The Gathering: Pluralism in Arts Practices – Contemporary Intersections

By Chandel Gambles, SPARC Northern Outreach Consultant

The month of May was a great time to meet people. It seems networking opportunities have been flowing like maple syrup in April ever since! As soon as the SPARC symposium in Cobalt closed, we packed our bags and headed to Toronto just in time to participate in “The Gathering”.

During the week of May 29th– May 31st, representatives from across Ontario descended on Toronto to “collaborate on addressing pluralism in the arts.” Together, we discussed the importance of equal representation by empowering our cross-cultural community, to both create and provide equal opportunities in the arts. Through panel discussions, strategy sharing sessions, and performing arts showcases, academics, artists, and arts leaders “gathered” to learn from each other.

The event’s success depended on many organizations collaborating, pooling their resources, contacts, and event plans. In fact, the list of organizations helping to make this event a success was quite extensive, and included:

  • Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO) (a movement of Indigenous and racialized artists engaged in empowering the arts communities of Ontario),
  • Dream Big North (a theatre summit that gathers professionals from the provincial theatre community to create and encourage relationships through networking between rural and urban theatre producing companies and organizations),

  • Small World Music Society (celebrating cultural diversity through music, showcasing Toronto’s multi-cultural talent, and educating and promoting understanding between cultures),
  • Polyphonic Ground (a group of Toronto presenters who bring the sounds of the world to the stages of Toronto),
  • Feminist Art Collective (FAC) (a collective that inspires sharing, networking and collaboration through art based programming),

As SPARC’s Northern Ontario Consultant, I was pleased to represent the interests of our members throughout the event. I was also quite honoured to be invited to specifically express the experiences and arts environment of our northern SPARC members, while acting as a panellist for a discussion about “The Dynamics of Rural and Urban Arts in Ontario”. My fellow panellists included Rihkee Strap (a visual artist from Sault Ste. Marie), Lisa O’Connell (founding Artistic Director of Pat the Dog Theatre Creation – the only playwright centre in Ontario open to theatre creators at all stages of their career ), Aylan Couchie (an interdisciplinary Anishinaabe artist and writer from Nipissing First Nation) , and Joshua Bainbridge (the Artistic Director of the professional North Bay theatre company Proscenium Club).

As both artists and promoters of the northern arts, we shared many ideas about the benefits and downsides of working in rural communities, and how that relates to urban centres. For example, in rural and remote northern communities, one of our strongest resources is our people. When a problem or conflict arises it is unhelpful to avoid that person, like one could in a city. The community is only so big! Far more imperative than in large city centres, both parties must put aside their differences and focus on the bigger picture of what the community needs.

Alternatively, if one finds themselves “on the outside” of a particular arts community, they may need to consider new collaborators to work with outside of their immediate arts community. Groups may find they have more in common with those in other regions across the province, or in other artistic (and even non-artistic) disciplines working nearby. The main conclusion remained the fact that community is a core element of the arts in Northern Ontario. This means that finding ways to ensure everyone is equally heard, appreciated, and supported, is vital to the success of healthy arts communities.

On the first day of the conference, participants were among the first to receive a new research report on “The Role of the Arts in Immigrant and Refugee Settlement”. This report was created by Charles C. Smith, Michael Scafo, and Helen Yung, with the support of Humber’s Cultivate Fund and their School of Creative and Performing Arts . Looking into this highly under-researched area, Helen Yung noted that the team gathered a plethora of articles “pointing to international work at the intersection of settlement and the arts”, direct advice from newcomers on how to improve the settlement process, the insight that “respondents felt their information, language, social/mental health and career development needs are not being adequately met”, and the feedback that virtually every respondent desired social and cultural experiences to improve the settlement process. This report is complete with easy-to-read charts and lists of arts based newcomer programs in Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA. To learn more about these programs and to learn how to create newcomer arts programs in your community, you should definitely call us to request this report. (As soon as it’s available online, we’ll share it with you virtually too!) It would benefit all of our rural and remote communities to find programming solutions that help newcomers and refugees find their feet within our country.

