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STEPS Public Art: Social innovation for neighbourhood support and engagement

Ontario, OntarioOntario (Ontario)

Story Seeker: Melanie Fernandez
Person interviewed: Alexis Speer, Executive Director
Interview date: July 30, 2021

STEPS Public Art‘s mandate is to foster “dynamic and inclusive communities through public art and creative placemaking. [STEPS works to] transform urban spaces into vibrant places through cultural planning, community arts and artist capacity building programs.”

A registered charity that functions as a social enterprise, STEPS’ services include cultural plan development , commissioning public art, installation of hoarding exhibits, and animation of local parks. STEPS states that their team connects clients with artists, facilitates calls-for-artists, designs inclusive cultural projects, and generates solutions to public space challenges, with the goals of placemaking, transforming spaces into cultural destinations, strengthening community relationships, and showcasing the talents of diverse Canadian artists.

STEPS is a national organization with staff located in four provinces: Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, and Manitoba, with Alberta coming online shortly. Their activities build on signature projects such as:

The Innovation: Local public art showcasing local businesses

Restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the cancellation of neighbourhood events and festivals and led to dramatic reduction of financial support for artists and businesses alike. Recognizing an opportunity for a creative response, STEPS conceptualized the pilot 2020 Main Street Challenge and subsequent I HeART Main Street 2021.

Work created as part of a STEPS Public art project. Source: STEPS Public Art.

The idea behind the project was to support local Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) through the pandemic and foster new forms of local engagement. STEPS believes “that Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) are the heart of our communities”. This project presented opportunities to develop new partnerships with individual BIAs, the Toronto Association of BIAs, and the Canadian Urban Institute, while advancing STEPS’ mandate of “engaged creative placemaking”.

The 2020 Main Street Challenge was a collaboration with BIAs to counter the downturn in business, drive traffic and customers, and attract attention to various neighbourhoods, following pandemic-related decreases. A central objective was also to pay and support artists and artistic activity during a troubling time for artists. Before the pandemic, many BIAs ran large and successful events that engaged many artists and brought many people into various neighbourhoods. As a result of the pandemic, these events were all cancelled. STEPS viewed this as an opportunity to explore some new methods of neighbourhood engagement and new partnerships.

To this end, STEPS collaborated with the Canadian Urban Institute and associations of BIAs in Toronto and Peel Region to help shape the project. Eleven BIAs in Toronto and Peel Region ended up participating: Cabbagetown, Chinatown, Danforth Mosaic, Downtown Yonge, Fairbank Village, Gerrard India Bazaar, Leslieville, Malton, Port Credit, Riverside, and York-Eglinton.

Participating artists included Bareket Kezwer, Caitlin Taguibao, Duncan C. McLean, Erin McCluskey, Fatspatrol, Gosia Komorski, Heidi Berton, Isaiah Haber, Jenn Kitagawa, Jieun June Kim, Lauren Pirie, Lindsay Hill, Linh Thai, Marco Bertuzzo, Michael Brobbey, Nick Sweetman, Rosena Fung, Roshni Wijayasinha, Selina McCallum, Sue Todd, Vesna Asanovic, Wandy Cheng, and Yshmael Cabana.

Overall, the pilot project facilitated:

  • 204 site activations
  • 41 new art works
  • the payment of 25 artists and designers ($36,500 in total)
  • $25,500 of in-kind support to BIAs

Building on the success of the 2020 Main Street Art Challenge, STEPS launched I HeART Main Street in 2021 to support BIAs of all sizes, strengthen business-community relationships, and provide meaningful opportunities for local Canadian artists during the pandemic.

A call for proposals was launched along with direct outreach and information sessions, and 50 BIAs applied. A short list of 27 large and small BIAs from across Ontario were selected to implement placemaking initiatives as part of a main street recovery strategy. The 27 participating BIAs are: Albion Islington Square, Aldershot Village, Belle River – On the Lake, Burlington Downtown Business Association, Chinatown, Clarkson Village, Cooksville, Downtown Bench Beamsville, Downtown Brockville, Downtown Tillsonburg, Downtown Timmins, Downtown Whitby, DUKE Heights, Fairbank Village, Greektown on the Danforth, Kensington Market, Lakeshore Village, Leslieville, MarkeTO District, Mimico by the Lake, Mount Pleasant Village, Oakwood Village, Pape Village, Port Credit, Riverside, Trinity Bellwoods, and Upper Village.

