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How to build the arts across the whole city

UTSC sociology professor Dan Silver: one way to spread arts across the city is to "start talking to each other more." (Photo by Ken Jones)

When most of us think about arts, equity and the urban city, we don’t usually relate it to the way we vote. However at the recent Forum on Local Arts and Equity, U of T Scarborough Sociology Prof. Dan Silver connected the dots between art organization and the way city politics work.

The forum was an exploration of the relationships between arts and local communities. It assessed how the arts contribute to community building, with a focus on marginalization that may occur for those outside the downtown core, among others.

As one of the keynote speakers at the forum, Silver highlighted the relationship between art and city politics. He recently spoke to UTSC writer Sayada Nabi about the event.

What did you talk about during your presentation?

We have these different ways of imagining or representing the city in general. Two of the most powerful ways are thinking of cities are in terms of unity and in terms of plurality.

The unity point of view corresponds to a view from the centre, and everything else becomes simply “not from the centre”. That's one view. The pluralistic point of view is that the core is one scene among others, and if you go to another part of the city you will find different scenes with their own views on what all of Toronto is. And if you go to another part of the city, you will have another. And another.  And another.  We have many many different and overlapping views about what the city is and what it means, and that's the pluralistic point of view.

How does the way the city is imagined relate to art organizations? 

What I tried to show is that if you look at where artists and arts organizations and arts funding have been locating and flowing over the last few decades in Toronto, they are increasingly concentrating in certain neighbourhoods, mostly in the city centre.

What does this mean for the type of art that is created?

One thing we see with arts organizations getting more and more concentrated is that artists are more likely to be immersed in just the core area of the city. Another way this shows up is if we look at where artists live and where they work. They are very likely to live right near where they work, compared to other occupations where people will live one place and work another. Now it’s wonderful in many ways to be a part of this kind of clustered, dense scene; you get to walk wherever you need to go and be deeply immersed in the neighbourhood culture, and it can spark all sorts of creative energies and collaborations. But that also means the arts become more unilaterally associated with this one scene, with its core-centric perspective: that of the downtown urban cosmopolitan.

What’s the relationship between art concentration and city politics?

If we also look at city politics in Toronto over the last 20 years, we can see the strongest division in the city is between the central city and the suburbs. They consistently are voting in different ways. And this didn't happen with just Rob Ford and Doug Ford in 2010/2014, it’s been like that for at least two decades if not longer.

If you want to explain the areas that are most likely to be voting in a ‘downtownish’ way versus a ‘suburbanish’ way, it’s the ones with the most artists, in addition to the ones where people drive less and have older housing. The location of the arts and the association of the arts with this downtown kind way of living gets mixed up with politics too. This can make it challenging to grow arts communities outside the core, since core and periphery are in many ways not just differences but oppositions, at least come election time.  But this also indicates the importance of encouraging more activity across the city, to build mutual understanding and trust. 

What is your vision going forward from an event such as this?

The key is for people working toward a more pluralistic city to become aware of each other and start talking to each other more. The overall trend is in many ways toward a general concentration in a few parts of the city.  For people who are sort of swimming against that current it can feel lonely. So just to find out what they are doing and that they are not alone in that work, I think it's important.

What I’m trying to contribute is the idea that in working in this pluralistic direction they are doing something important, which is creating new ways to experience the city and potentially bridge its divides. Knowing that you aren’t alone and getting a broader perspective on what you may have already been doing can help to energize things, and build networks between people who may have been disconnected before--to build a pluralistic community.




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