Award-Winning Organization Uses Art to Build Community

Art Starts artists work with residents in underserved neighbourhoods to build vibrant communities.

Award-Winning Organization Uses Art to Build Community

Between the autumn of 2014 and early January 2015, the Art Gallery of Ontario curated a beautiful exhibit of works by the great Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo. The exhibit, entitled Quest for Genius, inspired thousands of people. Art such as that of Michelangelo has the ability to stir something deep within each of us, often influencing how we see the world, and how we see ourselves.

The huge effect that the arts can have on our lives means that it’s important that organizations in support of the arts continue to thrive in our communities. Art Starts is one such organization.

A not-for profit, award-winning organization in operation since 1992, Art Starts has its main office in the Yorkdale Community Arts Centre in Toronto. According to its website, Art Starts “creates vibrant Toronto neighbourhoods through community building arts initiatives” and “inspires long-term social change in Toronto’s underserved neighbourhoods.”

Executive director Liz Forsberg says, “The organization helps to build stronger communities. It was a very unique model at the time. People think that art is something that exists in galleries, not in communities.”

The organization offers a variety of community-building art programs, bringing together professional artists (such as musicians, playwrights, dancers, visual artists and actors who donate pro-bono consulting services) with community residents.

Art Starts has worked in diverse communities throughout the city, but works primarily in five underserved neighborhoods: Glendower, Lawrence Heights, Oakwood/Eglinton, Neptune and Villaways, and since its inception has had a track record of providing opportunities for young people in these underserved neighborhoods. That success has not gone without acclaim. In 2013, Art Starts won a Toronto Arts Award.

“The award was recognizing our ongoing commitment and work that we have done for youth arts engagement in Toronto,” says Forsberg. “It was a huge honour. It felt validating. We are grateful to all the young people.”

The professional artists work with community residents, leading workshops and often working towards a larger goal of an exhibit. While Art Starts has an impact on people of all ages in all disciplines of art, the youth programming tends to be more performance based, much of it revolving around hip-hop and dance programs.

While several of the initiatives that Art Starts has been involved in have had transformative effects on communities, one in particular stands out. Several years ago, a beautiful mosaic was created by Glendower neighbourhood residents in a central community space (a basketball court). It took several years to complete; 140 residents were involved in creating the mosaic. This initiative was a catalyst for changed perceptions in the neighbourhood; as Forsberg says, “it made people feel proud.”

“The communities that we work in are stereotyped in a negative way. They are not seen for the strengths and for the gifts that they have. Art Starts breaks down barriers and provides opportunities so that people can have a voice in the world,” says Forsberg. “This is a way to engage them in the city by creating art for themselves and their communities.”

Deborah Austin

Deborah Austin

Deborah Austin is a speaker, writer, trainer, coach and consultant. Her mission involves helping people to have a greater impact in the world through the development of their leadership and communication skills. She is a graduate of the University of Toronto with a BA in international relations. She is a Distinguished Toastmaster, which is Toastmasters International’s highest honour for leadership and communications excellence.
Deborah Austin

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