I’ve been with NYA since 2014 and this year I took on a new position as Director of Development (previously I was the Director of Programming and Outreach). Why the switch? Well, to be honest, it’s exactly the same reason as why I wanted to do programming in the first place – because art matters.
My arts background is primarily in Theatre. As I was nearing the end of my degree in Theatre I started to become interested in the emerging world of community arts. Community arts seemed to be a way to work in the arts that made sense to me. Fast forward a few years and I find myself working as a front-line worker in the social service sector, specifically in shelters and in supportive housing. I ended up working in this sector for close to a decade, while maintaining my own artistic practice. In social services the impact of the work is very tangible. Simply put – access to adequate housing is a human right. It is one of our basic needs. It’s hard to argue with the immediate importance of the work. I certainly would not argue against the importance of the work but for me… it was missing something.
When given the opportunity, I began facilitating programs and bringing in other artists. One project in particular had a significant influence on me. It was a theatre project that brought together youth from the shelter, staff and professional artists. Youth chose their role either writing or acting in these 10-minute plays. Staff or outside artists directed or acted. I’ll be honest I didn’t really know what I was doing and I made 1000 mistakes overseeing this project, but in the end all the little mistakes didn’t seem to matter all that much. Everyone had fun and the experience clearly had an impact on all those involved. The project built bridges between staff and residents and a wider creative community. The youth were proud of what they had done. I’ll never forget when one youth who chose to write a short story said to me “No one has ever asked me to tell my story before this”. It wasn’t even so much what he said but how he said it that will stay with me. He had a look on his face that I had never seen before. There seemed to be a shift in the way he saw himself. I witnessed the effect that participation in the arts can have on an individual. I had the privilege to be part of that and the lessons I learned continue to influence every aspect of my work. Art can be a creative platform to share one’s story and has the ability to impact our sense of self and community.
On the one hand as housing workers we were primarily focused on housing and barriers to housing which is absolutely vital but I realised that there was maybe something else I could do to address a different need; one that helps build the individual, the self, and creates a sense of belonging. All I had to do was provide the opportunity; to make some space for people to participate. The process of art-making did all the work. It’s internal work. You can’t really check a box at the end and say, yep done, good job. It’s work that lasts a lifetime and no one really knows the exact impact because it may not be relevant until years later. I loved that I could use whatever resources and tools I had to make that space available. So I made the switch into arts management, and got lucky enough to start working with NYA.
These experiences made me appreciate the value of art in the socio-economic and cultural ecosystem. We tend to think of the importance of things in a linear or hierarchical way. For example, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This is a dated reference I know but it is my opinion that it still holds true when it comes to how many people view the importance of charitable work.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are:
- Physiological Needs (air, water, food, housing)
- Safety needs (personal security, employment, health)
- Love and Belonging (friendship, community)
- Esteem (status, respect, recognition, freedom)
- Self-actualization (desire to be the most that one can be)
But what if we challenged ourselves to see it more like an ecosystem? Where each need has a domino effect on the other. Where they are constantly in a relationship with one another and support one another.
(Let me be clear. If someone is dehydrated I’m not saying we should give them a paintbrush. Give them water. Certains needs, need specific things to satisfy those needs. If your need is water, that need is imminent. But what I’d like to encourage is a more holistic view that can see and appreciate the value of the relationship that exists between things like self actualization and our physiological needs).
Many communities and worldviews reflect this way of looking at things but in this society a linear or hierarchical way of thinking is still dominant.
That’s what was missing for me all those years ago. A focus on nurturing our humanity/soul/creativity/_______ (please insert whatever word makes sense to you). If we saw these needs as part of an ecosystem and not separate from one another how might that affect our work in the charitable sector and how we support the charitable sector? I’m still working on answering these questions.
Art is and always has been an expression of our humanity. It is something we can’t lose and we all have a right to. That is what drove me to start working in arts programming and what drives me in this new role. Creating space so that the art can do the work. It is also why I believe giving to the arts is important and why it is a priority for me. Simply put- art matters.