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Community and Art A Runaway History
Existing and Emerging Work in Canadian Community Arts Practices

Melanie Fernandez

It is my belief that the only real creativity in this world comes from people in communities who resist attempts to limit or bind the human spirit. When people have the audacity to assert new possibilities for their lives that is the energy that fuels all creativity that fuels the artists and industry. That energy I believe, is the lifeblood of the artist and that fact, I believe, artists have yet to discover... After all, we are community.
Lillian Allen1

Since time immemorial, Aboriginal communities have supported master crafts persons such as canoe builders, crest-pole carvers, storytellers, bead workers; artists who paint on rock, hide or birch bark; music, drumming and songs, social and spiritual dances, as well as other forms of art. In winter and times of leisure, implements of daily life such as tools and clothing were decorated. Where there was more leisure time as a result of abundance, there was more adornment.

The coming of Europeans brought Western creative traditions as well as new materials. As such, Canada has always been a creative place where people have engaged in creative pursuits as mechanisms to enrich and adorn their surroundings, tell their stories, record their histories and accomplishments, celebrate their higher powers (whomever they may be), and enjoy leisure activities.

We could say that "community arts" is the oldest continuous artistic practice in the country. If we fast-forward a century, we see dramatic development in the arts in Canada. Communities large and small are involved in choirs, orchestras and bands and many other musical traditions; all manner of visual arts; community theatrical presentations; writing poetry, fiction, and non-fiction; storytelling; crafts from wood work, pottery, jewelry production, quilting and other fabric work (among others); dance in all forms from classical to social; and all manner of festivals and celebrations. Within this framework of creativity were a group of "masters" or "artists" — people whose role in a community was to be the creative instigator. Artists and arts organizations grew and developed and existed within communities of people engaged in creative activities within their everyday lives — engagement in community arts was everywhere.

...and that's the artist's role—to be part of community; to help that community articulate its sacredness, not only for its particular group, but to share with others.
Martha Morena2

In 1951, Vincent Massey delivered the results of the Royal Commission on National Development in Arts, Letters and Sciences, which became one of the most important official documents in the history of Canadian culture. Out of this report, the Canada Council for the Arts and the National Library were created. This report created a national framework for culture and as writer Robert Fulford notes, "The Massey Report did a wonderful job and at the same time got us going in the wrong direction." Fulford goes on to write, "The Massey Report politicized the subsidy of the arts. Its central arguments were that the Nation should support the arts so that the arts could support the Nation. Artists would eventually create what Massey called a 'national Canadian consciousness' and would even become 'the foundations of national unity'...[It] turns out, the arts became far more regional than national..."3

Pre- and post-Massey Report, provincial and municipal governments across the country began to implement policy frameworks to support the arts through the development of "arts councils" and departments of culture. The structures and infrastructures that supported creativity and artists grew and community arts continued as citizens continued to engage in creative pursuits to tell their stories or enhance community life.

In many provinces arts councils and ministries of culture and/or recreation have supported community creativity. Community access to the arts and participation in the arts has been nurtured through a variety of funding programmes and policies. In Ontario, for example, the Ontario Arts Council has a long history of support to community arts as does the Ministry of Culture. The city of Toronto has a similar history through the Toronto Arts Council and Department of Culture. The support of many of these organizations was directed at non-professionals engaged in creative activities.

As the professional arts structure became more and more structured and stratified, the gaps between the professionals and the creative pursuits of communities widened. This is not to imply that "professional artists" did not pay attention to the communities in which they resided; rather, most were involved in "mastering" their craft. However, a few artists were interested in a creative process that brought them into creative relationships with communities.

Some key seminal work of this process of community and artist interactions can be seen in the Labour arts movement where artists were regularly engaged with organized labour in the creation of banners, performances, songs, and graphic stories as a mechanism for popular education. Making Our Mark: Labour Arts and Heritage in Ontario, by Karl Beveridge and Jude Johnston provides an invaluable survey of the history of arts and labour specifically in an Ontario context.

We're not just responsible for ourselves and the art we produce. We don't just produce art as individuals with our own particular burning visions. We make ourselves responsible to a community, and in our case, it's the labour community.4

A democratic culture recognizes that all work is creative and does not rate one kind of work or worker over another.5
Karl Beveridge

Theatre artists were working in popular and other community theatre techniques developed in Britain and elsewhere. Remarkable community play projects, from the work of Dale Hamilton and the Everybody's Theatre Company who are based in Eden Mills, Ontario and produced The Spirit of Shivaree in 1990 and transformed the local political structure by empowering the town citizens; to the work of Mixed Company whose work is based in "forum theatre" and has now been working for 25 years; to Black Theatre Workshop who have been working in Black communities in the Montreal area since 1972; to Savannah Walling's Vancouver Moving Theatre Company that has produced a number of community-based projects since its founding in 1983; to Dr. Ted Little who, as Associate Professor of Theatre at Concordia University in Montreal, has worked as an Artistic Director but also championed community theatre in the academy; to De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre on Manitoulin Island in Ontario whose work exists in the voices of its Aboriginal community; to Cathy Subbington and Runaway Theatre who have produced shadow puppet performances in Enderby, B.C. with the local Shuswap Aboriginal community; to Rachael Van Fossen and Common Weal Community Arts that in 1992 brought together the diverse peoples of the village of Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan to share the oral history and create a play called Ka'ma'mo'picik (The Gathering); and to many, many more powerful projects.

