STORIES OF NOW: Art City (Winnipeg, MB)

Vignette – Art City https://artcityinc.com Winnipeg, MB

“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. 

In conversation with: Josh Ruth, Managing Director of Art City, December 3rd, 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?

JR: Art City is founded on the belief that art can transform individuals and communities. We see art as an end in itself; providing art experiences is our only agenda. We think that having the opportunity to express yourself creatively in a safe environment along with tools for practicing arts has tremendous benefits. Our programming is open to all ages and abilities and offered free-of-charge. We don’t limit participation in any dimension. Our programs are designed to engage children and youth specifically, but are accessible to anyone at any stage of their artistic development or interest.

Our mandate also allows us to be a place that’s generative and supportive to the artists it serves, our local artists. We try offer good wages, professional development and resources to develop their respective art practices. We see it as investing in artists, who are very important change makers and world builders in our culture. Winnipeg is known for its robust arts milieu; it is also known as a place rampant poverty and racism. Art City becomes a convergence space where connections are made across social barriers through creative collaboration.

That story has not changed despite the pandemic…we stay true to what we do, our model, our core values… that is the story, still this year. We are a community of innovators. When challenges arise, we innovate.

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

JR: The climate crisis impacts all of us. The youth are increasingly interested in social justice issues – they imagine a better world, through artmaking, we have the opportunity to look at what the world would look like if social inequity didn’t exist.  

Our annual budget is around $850,000. Less than 10%of funding is operational, which requires us to go after a lot of project funding. Project funding is for short-term initiatives and is never guaranteed, so we have to live with a certain amount of uncertainty and not allow that to keep us from being ambitious and following our strategic priorities.

How has your initiative been addressing these main issues?

JR: To address the funding piece, we produce an annual fundraising party and each year it seems to build as having a reputation for being the kind of event you would want to go to regardless of your knowledge of Art City. We find an unconventional space, a warehouse or a building under renovation, create a theme for the party and encourage attendees to dress up according to the theme.  The party itself becomes an art project…an immersive experience that our staff and legion of volunteers create for the community. We purposefully designed this event not to be a gala, or a fancy dinner, tickets are affordable. Our volunteers and staff make collaborative art pieces to sell at the event, not attributed to any individual artist, rather than the typical art auction that asks artists to donate art in support of an organization that is intended to support them. We try a number of ways to make this event successful and profitable.

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

JR: A tenet of Art City’s model since the beginning has been to be as accessible and inclusive as possible. The pandemic has presented significant challenges to this, requiring us to collect participant information (for contact tracing, etc.) and to ask for immunization status, etc.We have historically avoided any kind of intrusive or cumbersome screening processes. Practicing physical distancing, screening, mask-wearing, and following public health guidelines has been necessary, we know, but these conditions run pretty counter to what is typically a community space of care and creativity.

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

JR: We adapted to a curbside format when we have had to suspend in-person programs. We set up a huge production line with 20+ menu items, high quality art experiences to-go. Anyone could walk up and order from the many options.  It was wildly successful. An organization called Jordan’s Principle Chiefs collaborated with us to distribute 900 kits to remote and northern communities to tons of kids and families.

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

JR: One of my favourite initiatives in recent years has been the development of a paid youth mentorship program. The paid mentorship is designed to provide meaningful employment experience and pathways to employment for youth who have participated in programming through their youth. Young people receive on the job training and develop their own facilitation skills. Of the 7 paid youth mentees in the last 5 years, each has become permanent staff, gone onto higher education, or gotten a full-time job elsewhere. What we have learned in the process is that having youth from the community running workshops has significantly enriched the culture of the organization.

The community highly values Art City and would never let anything happen to it. For 23 years it’s been a beacon of positivity and creativity.                                       

In conversation with Seanna Connell, ArtBridges; all photo credits: Art City

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