Robin Sokoloski and Monique Renaud from the Playwright’s Guild of Canada  walked participants through a Purpose to Practice (P2P) exercise, which many of our SPARC members could use to help develop and implement their projects and activities. At this conference, participants analyzed their own projects and developing initiatives, and worked together to find the missing elements. Incorporating “outsider” feedback and reviewing the project from new perspectives proved very helpful for participants in our workshop. To learn how to lead this activity within your community or organization or to access the materials to do it yourselves, go here.

After a range of delightful presentations from artists including: The Life and Death of John The Milkman,  Artists of the Aurora, Joseph Recinos, Cole Stevens, and Clayton Windatt, Shula Strassfeld (CPAMO’s Project Facilitator) facilitated Critical Response feedback sessions. Using Dance Exchange  Liz Lerman’s “Critical Response Technique and Process”, artists and audiences were encouraged to reflect on the artistic presentation they had shared together. This questioning structure provided a framework to allow critical dialogues to occur in an emotionally safe manner. Used for over 25 years by artists, educators, and universities have used the “Critical Response Process”  to navigate both social, opinionated, and informed community dialogues.

Shula facilitates

In essence, the facilitator asked 4 questions. First, the audience was asked to finish the sentence “I observed.” Then the artist is invited to ask the audience questions about the work. Thirdly, the artists were allowed to ask the artists neutral questions. Lastly, audience members asked for the artist’s permission to give critical opinions on any aspect of the piece (which the artist could always choose not to hear). The previous link gives a detailed explanation of this feedback process, which SPARC members may wish to use after live performances, within project feedback sessions, during a rehearsal process, or for volunteer project “wrap-up” meetings.


A few final interesting resources that were brought up during panel discussions, which might interest you, include:

  • An artificial assistant: It’s a virtual assistant built to help you schedule meetings and coordinate events using lifelike technology.
  • The Northern Indigenous Artists Alliance: a new provincial arts service organization being formed, with a mandate to support, promote, and advocate on behalf of Northern Ontario Indigenous artists. They will help foster collaborative projects and share ideas across the province, so that artists may access new markets to showcase their work and attract new audiences. The organization is currently seeking board members to represent Northern Ontario. To find out more information about this Artist Alliance, or how to participate, send an email to contact
  • PACT rural caucus: – The Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT) has a number of advisory committees to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. Each group’s input is offered to the board to help make recommendations that will benefit the membership. The existence of a rural caucus ensures that the interests of rural theatre communities are both heard and considered.
  • CPAMO Resource Kit: Not only does this resource provide us with a clear understanding of how CPAMO came to be, but it also gives a number of examples, suggestions, and materials to help other organizations and initiatives function and flourish. This kit can be used to advise collaborative practices, and address demographic challenges. Meanwhile, the included online materials, such as Model Action plans, resource materials, and needs assessment formats help with project planning. The kit also offers a number of examples of these practices occurring across the globe, providing us with great models to explore these ideas. To receive your own copy of this resource kit, contact CPAMO.

The SPARC staff was thrilled to be invited to partake in the week’s activities. Many conversations focused around how we might work together to improve the arts in Canada. The questions that we were encouraged to continue considering include:

  • How can we change and adapt our funding systems to ensure that the system of granting and funding is accessible to all?
  • What resources and programming can we create to support and engage our most marginalized artists and community members?
  • Can we each implement and follow strong community engagement practices (such as those offered in the CPAMO Resource Kit) to improve the arts in our communities?
  • Can we keep these discussions going within our network, to create a strong, inclusive, and equitable arts community for all cultures and communities to participate in?

Some of the questions are easier to answer than others. Some just require us committing to an ideal mandate. Others will take a lot more networking and discussions. Either way, the conference left each of us with a bright future to aspire to. Together, we are on our way!

Clayton Windatt, Artist and Executive Director of the Aboriginal  Curatorial Collective

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