Context Brief: Artists and Community Collaboration

We have prepared a series of context briefs that contain key information and resources about emerging, minoritized and less-understood arts communities and practices. Our intention is to foster greater understanding, and help ensure that internal and peer committees are equipped to make informed recommendations.

Each Context Brief is a living document and is updated from time to time to evolve with the ongoing dialogue about the topic.

Key characteristics of artists and community collaboration activities[1]

Artists and community collaboration activities (also known as “community-engaged arts,” “cultural mediation” or “artists in the community”) bring about the active participation and engagement of community members in the creation of art with professional artists and organizations. These activities enrich the experiences of all participants by facilitating the sharing of ideas, expertise and practices. They increase the presence of art in everyday life and make participatory art experiences more available.

Artists and community collaboration activities generally include:

  • activities that engage and exist in the community and that are equal to and as important as the final artistic outcome;
  • clear and appropriate strategies to ensure a successful collaborative relationship;
  • clear articulation in the project of the community’s voice;
  • collaborative and relational activities where full creative partnerships are developed between artists and non-arts partners, often resulting in long-term relationships;
  • processes intended to monitor or evaluate the project;
  • activities that are relevant to the participating community members and that have an impact on the artists involved; and
  • strong commitments from all parties involved in the project

Defining artists and community collaboration activities in Canada

There are many definitions and approaches to the concept of artists and community collaboration across Canada (see Profile Directory & Map of Community-Engaged Arts Across Canada and the Arts for Change Directory). For example, the Canada Council for the Arts, BC Arts Council and Ontario Arts Council define artists and community collaboration as follows, which demonstrates the diversity of artistic intentions in this field:

Canada Council for the Arts

“[. . .] an arts process where professional artists and members of the broader community actively collaborate as creative partners.”[2]

BC Arts Council

“Professional artists assist communities through arts-centred activity to gain awareness of their own power as culture makers and contribute to the advancement of creative productivity, opportunities for celebration, and human dignity, health and wellbeing.”[3]

Ontario Arts Council

“While there is no one model of community-engaged art, its practices can be broadly defined as collaborative creative processes that involve both professional artists and social institutions, grassroots groups or individuals.”[4]

The history of artists and community collaboration at the Canada Council[5]

Artists and community collaboration activities have been recognized and supported in various forms by the Canada Council since the early 1970s but are generally less well known in the arts community.

In 2001, the Council launched the Artists and Community Collaboration Fund (ACCF), a funding initiative whose objective was to support “diverse artistic activities that bring together professional artists and the broader community.” The ACCF was reviewed in 2006 by community arts external expert Laurie McGauley. The recommendation in her report, IMAGINE: An External Review of the Canada Council for the Arts’ Artists and Community Collaboration Fund, led to the creation of the Artists and Community Collaboration Program (ACCP) in all arts disciplines.

Issues and analysis

Theoretical perspectives on artists and community collaboration

Many sources of critical writing on artists and community collaboration and related practices in Canada and internationally (see the More Reading section on the next page) have broadened and deepened our appreciation and understanding of the subject. The excerpt below, from Laurie McGauley’s IMAGINE report is an example:

Collaborative approaches to art making are presenting challenges and opportunities to our modernist definition of what Irish curator Declan McGonagle calls ‘signature culture’: “the idea of artist as individual genius producer and all the support mechanisms that exist to sustain and project this idea.” McGonagle echoes other artists and theorists when he calls for the addition of ideas such as “participation, transaction and negotiation.” This is a fundamental shift towards a notion, and a practice, of an inter-subjective, shared creation of meaning that we are still struggling to find a language for. [. . .] If engagement, dialogue and relationship are articulated as the aesthetic goals, the aesthetic necessarily includes both process and product; they are indistinguishable from each other. Collaboration is not the goal in itself; neither is the creation of a product. The goal is to collaborate to create art together. The art is shaped by the relationship and the relationship is shaped by the art. The artistic outcome is a representation, if you will, of the relationship.

Disparities in understanding

In 2011, the Council noted a disparity in the way the ACCP was being understood by applicants and delivered internallyAs a result, the Council’s Research and Evaluation Section undertook a formal program evaluation of the ACCP. Key to the evaluation was the examination of program delivery with an eye to delivering consistent interpretation of practice across disciplines and consistent process, including peer assessment.

By April 1, 2017, the Council had integrated many findings from the ACCP evaluation into the non-disciplinary funding model, such as the need for better reporting systems. At that point, the Council also acknowledged the important contributions this practice made to community engagement in the arts in Canada and around the world.

The Council also confirmed that artists and community collaboration will continue to be eligible and evolve through all of the Council’s programs as an established, cross-cutting artistic methodology that permeates all fields of practice or arts disciplines.

Safety and ethical considerations

Artists and community collaboration activities should strive to meet the ethical and safety standards necessary for their completion at a professional level. Activities involving potential ethical or safety issues—for example, artistic work that could injure or harm someone—should include documentation demonstrating that all foreseeable risks have been considered and that tools and support systems are in place where required. These documents can be permissions, waivers, letters, consent agreements or other materials and should be attached to the artist’s application.

[1] Canada Council for the Arts

[2] Former Artists and Community Collaboration Program, up to 2016

[3] Arts-Based Community Development Program

[4] Framing Community: A Community-Engaged Art Workbook

[5] Source: Canada Council for the Arts

More reading

For more information about the artistic and cultural context of artists and community collaboration, please consult the following external sources (for additional reading in French, please consult the French version of this document):

  • Framing Community: A Community-Engaged Art Workbook is an introductory workbook for artists, communities, organizers and cultural institutions interested in community-engaged art. It provides hands-on tools, advice, frameworks and techniques to help artists, community members and organizers plan, begin, complete and evaluate a community-engaged art project. It also provides examples of contemporary community-engaged art practices in Ontario and further resources for those who want to learn more about this field.
  • Resources and Tools for Community-Engaged Arts, produced by ArtBridges, is a bilingual resource for community arts toolkits, templates, reflections and stories, best practices and more. If you’re new to this field, you can check out the Getting Started collection, where artists and cultural workers in Canada share resources they have developed over the course of their work. Contributors are provided with full credit and a website link.
  • STATE of the ART: A Report on Art for Social Change (ASC) in Canada is a five-year research project on art for social change produced by the International Centre for Art and Social Change. The State of the Art report is a snapshot of findings that provides an overview of the centre’s work. Topics include scans of current activities in the art-for-social-change field, overviews of funding patterns, approaches to evaluation and research and initial findings about partnerships.