Liz Forsberg began her career as a community-engaged artist and joined Art Starts in 2008 as the Managing Director. Over the next 8 years in this role Liz worked on some of our most memorable projects to date. She was present as Art Starts was welcomed into the Lawrence Heights neighbourhood to begin what has become a long-term relationship with residents and partner organizations.
To create more opportunities for artists wanting to be a part of the community arts sector, she was also involved in the origin of Platform A, which provided artists with development and growth opportunities. Liz is currently the Partnerships Lead at Ontario Trillium Foundation.
Art Starts is celebrating 30 years in October 2022 and as a way to commemorate our past and future, we’re spotlighting our top 30 supporters. From artists to community members, these features will look at their meaningful contributions to our organization and visions for the future.
What was your first experience with Art Starts?
I think I recall first noticing the Art Starts storefront while riding the Oakwood Bus sometime in the early 2000s. I was really curious about what this storefront neighbourhood arts centre was. Fast forward a couple of years when I was practicing as a community-engaged artist I always heard incredible stories about the work Art Starts did. In 2008 I was hired on as Art Starts’ Managing Director while Tamara Haberman took a sabbatical at the Toronto Arts Council. I ended up in that role for the next 8 years!
How did this shape your perception of art and its impact on community?
My time at Art Starts gave me so much perspective on the ways in which the arts can be transformative both on individuals and at a community level. Art Starts was always deeply embedded in the neighbourhoods we collaborated with. That meant sitting at neighbourhood organizing tables, liaising with resident groups, partnering with local community development agencies, hiring local artists to work with their communities. Young people would especially gravitate towards arts programs as a safe space to be in and express themselves. Community members would feel a sense of pride when we would celebrate the launch of a piece of public art that they had a hand in shaping (like our mosaic and mural projects). These artist-driven community-based initiatives really transformed the ways in which people came together, the way they related with each other and the way they would talk about their neighbourhoods with pride.
Tell me about your favourite memory, program or experience with Art Starts?
There are oh-so-many, so it’s hard to pick! One particularly memorable experience was when an international delegation came to Toronto from various European countries to learn about success stories in social integration. They learned about Art Starts’ work in collaboration with the Glendower neighbourhood – in particular, how the community came together to transform a highly contested public gathering space in their neighbourhood. So this delegation came for a site visit and residents of all ages shared stories about how the creation of this stunning mosaic surrounding a basketball court had brought residents of all ages and abilities together. All of a sudden, residents who never talked to each other before were talking to each other. The seniors – who were often afraid of the young folks who would fight in the basketball courts – were now making a mosaic alongside those young people. To hear the residents tell the story of the making of the mosaic and the impact it had on their community to an international delegation was magical. They started to see how powerful their story was and that it mattered not only to them, but to others who wanted to support that kind of transformation in their own communities.
Tell me about a time that art made a difference in your life?
As a teenager I came of age in an all-ages music community where I grew up in Guelph in the 90s. I was a bored kid who loved music and was fed up with all the adults in my life. I found a group of people my age who were making music and putting on their own shows because so many music spaces were inaccessible to kids under 19. There would be all-ages, pay-what-you-can shows almost weekly. It was empowering not only to play music but to also be able to present that ourselves, on our own terms. It was an incredible community! It became my chosen family. We used to refer to it as DIY (do-it-yourself) culture but recently I heard the term DIT (do-it-together) culture which is way more reflective of the ethics and approach we took to building community through music. We couldn’t have done this without support from adult allies who helped us get access to community spaces to put on concerts. It was this experience that grounds my approach to community building now and gets me excited about supporting young people in their own artistic practice and community-building.
What is the most impactful project or piece you’ve worked on?
I’m not actually thinking of a specific art project or art piece here but instead thinking about how Art Starts was welcomed into the Lawrence Heights neighbourhood to begin our long-term collaboration with residents and agencies there. Art Starts was always very cautious about not parachuting into neighbourhoods to do projects. And so when we were invited to begin working in collaboration with residents in the Neptune and Lawrence Heights neighbourhoods by the city councillor at the time (Howard Moscoe) we met with resident groups, local agencies, Toronto Community Housing staff on an ongoing basis as we began co-creating arts projects and programs with residents. I learned so much from resident leaders in Neptune and Lawrence Heights about how you show up for your community in the good times and the tough times and, how as an organization, we could support the goals and priorities they had. These relationships and all the art projects and programs that flowed from them taught me a lot about accountability to community. Especially when you are showing up as a guest in that community.
How have you seen Art Starts evolve?
In the time I was at Art Starts between 2008 & 2016 I saw Art Starts grow as new communities invited us to begin working with them. Art Starts also evolved as it began mentoring more and more artists from our partner communities. Alongside other community arts organizations in the city we recognized that the traditional pathways for an arts education like college and university put up a lot of barriers for the young folks who had spent years growing up in our programs. We attempted to address that as a collective (Platform A) to start creating opportunities for growth and development of artists who wanted to continue pursuing training and work in the community engaged arts sector.
How do you envision the future of Art Starts?
Art Starts was one of the early organizations to do community engaged arts in the city and continues to evolve these practices alongside a whole host of new organizations committed to this practice. As community resiliency plays such an important role in providing residents with the relationships & skills to come together to address the impacts of climate change, racial injustice, colonialism, pandemic, I envision Art Starts playing an important role in nurturing those spaces where Torontonians come together to tackle these issue at a neighbourhood level.
How do you hope to make a difference in the world?
I hope I can leave the world around me in slightly better shape. I hope that, as a white settler, I can be part of dismantling colonial systems that are doing so much harm in our communities and be part of imagining new ways of existing together that are centered on reciprocity. I have 3 kids aged 11-17, so I hope that I am instilling values of community, cooperation and reciprocity in them so that as they grow into adults they will become better caretakers of the land we’re on and the communities we’re a part of. And I hope that as I work towards these things, I can do so with a great amount of joy!
Make sure to follow us on Instagram @ArtStartsTO to follow our #ArtStarts30 campaign and see all the ways you can get involved.