“To see things differently than other people, the most effective solution is to bombard the brain with things it has never encountered before.”
— Gregory Berns, American neuroscientist and expert on the biological origins of creativity

 
 
“Making art connects us across languages, races, ethnicities and religions. We need places where everyone can rediscover the power of expression through the arts, and see our generosity of making and sharing is received.”
— Janis Timm-Bottos, art therapist and professor, Concordia University
 
 

Lethbridge, Regina, Kelowna, Rimouski and many more – the way artistic organizations take shape in these smaller cities is characterized by a real do-it-yourself ethos,” says Shawn Van Sluys, Executive Director of Musagetes.

“These cities have valid arguments to make about how arts can be supported in an era of austerity. How can cities encourage this? Getting rid of some of the red tape can help.”

 
 
These cities have valid arguments to make about how arts can be supported in an era of austerity. How can cities encourage this? Getting rid of some of the red tape can help.

When Musagetes, based in Guelph, Ontario, got involved with Cities for People, it found the initiative heavily focused on big cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. But Van Sluys says it is vital not to overlook cities of 100,000 inhabitants or less. His organization works in smaller cities because they find the scope more manageable for the kind of work they do. Within these cities, there is often a greater demand and potential for arts activities that are truly grassroots.

Van Sluys believes in recent decades there has been an offloading of responsibility for the arts by governments, redirecting it to corporations. While corporate investment can create large, magnificent new facilities, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, there are inherent risks in the model. It makes art projects more vulnerable to economic restraint or austerity. Investments can suddenly dry up in hard times, leaving renovation or building plans in disarray. Van Sluys believes Canada lacks a policy on culture for cities that is not commodification-driven, in other words, culture that does not require large capital investments.

Musagetes is working at a very different level.

The history of the Underground Railway became the inspiration for a Musagetes project called People of Good Will, hosted in an old church, now renamed Heritage Hall. People of Good Will is a coalition of 22 people from the Guelph Black Heritage Society, Musagetes, Postcommodity (an Indigenous multimedia art collective from the southwest United States), Guelph-based artists, Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition and Immigrant Services. Indigenous elders and community members act as advisors. 
 

 
heritage-hall.jpg

 

Over the course of a year, a series of events and shows by local and international artists, arts programmers and community organizations was featured at Heritage Hall, initiated by Postcommodity and supported by the People of Good Will coalition.

Convening community in this manner demonstrates the catalytic power of the arts. Musagetes would like to see more: city councils encouraging the participation of artists in public space, and even further – bringing artists directly into the decision-making process.

 
 
“The arts are an open crayon box of possibilities. Question-raising is the focus of arts, not solutions.”


Musagetes has also been experimenting with what it calls SenseLabs since 2012, the first such lab being in Sudbury. The foundation describes SenseLabs as a form of cultural mediation: “a process of building bridges between the cultural and social realms in order to counter the exclusion of a large part of the population from encounters with and participation in the arts.”

“The arts are an open crayon box of possibilities,” says Van Sluys. “Question-raising is the focus of arts, not solutions.”
 

 
SENSELABS In 2014, Musagetes brought SenseLabs to Lethbridge, a city in southern Alberta that sprawls across an arid landscape. SenseLabs invited Jean-François Prost, a Montreal-based artist, to lead the group in the development of a series of public actions. Throughout the city, participants explored sites of conflict, overlooked spaces, contested spaces and sites of interest. By placing a 20-metre length of red fabric on the sites, they transformed these places into momentary social spaces for conversations, picnics and tea parties. Such activities have the effect of focusing attention – and imagination – on overlooked and neglected spaces. Photo by Jean-François Prost

SENSELABS

In 2014, Musagetes brought SenseLabs to Lethbridge, a city in southern Alberta that sprawls across an arid landscape. SenseLabs invited Jean-François Prost, a Montreal-based artist, to lead the group in the development of a series of public actions. Throughout the city, participants explored sites of conflict, overlooked spaces, contested spaces and sites of interest. By placing a 20-metre length of red fabric on the sites, they transformed these places into momentary social spaces for conversations, picnics and tea parties. Such activities have the effect of focusing attention – and imagination – on overlooked and neglected spaces.

Photo by Jean-François Prost

 


Musagetes’ work during Cities for People opened up a new field of activity. It is now embarking on a project called ArtsEverywhere, an ongoing set of activities – convenings, cafés, publications, educational projects – as well as an online “idea hive,” a web platform to foster inter-sectoral dialogue about the value of arts. The inspiration for the web platform comes from The Nature of Cities (TNOC) site, to which Musagetes was introduced during Cities for People. Musagetes will adapt TNOC’s web architecture, which will serve as a forum for white papers, policy critique, essays, book reviews, podcasts and more.

The aims of ArtsEverywhere are to create a network of global champions for Musagetes’ work, to expand its communications capacity, to partner with other like-minded organizations, to provide a resource for traditional media for information about the role of the arts, and to provide a forum for ongoing learning, especially related to collaborating with and learning from Indigenous peoples.