Seizing Permission: Theatres Leading Change

Featured Story: Theatres Leading Change

March 2015

Participants of TLC sharing ideas. From left to right: Ghislain Caron, MD of TfT, Ravi Jain, AD of Why Not Theatre, Guy Mignault, AD of TfT and Franco Boni, AD of The Theatre Centre

The performing arts sector is undergoing a period of unprecedented change. The impact of digital media, shrinking audiences and tight resources are creating challenges for a growing number of artists and organizations. An initiative of Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (TAPA) facilitated by ARTS Action Research is encouraging arts leaders to find solutions collectively rather than face these challenges independently.

Over two years, a group of 18 small and mid-sized theatre and dance organizations participated in Theatres Leading Change (TLC) which was first developed in New York City, and was later brought to Toronto in 2011 by TAPA. It was funded in part by Toronto Arts Council’s Strategic Initiatives Funding. Through one-on-one meetings, roundtables and community convenings, TLC provided “an opportunity for the [consortium] to come together to build a safe thinking space and try out some change initiatives,” states Jane Marsland of ARTS Action Research, and co-author of Seizing Permission: The TLC Toronto Initiative, a report that was released in January 2015 following the conclusion of latest phase of TLC. 

TLC encouraged arts leaders to set aside the status quo in favour of developing new organizational formats that work for them and their organization. “Professionals have to step up and take leadership of their own organization and lead them to a place where they are healthy. They have to be entrepreneurial about their mission,” notes Jane. She goes on to discuss the limitations of the dominant organizational format: the incorporated non-profit with charitable status. “When you’re a General Manager, and you have the responsibility of a structure, a huge amount of your energy and your thinking goes into supporting the structure, and not a lot goes into getting that art made and connected.” Before emerging arts leaders hastily incorporate so that they can apply to receive operating grants, Jane advises that they need to ask themselves: “is having an independent incorporated structure the best way for me to create my work and connect it to an audience? And does that format fit the way I really like to work?”

There are other options, but it takes the support of the arts community to make them possible. A recurring message that comes through in Seizing Permission, is the benefit of collaboration. Due to growing scarcities, arts leaders are learning the value of resource distribution to ensure that all levels of artistry in the sector is supported. The report notes a transformative experience by Guy Mignaut and Ghislain Caron of Théâtre Français de Toronto who realized that TfT is not working in isolation, but is part of a larger francophone community. “This opened our eyes to the possibilities of working with and supporting our colleagues in ways that would expand audiences and support the creation and production of more francophone work…”(p. 8, Seizing Permission). Another participant in the program, Ravi Jain, Artistic Director of Why Not Theatre, is also working on strengthening collaborative sharing with the Independent Creators Cooperative, funded through Toronto Arts Council’s Open Door process. It’s an experimental model for cooperative producing in theatre that supports emerging artists, who often have limited access to resources. Through community residencies, established theatres support and mentor emerging theatre creators, sharing venue, production, and administrative costs.

The latest phase of TLC has finished, but the hope is that the collaborations and innovations it inspired will continue so that all parts of the performing arts sector (large institutions, collectives and independents) are strengthened. “We need to approach the arts as an ecosystem, rather than all of these stand-alone things,” notes Jane, who is also an avid gardener.

“We’re realizing now, that when farmers spread tons of fertilizer on the soil, it’s making the planet toxic. What really needs to happen is we need to improve the diversity of the system as an ecosystem, and not fertilize at all.” The same goes for the arts. “If the arts ecosystem doesn’t work, then you need tons of money to support it and make it work. But [if the money isn’t going to the right place], you could kill it at the same time, because you aren’t necessarily encouraging the requisite diversity in it, of all types.” For Jane and the TLC initiative, support and encouragement of all entities of the arts sector is needed for the landscape to thrive. The TLC initiative encouraged nourishment from those most suited to support a healthy arts sector: the leaders.

Click HERE to read the full report, Seizing Permission: The TLC Toronto Initiative

The innovative and collaborative thinking of TLC offers a good example of work supported by Toronto Arts Council’s Strategic Initiatives Funding. As a granting agency, Toronto Arts Council is responding to the changing needs of Toronto’s arts landscape, and growing and innovating alongside Toronto’s artists. This is being done in many ways through new programs that were introduced in 2014.  Artists in the Library and Animating Historic Sites and Museums places artists in (much needed) new venues, and connects them to communities outside the downtown core, while the introduction of theatre and dance Multi-Year Project grants are a direct response to the needs of artists and organizations who do not receive operating funding, but need committed resources that will facilitate the development of creative projects, from inception to completion. Open Door Funding operates as a new model for funding arts activities in all disciplines, which encourages innovation, collaboration and growth among the arts sector as a whole. The process was designed to respond to important and timely arts sector initiatives outside of discipline-specific funding streams. Another exciting program is the TAC Cultural Leaders Lab, created in partnership with The Banff Centre, with the aim to enhance leadership capacity in Toronto’s arts and culture sectors, in recognition of the great role arts leaders have in shaping Toronto’s arts community. The first Leaders Lab will take place in April 2015.