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Transforming Communities through the Arts

A Study of Three Toronto Neighbourhoods

September 10, 201410 September 2014

Social and health benefits of the arts

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Based on a two-year research process, this study attempted to “gain a better understanding of how residents engage with the arts at a community level, explore barriers to arts access, and identify ways to strengthen local arts engagement”. The study’s 17 researchers made “300 connections” including interviews, focus groups, and surveys with 191 “residents, artists, arts groups and social service organizations” in three Toronto neighbourhoods: Malvern, St. James Town, and Weston Mount Dennis. Each of the neighbourhoods has a significant number of children and youth and a relatively high proportion of new immigrants. Because of their socio-economic challenges, these neighbourhoods “have been targeted for community development initiatives”.

Each of the neighbourhoods was found to have significant assets, including local leadership and resources, “the diverse histories and traditions of the residents, people’s capacities to use what they find around them to challenge, create, and celebrate, plus more intangible things such as the spirit of the place, the determination of the people, and as one resident put it ‘the great community vibes’.”

One interesting aspect of the research relates to residents’ perceptions of what art is. During interviews, “the most commonly used word was ‘expression’”, including self-expression, freedom of expression, and expression of experience and identity. When asked about their arts practices, interviewees identified 96 examples, with 11 being mentioned in all three neighbourhoods: DJing, drawing, film (or filmmaking), gardening, painting, photography, poetry, sewing, storytelling, theatre, and wall art.

The report highlighted interviewees’ motivations for being involved in the arts, their perceptions of the community and individual impacts of the arts, and barriers to arts participation. The most frequently mentioned motivations included a desire for greater connection to others (39% of respondents), a desire to make a difference in the community (31%), and a connection “to art-making that honoured family and cultural connections” (23%). The most commonly mentioned community impacts of the arts were sharing experiences (42%), building connections (39%), networking opportunities (38%), and bridging differences (36%). In terms of individual impacts, respondents most frequently mentioned self-expression (41%), receiving recognition (39%), an enhanced sense of identity (38%), and building self-esteem (37%). The most commonly noted barriers to accessing the arts were personal issues (including time, health, etc., 46%), a lack of information (39%), a lack of arts spaces (36%), and cultural or linguistic barriers (35%).

To improve the arts in their neighbourhoods, respondents recommended strengthening the arts as a local asset, creating additional arts spaces, creating sustainable and accessible arts programs, and building a local arts identity. Based on the research findings, the authors recommended that:

  • Connections be further developed (including improved communications within communities and strengthened connections between artists).
  • Mentoring opportunities be expanded and improved (including support, mentoring, and connections for newcomer professional artists as well as skill-building and mentoring for emerging artists).
  • Sustainability of arts and culture in local neighbourhoods be increased (including additional neighbourhood spaces for cultural activities as well as increased project funding and operating support for organizations working in priority neighbourhoods).

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