Social enterprise bridges art, community amid pandemic
|Spanish street artist Okuda San Miguel’s mural “Equilibrium.” The mural, commissioned by the STEPS Initiative, was created in 2018 with help from local assistants. / Courtesy of Sharon Mendoca|
Canadian public art organization revives business district through art
By Kwon Mee-yoo
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial impact on the arts and culture sector around the world. UNESCO said art has the power to bring people together ― by inspiring, soothing and sharing ― the importance of which has been made obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic on the occasion of World Art Day in April.
However, with the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus rising and the implementation of social distancing measures to contain COVID-19, the arts community is being forced to adapt to the global pandemic to survive.
“Arts and Culture Education Change-Up,” a program that teaches and supports creative people who are interested in social entrepreneurial projects in the field of arts and culture education, managed to create something positive amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The program is hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korea Arts and Culture Education Service and operated and researched by the Seokyeong University Arts Education Center.
Han Jeong-seop, Seokyeong University performing arts professor and dean of the Arts Education Center, said the program was able to accept a participant from Jeju Island and invite two overseas organizations thanks to the pandemic.
“If it were not for COVID-19, we might not have brought those international guest speakers or have participants from Jeju Island due to geographical factors,” Han said. “The participants of the Change-Up program believe in the social value of arts and culture education, but the field lacks marketability and financial independence, relying mostly on government funding. We wanted to showcase how overseas cultural social enterprises play a role in resolving social problems between the public and private sector.”
Anjuli Solanki, program director of the STEPS Initiative, and program manager Bebhinn Jennings joined the participants of the Change-Up program for a Zoom meeting despite time difference on Aug. 10.
STEPS is a Toronto-based charitable public art organization that develops one-of-a-kind public art plans, installations and engagement strategies that foster vibrant communities. While being charitable, STEPS also offers services to private clients for a fee, providing a more sustainable funding source.
It works with over 150 local Toronto artists in diverse media, including graffiti and mural artists, photographers and animation artists and the list is updated every couple of years to include the city’s newest talents.
STEPS transforms spaces through site-specific work such as permanent installations, murals, space activations, artist residencies and engagement events.
“Applying our multidisciplinary expertise, we strive to develop a strong contextual understanding of the neighborhoods and sites we are working in for all our projects. Our goal is to create iconic public works that attract widespread attention by transforming underutilized public spaces,” Solanki said.
|The “St. Clair Mural” commissioned by the STEPS Initiative and created by artist Phlegm in 2016 / Courtesy of Vincent Luk|
The organization is best known for landmark murals in Toronto such as “Equilibrium,” a 23-story mural celebrating diversity, knowledge and nature, and the “St. Clair Mural,” an eight-story mural at Yonge and St. Clair intersection.
STEPS balances business and public interest by hearing from and engaging with diverse stakeholders, which helps the organization to make decisions that benefit both sides of an initiative: the client and the community.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a crisis for the community-centered public art organization and shifted its ways of working.
“The pandemic has highlighted our need to connect, to be inspired and to contribute to our communities. As such, art and public art in particular are increasingly important as they offer numerous entry points for engagement. Public art can both beautify a space, and ignite dialogues around important issues such has climate change, public health and systemic inequalities ― all conversations that have been active throughout the pandemic,” Jennings said.
Amid the pandemic, STEPS is focused on three key benefits in its public art program ― local economic development, a safe community experience and a safe cultural experience.
An example is the I heART Main Street Art Challenge to revive local business districts, held in cooperation with Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) in the Great Toronto Area. In an era when online shopping and takeout is encouraged, the program aims to support local business and bring people back into public life safely.
“We understood that the closures and restrictions created to protect public health had a direct effect on small business and our main streets. Shops were shuttered and consumers were worried and began to turn online for purchases,” Jennings said. “To support the BIAs, many of which were at capacity, we designed a creative response to the recovery process ― engaging artists and offering paid opportunities while promoting unique artistic interventions throughout our city that would encourage individuals to return to our main streets.”
Amid the pandemic, STEPS partnered with 11 BIAs and 20 artists to create site-specific works, encouraging individuals to revisit their local main streets in safe and accessible ways.
“Social distancing, health and safety have all been factored into the project and we are seeing creative responses ranging from ground murals that transform parking spots into temporary patios, live painting of outdoor seating or planters to beautify the space and act as wayfinding throughout the BIA catchment, vinyl window installations that feature stories and portraits of local shop owners as well as outdoor table coverings that reflect both the community identity and offer an easily wipeable surface between patrons,” Jennings said.
The project is a part of recovery process to support local businesses and artists.
“Artists and arts workers have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic, losing contracted jobs and/or exhibition opportunities. STEPS is committed to identifying way to offer paid opportunities to artists and identifying creative ways to promote new work during a time of social distancing,” Jennings said.
|Scottish art organization Starcatchers’ “Hup” is a live performance with classical music for babies aged up to 18 months and their parents and carers. Courtesy of Starcatchers|
Starcatchers emphasizes importance of cultural education for babies
Rhona Matheson, chief executive of Starcatchers, has been involved with the organization since its pilot project in 2006. She shared her experiences in developing theatrical activities for babies in Scotland on Aug. 3.
