately irreducible.’ Through his art, passers-by are, ’challenged to engage in it consciously, and without the usual filters that wrap and package death today.’

Whippersnapper hopes to facilitate further dialogue and exploration of  community-engaged art and to create new partnerships and relationships with community artists.

It here that the issue of labeling ‘community art’ arises.  In many situations, communities know they are a community so, how do we to negotiate labeling their work as ‘community art’?

This issue is especially evident after artists and community members have worked together for a long period and the participants begin to identify themselves as artists. In this situation, differences of opinion emerge that may contradict the facilitator’s view of what constitutes an ‘artist’. Indeed, diverse ‘types’ of artists can fit within the label of ‘artist’.  Furthermore, the development of strong relationships between the facilitators and emergent  artists can soften these tensions.

Another more poignant issue in the realm of community-engaged art concerns the difference between ‘community arts’ and the ‘arts community’; between art and aesthetics, criteria regarding art for its own sake and art for excellence.

Attendees listening to the presenters
Attendees listen as Loree Lawrence provides a funder’s perspective on artistic excellence.

Loree Lawrence from the Ontario Arts Council provided a funder’s perspective on artistic excellence. She emphasized that the decision of which projects receive funding is heavily based on the artistic merit of the project: its virtuosity, impact, context, relevance of theme, its capability of expanding standards, use of appropriate materials, and synthesis of contributions.

She explained that the jurors of OAC have no problem discerning projects based on artistic merit. The only problem may lie in a jurors’ lack of familiarity and experience with community-engaged art practices, influencing their ability to fully grasp the project’s merits. The challenge with the evaluation of arts programs is a recurrent theme in this field. Issues revolve around the complexity and tediousness of grant-writing but more importantly, its insufficiency in providing space to describe and fully present the project’s success.  Community art deals with artistic excellence in terms of its success in positively affecting community participants. The experiences of participants cannot be summed up and legitimized in a 2 dimensional grant. Possible solutions are more accessible grant-writing workshops as well as workshops on Arts-Informed Evaluation. Arts for Children and Youth has facilitated several workshops on this subject and continues to develop it.

Artists and community workers mingle after the discussion.

Artists and community workers mingle after the discussion.

The general sentiment at the end of this round-table discussion was that there is a great need and desire for such gatherings. Pertinent issues and concerns were raised that need further dialogue to be resolved. One thing is for sure; we accomplished a lot in terms of building relationships with one another and expanding our networks. We had a great time in the process through mingling, and decorating our building blocks with our deepest concerns and appreciations for this field.

These progressive gatherings will continue to bring together the amazing community-engaged artists and cultural workers to pave the way for a more impactful community-arts field in Toronto and a more vibrant community of artists and cultural workers.

Perhaps a look at the various reports found on NAN’s website, in the section “Reading Room,” can shed more light upon the successes and ongoing necessity for community-engaged arts, locally and worldwide, at this moment in history.

Continue to update your profile with your latest projects, share NAN with other organizations and artists you come across, and stay tuned for future round-table events!

Special thanks to Montgomery’s Inn, MABELLEarts, and all the participants for making this event possible!

Finished building blocks at the end of the section.

Collection of the building blocks we decorated with our deepest concerns and appreciation of artistic excellence and community-engaged arts.

Teodora Porumb is the Spring 2011 Membership Intern at the Neighbourhood Arts Network.


One thought on “Discussion on Artistic Excellence and Community-Engaged Arts

  1. This is a truly professional account of the event. Congratulations, Teodora, for the extended report, excelent analysis and synthesis, and attractive format! It makes the readers, including myself, understand what the Neighbourhood Arts Network stands for. It was a very good idea to post this blog.

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