New Connections: Arts and the Settlement Process

On Thursday, July 14, the Neighbourhood Arts Network and the Working Women Community Centre hosted New Connections: Newcomer Artist Networking Event. We invited artists, cultural workers and community workers to participate in a discussion about arts and the settlement process in Toronto. After convening in the beautiful Oriole Peanut Community Garden, we exchanged ideas about barriers and resources for Canadian newcomer artists.

Although Toronto is often celebrated for its multiculturalism and diversity, newcomers in the city continue to face barriers to engagement and professional growth. Settlement services work hard to alleviate or eradicate such barriers, but there are certain areas that tend to be overlooked. Art, it seems, is one of those areas.

The Neighbourhood Arts Network hosted a discussion to address the apparent scarcity of support for newcomer artists. What barriers are newcomer artists facing, and what would help? How can the arts support the settlement process? Are there any existing resources for newcomer artists? These are the sorts of questions we sought to answer at New Connections: Newcomer Artist Networking Event.

Neighbourhood Arts Network Coordinator Skye Louis shares a laugh with guest Nadine Peazer.

Our fruitful group discussion yielded a number of insights, with participants offering perceptive suggestions for government and cultural agencies. Most of the issues we identified stem from two foundational problems: a lack of a centralized hub for art resources, and a perception of the arts as frivolous or irrelevant to the newcomer experience.

The first problem means that people have to sift through countless sources to find educational and employment opportunities for new citizens. “It would be helpful to have all of the information in one location or package,” said one attendee. Compiling something like that would take little effort, but the benefits would be great for newcomer artists. Settlement agencies could help to distribute them in multiple languages, which would eliminate the language barrier some newcomers face in navigating existing resources.

The second problem is trickier, because the solution requires an ideological shift. Until settlement agencies begin to value the arts as a viable career option, services for newcomer artists will remain inadequate. “Newcomer services provide information about all sorts of careers, except for arts,” lamented one guest. “They need to start taking art seriously as a potential profession for newcomers.”

Once institutions devote themselves to this vision, they can begin offering professional development resources for new citizens with arts backgrounds. Resume and portfolio development, tips on where to search for employment, and opportunities to gain practical experience would all be welcome supports. Several of our guests suggested a mentorship program, in which a newcomer artist would be paired with a local artist, who could help integrate the newcomer into the Toronto arts community.

Another common source of frustration is the void of services targeted at more experienced newcomer artists. There is a wealth of resources for both youth and emerging artists, but support for mature or experienced artists is lacking. This type of vacancy stymies the growth of both Toronto’s artistic community, and the development of artists who are new to the country.

Although there is clearly room for improvement, there are some existing resources that warrant celebration. The Cultural Access Pass has been hugely successful, offering new citizens free access to cultural institutions for a year. The service is provided by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, and information about the program is distributed at citizenship ceremonies.

Erin Glover from Arts for Children and Youth spoke about their efforts to engage newcomer youth through multi-disciplinary arts programs. AFCY facilitates 150 programs a year, allying with priority neighbourhoods around the city. By conducting the programs in local, public spaces like libraries and community centres, AFCY ensures that youth from all backgrounds have total access to their services.

Our host Nasrin Khatam shared another success story, describing the “Art in the Garden” program that she runs at the WWCC. Funded by the Trillium Foundation, the program provides free art supplies and lessons for community members, who wouldn’t otherwise have access to art. Locals also began growing vegetables and herbs in the garden, with an emphasis on international ingredients that are hard to find in Canadian stores.

“Arts and creation are always at the bottom of the list for newcomers,” Nasrin says. “They have this giant list of things they need to take care of: finding a place, finding a school, getting to know the community…arts are always pushed to the bottom of that list. But it’s an important part of getting settled. My dream is that art will eventually be recognized and supported as an important part of the immigration and settlement process.”

Download the full event notes here: New Connections Notes

Amy Goudge is the Summer 2011 Membership Intern at the Neighbourhood Arts Network.

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