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Youth at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre pose with drums. Photo credit: Kathy Armstrong

AOE Arts Symposium: The future of art is in community engagement

By Maria-Helena Pacelli on March 27, 2017

The future of art is in community engagement

The world of art has often been known for its opacity. From its canonic traditions within the academy to the elitism and inaccessibility of traditional classical or high art, art has not always been by or for everyone.

arts

Kathy Armstrong leads youth in a rhythm and percussion exercise at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre. Photo: Nina Jane Drystek

Through technology, social change and political progress, art has become more accessible than ever. A hundred years ago, mixing paint, developing photographic prints or reading music was something reserved for the leisure class and something only few artisans and autodidactic artists were able to accomplish. Today, almost any person can pickup acrylic paints at the dollar store, take photos from their phone and learn to read sheet music from recordings and videos.

While the quality of materials and artistic process is the subject of great debate, what often keeps people away from experimenting with the arts is a sense that art is not a serious pursuit. Following the massive budget cuts sustained by arts and culture in the last decade or so, it’s not surprising that art has remained a hobby for the masses and a career pursuit only for a small number.

Despite this, many local arts organisations and artists are doing what other sectors have done to survive and thrive: they build bridges. Granting organisations and artists have been investing in community engaged arts in order to foster greater dialogue between artists and their communities, make the arts more accessible to communities that otherwise face barriers, and opening income opportunities for artists who directly benefit from grants to pursue their work.

Participants and Immigrant Women's Services Ottawa go through a conflict resolution theatre game organised by Naomi Tessler. Courtesy of AOE Arts Council.

Participants and Immigrant Women’s Services Ottawa go through a conflict resolution theatre game organised by Naomi Tessler. Courtesy of AOE Arts Council.

For the third consecutive year, AOE Arts Council will be unveiling the outcomes of its Art Place project, whereby members of various communities around the city have had the opportunity to participate in art projects which are also income opportunities for artists. For three years, Art Place has been offering residencies for artists who are partnered with non-profit organisations that cannot afford their services in order to co-create works of art with members from these communities – regardless of their level of experience with the arts. By choosing communities that face barriers to the arts, AOE Arts Council is investing in artists and at the same time in the well-being and development of these communities.

While there are many community arts projects that invite dialogue between artists and citizens by asking artists to make projects for those communities, community engaged arts goes further in addressing the needs of those communities.

“It is different from other community arts projects in that it doesn’t just ask an artist to create a piece of art and place it in the community but engages the people who live and use the space to create something that addresses and suits their needs,” said Nina Jane Drystek, Project Coordinator, in an email.

By choosing communities that face barriers to the arts, AOE is investing in artists and at the same time in the well-being and development of these communities.

Through this process, it became evident that community engaged arts are an empowering experience for communities and that there is an appetite for more dialogue and co-creation between artists and citizens. To expand on this, and to mark the end of Art Place’s three year pilot run, AOE Arts Council is hosting a Community Engaged Arts Symposium on March 31 and April 1.

This year’s Community Engaged Symposium focuses on local artists and includes workshops and panels from a variety of artistic disciplines and community locales. The two-day symposium will not only address some of the stories of transformation that artists and community members have experienced, but also offers participants some tangible tools and guidelines in developing their own community art projects, such as brainstorming ideas, budgeting for a project, accessing funding opportunities, developing social practice skill sets and breaking the isolation of a solitary artistic practice by incorporating elements of community engaged arts.


The Community Engaged Arts Symposium is taking place March 31 and April 1 at Ottawa City Hall. Registration is available online. For more details, visit their Facebook event.