Matheson, who visited Korea back in 2016 on the invitation of the Korea Arts and Culture Education Service, said, “Whilst it would have been wonderful to visit Korea once more, digital technology makes it so easy, and environmentally friendly.”
Starcatchers is an art organization specializing in creating performances and exploring creative activities for babies, toddlers and young children up to the age of to five and the adults who care for them.
Since 2006, Starcatchers has produced over 30 productions, most of which have toured extensively across Scotland visiting theaters or arts centers primarily, but also community centers, libraries and nurseries. Their most recent touring production “Little Top” is a magical contemporary circus performance for babies aged up to 18 months and their parents and carers, combining juggling, acrobatics and play.
Starcatchers recognize that making theater for babies does not work financially. “The costs of creating and sharing the work are comparable with the costs of work for older children or for adults, yet the box office returns are far less, as a result, it needs to be subsidized,” Matheson said.
|Starcatchers’ “Expecting Something” program / Courtesy of Starcatchers|
Starcatchers’ priorities in the COVID-19 era is to ensure that they are still able to offer positive arts and creative experiences to Scotland’s youngest children.
“We know we are not going to be able to tour any of our productions until at least spring 2021 so our focus is on providing a range of activities that parents or childcare settings can share with very young children,” Matheson said.
“Retaining a connection with audiences has been very important and making the offers through our online activities has been essential. Similarly, being able to retain connection with the families who participate in our community engagement programs has been very important ― this has been a means to offer support to young families who experience social and rural isolation and have been negatively impacted by COVID-19.”
Though face to face activities or live performances are at the heart of their approach, Starcatchers try to offer a balance between online and offline engagement during the pandemic.
“We have not shared any of our performances online because the interaction between the performers and the infants is such an essential component,” Matheson said. “Our Wee Inspirations ideas are shared online but they are designed to be carried out offline as creative play activities. We used online engagement for our Expecting Something community engagement group during lockdown and experimented with different ways to connect. We will continue to experiment with digital engagement over the coming weeks and months until we are able to offer live performances once more.”
The members of Starcatchers are also using this time to understand the positive things they can take from how they have had to adapt our work over recent times. “There are opportunities for new projects that will enable artists to engage with children in nurseries, schools, and community settings and we hope that these will allow us to demonstrate how artists and the arts can be used to support education and learning more broadly in the future,” Matheson said.
“With live streaming of performances, a range of activities from across art forms that have been shared through social media and through individual organization’s websites, communities coming together to sing in their streets and children in the U.K. creating images of rainbows to be displayed in windows to show support for our frontline service staff, the arts have been a touchstone for people throughout this experience. Building from this as we recover from the pandemic, to ensure that the arts are still playing this essential role in enabling us to express ourselves and connect is a key priority,” she added.
|Anjuli Solanki, program director of the STEPS Initiative, participates in a Zoom meeting with the participants of the “Change-Up” program that teaches and supports creative people who are interested in social entrepreneurial projects in the field of arts and culture education. Courtesy of Seokyeong University Arts Education Center|
Lee In-kyung, an art instructor at an alternative school on Jeju Island, was able to take part in the “Change-Up” program as it was shifted to online platforms due to COVID-19.
“If it were not operated online, it would be very difficult and time-consuming for me to participate in a training program held in Seoul. Now I can communicate with other social entrepreneurs while on Jeju,” Lee said.
“I have been teaching art at an alternative school for four years and made some new attempts in art education both for the students and me. We made environmental picture books and tried junk art, campaigning for environment. I realized that students could learn better through empirical art education,” Lee said.
She developed such experiences into an idea for a social enterprise, aiming to support teenagers to cultivate creativity, problem-solving skills and empathic abilities.
“I didn’t have much information on social enterprise since I only had ideas in the beginning stage. Listening to the stories of overseas experts from Starcatchers and STEPS was very exciting and interesting and made me go back to the basics and think about why I want to do this,” Lee said.
Kim Soo-jung, CEO of Open Your Arts, also participates in the Change-Up program. She is currently in the second year of the program. Formerly worked at a public art institution, Kim is developing educational kits for the underprivileged to reduce educational gap.
“A child who grows up in a typical family learns through various cultural experiences in the family, but those grow up in child-care institutions or single-parent families are relatively less exposed to cultural experiences, setting in the cultural polarization. As I volunteered for such programs, most of them were provided by the public sector or social responsibility projects by corporates and ran for short terms,” Kim said.
“I wanted to provide sustainable art education for socially disadvantaged children, but it was impossible to solve the problem as a volunteer. So I came up with this art educational kit developed in collaboration with artists.”
Kim said she was inspired while listening to the lectures by Starcatchers and STEPS. “Their business model is not based nor suitable for online, but it was interesting to see the possibility of online platforms, transcending physical or regional limitations,” she said.