“the power of the arts”

This past weekend I attended the Power of the Arts National Forum in Ottawa, hosted by the Michaëlle Jean Foundation and Carleton University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Let me first say that there are a surprising number of organizations in Canada working at the intersection of arts and social change. I learned about fantastic projects, like Beautifulcity.ca, which successfully campaigned for a new tax on billboards in Toronto to be streamed into arts funding. Or the research project Pedagogical Impulse, which paired visual artists and 6th grade students to explore ‘Canada and its Trading partners’ in interesting and unpredictable ways.

As an academic and as a singer, I found myself on the one hand feeling inspired at the amazing transformations art has participated in–of individuals, neighbourhoods, even cities. Yet on the other hand, the academic in me had this little niggle, this burr stuck to my brain, wondering who benefits most from initiatives claiming to save lives through the arts.

But as I listened to discussions, and engaged in conversation, I realized that many were struggling with questions of power and inequity, asking who really benefits from the idea of the arts saving lives. And Phyllis Novak of Sketch (another innovative project working with street-affected youth and arts) eloquently reframed the work of these kinds of arts-based social change projects suggesting that the task of finding and amplifying voices that are overlooked or marginalized or pathologized actually saves everyone: Canada’s collective is strengthened by virtue of these voices participating.

By far, the most powerful moment for me was the keynote speech given by Marie Wilson, who sits on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She described the role of art in the reconciliation process, but she also pointedly questioned the celebration of art at the expense of the people. “Canada often acts as if Aboriginal art matters more than Aboriginals Peoples,” Wilson argued, “As a nation we must not cling to our art collections as a substitute for respectful relations.”

I left with the powerful message that the arts are indeed transformative, and also fraught with issues of power, access, and cultural expression. To do the arts work without paying attention to these issues is irresponsible, which I’ve always thought. But now I think that the difficulty of the work is no excuse not to do it.

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