STORIES OF NOW: Vignette – Acorn Arts Project (Toronto)


Vignette – Acorn Arts Project (Toronto)

“STORIES OF NOW” is part of a project ArtBridges is working on with Judith Marcuse Projects’ ASCN (Arts for Social Change Network) and ICASC. It is about gathering and sharing stories emanating from the field now and about what issues and areas of focus matter.

As told by: Naomi Chorney, Founder & Secretary, Acorn Arts Project, October 7th, 2021

If you could tell a story about your community-engaged arts initiative now, this year, what would the story be about? What are the main themes?

NC: Main themes – building a strong (organizational) foundation, that was really a large part of what transpired in 2021. A lot of establishing by-laws, doing the ground-work and developing governance.  This is what we’ve been doing a lot during the pandemic. 

We’ve also been reaching out and getting more involved in the (Regent Park) community (where Acorn Arts is based- at 220 Oak) meeting people, and finding out what’s going on. We’re trying to map out what’s going on art-wise in the community. We’re participating and engaging by zoom, working towards a common goal.  

What are the main issues your community-engaged arts initiative faces? (e.g., social justice, environmental justice, pandemic-related, operational, financial, HR)

NC: Finding space to do programming in the community. This is part of our ongoing conversations –  there are a lot of spaces in the community – common rooms & areas available for grass roots programming. We’d like to offer programming to other demographics – children, youth, seniors. We’re walking a tightrope for what is safe re: COVID and zoom/online fatigue. Youth are tired of zoom calls. We need space to meet (in real life). 

Growing our capacity. We need to find a few more Board members who can take on responsibilities including fundraising. We are doing community outreach to attract talent that represent the community we serve. We’d like to work with students, mentees, and grow our HR. 

How has your initiative been addressing these main issues?

NC: We’re reaching out within the community, seeking community representation. We’re involved in Regent Park stakeholders/community meetings to expand our network, have conversations and grow. We’re doing a deep dive in meetings and creating new partnerships. We’re applying for grants- for resident-led initiatives.  

We’ve had a few sessions of strategic planning with an outside facilitator. We’re getting clear about our goals and mission. There are so many moving parts. We need more people to help with this admin work. Now that we are back on site again, we need more help and extra hands as we grow our programming. Maybe hire university/college students, high-school students doing volunteer hours, volunteers. We got our banking sorted out, wrote grants, and looking at workplace policies. We accessed government relief support to get us through the pandemic. 

How has the community of participants that your initiative engages with evolved in the past year (if at all)?

NC: The pandemic has been very hard on our group, the group that we serve at 220 Oak St. There was a before, then the pandemic, then after. People more autonomous, living independently, have managed, but bemoan the lack of community engagement. Their building was locked down, there was security on each floor making sure people were not gathering – no congregating at mail boxes, in the lobby, anywhere in the building. Some people’s health has deteriorated. The isolation, the absence of people to say hello to. Some of our former participants with health issues didn’t make it. Others moved away as their physical and mental health deteriorated and became too much for them to manage.

How is your organization engaging with your community right now? (Logistics, pandemic public health and safety guidelines & policies, changes in the way we gather)

NC: We’ve been live for the last 6 weeks! (since early September). We’ve been doing programs outside, at the side of the building. Today is our first day inside (the studio). There is a new limitation of numbers of people inside as per Toronto Public Health policies:  4 people plus 1 instructor in a room. We have 2 spaces, so we can have 10 people. It can’t be the drop-in that it was before. We all wear masks and can’t serve coffee or food.  We need to be cautious. Many vulnerable people are double-vaxxed, but others may not be. We will respect whatever requirements that are stipulated by Toronto Public Health. People are just so happy to come back into the studio! 

What are one or two new projects your initiative implemented this year?

NC: Our community partner, COTA Health, impressed with our programming and its transformative nature (at 220 Oak), invited us into 3 other sites in the city – group home-based for individuals independently living with assistance; housing for people difficult to house, facing food insecurity or addictions.  For the last 6 weeks, we’ve set up 3 new programs. We’re using accessible media- pencils, markers, watercolour, air drying clay. We’ll do clay at 220 Oak- where we have a kiln. It’s fun- bringing the art in, inviting people to participate in making art and talking about their lives. 

We are thrilled to be back in the field. We tried kits, but because our program doesn’t transfer well to the virtual space, it was difficult to drop off the kit and go. Participants need the human contact, being around other people. After months of isolation and being back together, the art is almost secondary. People need to just be able to sit and look in each other’s eyes.  They are so happy we’re back. It’s so moving.   

What is your initiative doing new–digitally–compared to pre-pandemic?

NC: We’ve done all our board meetings over zoom, it’s more convenient, so much easier. Easier to attend conferences and meetings, too. …All the webinars and professional development are all online. Even our strategic planning is all online. It’s more focused. 

In terms of program delivery – the digital world – our people don’t’ navigate well. Many don’t have stable internet. Many don’t have the savvy to navigate digital space. Phones get stolen, people lose data, some are elderly or blind, have fine motor skill problems or brain injuries. We realized it’s not worth it (doing digital/online programs). Not accessible for a lot of people. Clients in their 50s and 60s, for decades now have not been around computers. Totally unrealistic to expect people to interface with digital – even phones are hard to navigate. Cognitively many can’t. Computer with internet can be cost prohibitive.

Is there a recent achievement, wonderful moment, or quote you’d like to share about your initiative or its impact?

NC: People are thrilled to have us back at 220 Oak! …To have the ability to resume community and reconnect! People need connection – even putting a hand on someone’s shoulder, elbow bumps, or back to back hugs, outside. There’s joy in people being able to get together and come back into the space and be together with their neighbours. 

As told by: Naomi Chorney, October 7th, 2021 to Seanna Connell, ArtBridges

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.