In light of our 30th anniversary, we wanted to capture as many real stories about Art Starts as we could. Stories that highlight our both triumphs and our challenges. Who better to account for the challenges of starting something new than one of our own founding members: Elizabeth Cinello.
We asked Elizabeth: what was Art Starts’ greatest challenge? Her story takes us back 30 years when community arts was a new concept and local artists were struggling to be recognized.
Our biggest challenge: Arts Starts was new and different
When we opened our doors in 1992, we wanted to make art with our neighbours in the community where we lived. We found our home at 1762 Eglinton Avenue West, a boarded-up storefront, a former photography studio, west of Oakwood Avenue. It had a good feel: a centre entrance flanked by large display windows, a front office area with a counter, floor to ceiling shelving, and a seating area with an upholstered foam green banquette that said, ‘I’ve been here since 1970’. Beyond the office space, a plastic accordion divider led to a 550 square foot room that we used as a multi-purpose art and performance space.
We faced two immediate challenges: our community-based concept was hard to grasp, and we had to find ways to fund our initiative. The art scene was downtown: performance venues, art galleries, workshop and rehearsal spaces. Queen Street was where it was at. A musician friend expressed the general feeling in the arts community at the time – why would anyone want to go north of Bloor Street?
The cities surrounding Toronto – amalgamation would come in 1998 – preferred a model for art centers that was the opposite of what we proposed. They wanted a large-scale venue, like the North York Performing Arts Centre which opened in 1993. These venues were seen as grand money-making institutions that would host big concert events and touring theatrical shows. They were places where you went to consume art, not to make it.
Armed with letters of support from residents, business owners, schoolteachers, politicians, and local artists, we presented our vision at a City of York council meeting. The community was behind us. Who could refuse us? After a unanimous vote, we were granted funds that paid for capital expenses: rent, utilities, and part of the administration costs. This was no small thing. It got the ball rolling. We bucked the trend.
The storefront was a hub of activity, and we took our community-based art-making concepts to the places where people live and work, play, and celebrate: schools, libraries, social service organizations, on the street, in parks, malls and stores, at neighourhood festivals, in people’s backyards, in apartment buildings, in homeless shelters, community centers, youth shelters, seniors’ organizations. We saw the way artistic expression can be an integral part of social interactions.
Our vision was new, and it was hard to explain because it was so different from everything else that was going on in the city. Back then, there was no website or social media to showcase our work, although we did have the latest technology – a fax machine. There were no arts grants geared to the kind of work we were doing – artists working in communities, communities making art. We had to go scratching around for money from social service organizations who had never funded arts projects. Our first big multi-year children’s arts program was funded by the Children’s Aid Society.
Reconciling our vision with existing arts funding requirements was tough. Can you show revenue? What are your projected expenditures? We only fund professional artists. Our programs were free, and it was impossible to know who would walk through our doors and propose an amazing art project. Many artists did just that.
We contacted government arts and culture departments who might have discretionary funds for new projects. Our provincial Heritage Ministry and City of Toronto agencies like the Toronto Arts Council and the Culture Division, in what was then Metropolitan Toronto, were curious. We invited them to our storefront to see what we were doing. They got it as soon as they walked through the door: mixed media workshops for kids, drumming classes and a fashion design program for teens, rap performances, events and workshops for adults. All this activity took place beyond that plastic accordion door, in that small room that we also used as an art gallery. During children’s programs, we covered the artwork on the walls with rolls of plastic sheeting. We didn’t want paint splatter, glue, or handprints to wind up on the work.
We were adamant about paying artists a reasonable fee and we wanted to hire local artists from our diverse community. We wanted to develop projects that draw from the cultures present in the neighbourhood. This seems a given now but in 1992, artists working in communities were expected to volunteer. Grant programs available to us defined a professional artist as someone who made a living through their art practice and who was recognized by peers.
Isn’t a trained drummer from Trinidad who works in construction in Toronto also an artist? Isn’t an Indigenous woman who has created beaded artworks her whole life recognized by her peers? Isn’t a Mas Band designer and creator who has never had his work shown in an art gallery but has had his work seen by a million people out on the street, a professional? The answer, we insisted, was yes!
To get a community arts project off the ground we needed to hire a coordinator. There were so many moving parts to manage. Whenever possible we hired people from our neighbourhood and they were essential to the success of a project. But funding programs considered a coordinator’s salary to be part of administration costs. We changed that too. Without a coordinator and an artist, there was no art project.
Our vision was unique. We wanted to reconnect artists to communities by reintegrating art in the social imagination where it has the power to transform our lives. While there was no name for it at the time, this practice would eventually be called Community Arts. Thirty years ago, Art Starts pioneered community arts practices in Ontario. It’s exciting to see Art Starts’ legacy and leadership live on.
Elizabeth Cinello, Founding Member