The project’s supports include:

  • Pro-bono creative placemaking and public art services
  • Connections to multidisciplinary artists and creatives
  • Artist fee subsidies
  • Audio-visual documentation
  • Promotional tools and public programming

Work created as part of a STEPS Public art project. Source: STEPS Public Art.

STEPS is contributing project frameworks and management, in-depth documentation services, as well as the collection of key metrics and other evaluative tools. The findings will support BIAs in building cases for arts and cultural activities through quantitative and qualitative evaluations. In addition, STEPS is contributing to marketing, promotion, and inclusion efforts through a newly developed (but not yet available) mobile app, so that visitors can find the BIA public art projects and the stories from across the province.

Beginning in June 2021, 27 main streets across Ontario were activated through unique outdoor public art installations that can be visited in person or virtually through an interactive app. Participating BIAs will have a chance to win prizes valued at $30,000 at the end of the summer to recognize exemplary projects. The project video can be viewed at

STEPS staff believe that the implementation of a pilot project enabled them to test the processes and frameworks and gather data to move forward with a larger scope, such as the addition of an app. New funding opportunities were also identified, while new partners such as the City of Toronto approached STEPS on their own. The collection of documentation and data also allowed the BIAs to advocate more effectively within their own municipalities.

The STEPS team worked closely with BIAs to realize projects, and documentation and data collection were critical to animating the project. A further benefit of the project for STEPS and their partners was the forging of relationships outside the GTA, particularly with communities where there is no municipal support for public art. This demonstrates the potential for national participation in the project.

The Challenges: Funding and rethinking how to deploy a team

There were several challenges that had to be overcome as the project unfolded. On the funding side, significant revenues had to be generated for this project, because STEPS receives only modest operational funding from the Ontario Arts Council. All project costs were supported through fundraising efforts and the funders noted below.

Work created as part of a STEPS Public art project. Source: STEPS Public Art.

The project is also staff resource intensive. To manage this, the STEPS team had each of their six staff members steward 4 to 5 BIA projects. Two of the same staff facilitated the intake process, and an additional 2 to3 membered engagement team worked on documentation and storytelling.

While the STEPS team works from the Toronto office, project sites are distributed across the province. As such, the team had to find innovative ways to work virtually and still be “place-based” without physically being there. Ultimately, STEPS believes that they were able to break free from their own constraints and generate new opportunities.

The Financials: Innovative operational structures and project fundraising

STEPS’ entrepreneurial approach and social-enterprise framework allow the organization to identify opportunities in non-traditional sectors and through innovative partnerships. STEPS’ dedication to documentation, data collection, and evaluation enables them to position the arts as a business case, a community/city-building building enterprise, a creative endeavour, a tourism enhancement, and an equity initiative.

STEPS was able to leverage a range of funding resources from the public and private sectors to support the project as well as bring additional resources to regional artists through the support of the BIAs.

The 2020 pilot project received funding from RBC Royal Bank, which supported:

  • a portion of the artist fees
  • consulting and management expertise from STEPS at no cost to the BIA
  • marketing and promotion

The BIAs paid the costs of materials as well as a portion of the artist fees (to the extent possible).

The project expansion in 2021 was funded by RBC Royal Bank, Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada’s Canadian Healthy Communities Initiative fund. The City of Toronto through its Economic Development Department also approached STEPS to support and participate in the project.

The Takeaway: Remain nimble

Work created as part of a STEPS Public art project. Source: STEPS Public Art.

STEPS’ social enterprise construct enabled the organization to remain nimble and responsive and to identify innovative opportunities when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The staff team structures enable STEPS to facilitate projects through a tight project management process to maximize output while allowing staff to have ownership over projects.

STEPS has built long term partnerships with foundations and corporate partners. These partnerships are nurtured and lead to trusting relationships with the STEPS team. When approached to participate in new opportunities, the partners and supporters are confident about the quality of the projects and innovation of the STEPS team and are eager to support new ideas.

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