I think community-engaged art can fill many different purposes, from a goal of creating civic dialogue, to outright political protest, to more intimate personal growth. I also believe the work can have as many different aesthetic possibilities as there are for more conventional work. Nonetheless, we do need to develop new ways of talking about the aesthetics of the work.6
Laurie McGauley

Other key arts organizations exploring intersections between artists and communities are A Space Gallery in Toronto, which had a community arts committee in operation in the late 1980s; Harbourfront Centre in Toronto that has had a community department for the past 20+ years; grunt gallery and a number of artist-run centres, especially those located in non-urban centres; and a number of public celebration or spectacle companies such as Public Dreams Society that has been producing since 1985, Shadowland Theatre Company, Myths and Mirrors Community Arts, and many others.

Community arts continues, then, through artists and organizations dedicated to these interactions, and through citizens who continue to engage in creative activities throughout the country.

Within this context a number of key moments aligned in the mid-1990s that allowed reflection on the nature of creativity and community. The Ontario Arts Council started an extensive policy review process that formulated a new definition for community arts, and more critically names it as a "practice."7 A report from Vancouver, Community-Based Public Art: Strengthening Our Communities, explored the process of locally based projects funded in most part through the city. The Arts in Transition Project - Report and Discussion Paper: Towards a Culture of Shared Resources; Building an environment for the Long-term Sustainability of Arts in Canada was released by the Canadian Conference of the Arts in 1997. The Ontario Arts Council hosted an international conference titled, Vital Links: Engaging Community Through Art & Art Through Community in 1997, as well as funding ten pilot projects based on its definition of community arts practice.

These critical moments were followed up by another round of key moments, where the Canada Council for the Arts, the Laidlaw Foundation, the Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council developed a pilot project to fund community arts projects across the country. This was quickly followed by the development of the Artists and Community Collaboration Fund Program at the Canada Council for the Arts in 1997. In addition, a number of key Canadian foundations, most notably the Bronfman Foundation, funded community arts activity through its Urban Art Program. The Saskatchewan Arts Board introduced the Artist in Residence Grants Program; the Toronto Arts Council established the Community Arts Residency; and the British Columbia Arts Council introduced Project Assistance for Arts-Based Community Development. Community arts continues to be everywhere, along with a growing acknowledgement that communities benefit from having a connection with artists and deepening their connection to their own creativity and their own voices.

In 2006, the Canada Council for the Arts released Imagine: An External Review of the Canada Council for the Arts Artists and Community Collaborations Fund, by Laurie McGauley. This comprehensive and visionary document positions community arts for the future and enhances debate by mapping activity across Canada. It captures the wisdom of both seasoned and emerging practitioners in the field. It proposes a framework for understanding—a framework that invites dialogue.

Throughout these developments the naming of community arts has been debated. As you have seen, community arts reflect both the creativity within citizens and communities and it now represents a practice or a methodology. If you look across the country and around the globe, you will notice many different terms used for these interactions—"community-engaged artistic practice," "community cultural development," "publicly engaged art," Littoralarts," "cultural democracy," and many others. Along with discussions and debates on naming, much work is being done in critical writing and community arts. This reflection and theoretical work is necessary to move the field forward and to create frameworks for understanding and critiquing the practice. Many "made in Canada" books are being published both as documentation and as critical reflection on the field of community arts.

Since the publication of Making Our Mark: Labour Arts and Heritage in Ontario by Karl Beveridge and Jude Johnston, The Community Arts Workbook: Another Vital Link, published by the Ontario Arts Council in 1997, and Community-Based Public Art: Strengthening Our Communities, (A Partial Inventory of Vancouver's Community Based Public Art Projects in Visual Arts) in 1996, a whole new list of important resources and research such as, Art as Activism, edited by Deborah Barndt, Artist and Community Collaboration: A Toolkit for Community Projects, and The Art of Social Justice: Re-Crafting Adult Education and Cultural Leadership, edited by Dr. Darlene Clover, have been published. However, there are still huge gaps in the conversations, critical writing, training, and connections. New areas of community arts are emerging in Canada – a huge movement in youth arts activities, arts for health, disability arts networks, and new ways of understanding arts education and its role in the community. The field is vibrant, energized, and active – and "community arts" is everywhere.

In the 60+ years since the release of the Massey Report, we have seen that nurturing the artistic pursuits that are rooted in communities is what truly creates a national Canadian consciousness.

These practices are re-turning to something (dare I say it?) essential to us as beings in the world… they return us to the re-membering of relationship and community in its most radical sense. They also return us, quite simply, to the role of artist as a community member… a member as specialized as an electrician, a doctor, a mechanic or a shaman.8
Beth Carruthers, artist


  1. Beveridge, K. and Johnston, J. (1999). Lillian Allen; "Making Our Mark: Labour Arts and Heritage in Ontario. Karl Beveridge and Jude Johnston, 1999, page 47.back
  2. Martha Morena Vega, Executive Director, Vital Links: Enriching Art Through Community and Community Through Art Conference, Toronto, 1997.back
  3. National Post, Dec. 22, 2001 4. Conde, Carole and Beveridge, Karl, (1998). Community Arts Workbook, Another Vital Link, Ontario Arts Council, 1998. pg.35.back
  4. Beveridge, Karl, (1998). Community Arts Workbook, Another Vital Link, Ontario Arts Council, 1998, pg.34.back
  5. McGauley, L (2006). Imagine: An External Review of the Canada Council for the Arts' Artists and Community Collaboration Fund", by Laurie McGauley 2006. pg. 24.back
  6. Some further information can be found at, "Dramatic Action: Community Engaged Theatre in Canada & Beyond" (
  7. Community Arts is an artistic practice that involves the work of artists and community members in a collaborative creative process resulting in collective experience and public expressions. It provides a way for communities to express themselves, enables artists, through financial and other supports, to engage in creative activity with communities, and is collaborative. The creative process is equally as important as the artistic outcome.back
  8. McGauley, L. (2006). "Imagine: An External Review of the Canada Council for the Arts' Artists and Community Collaboration Fund", by Laurie McGauley 2006. pg. 23.back