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Art Matters

Photos courtesy of Art City

We are not necessarily making artists, we are giving people the opportunity to think creatively, and my feeling is that if you can think creatively, you can survive almost anything.

That’s renowned Canadian artist Wanda Koop’s take on her brainchild Art City — a Winnipeg art-making centre for inner-city kids who otherwise might not get the chance to explore and express their creativity. The non-profit, community art studio has been going strong for 21 years.

In Winnipeg, Art City’s whimsical façade exudes a welcoming vibe – a streetside invitation to kids of all ages to come in and make art. No registration, no money required. “West Broadway is overcoming a long history of poverty and the challenges associated with poverty, as well as systemic discrimination and generational trauma. Similar to a lot of communities, it’s in the throes of a drug crisis,” said managing director Josh Ruth, whose involvement with Art City spans 17 years. 

“At Art City, it’s a safe environment – physically, emotionally, psychologically – and everything is free. We try to make it so there’s virtually no barriers. What we’re really trying to do is create a capacity in young people to learn creative thinking. “The philosophy of Art City is that by giving people the opportunity to express themselves through art and collaboration, we build community and a sense of belonging in the community. Because it’s all ages and we feed our participants a healthy meal at every workshop, that also builds community,” Ruth added.

Art City’s goal is that children will learn to love the arts – not only as observers but as participants; that through art, they will learn healthy self-expression and find ways to connect with people across societal and cultural barriers. 

Guided by community artists, kids can try their hand at painting, film and digital photography, digital art and ceramics. Professional artists from Winnipeg and elsewhere in North America – eight to 10 each year – are also invited as guests to deliver workshops. 

On Saturdays, activities are focused on traditional and contemporary Indigenous arts. “We think it’s important for people from all backgrounds to learn about and learn to love Indigenous culture. Developed with that in mind, the program has been very successful. We noticed with cultural content in our regular programming that the kids loved it and we wanted to build on that,” Ruth said. “We bring in (Indigenous) artists who are very high-profile contemporary artists and a lot of families participate in that program together.”

Art City also spreads artistic joy throughout the city through its outreach program, providing facilitators and supplies for 16 weekly workshops hosted by partner youth organizations. 

All told, Art City Winnipeg welcomes some 5,000 young people and adults into its artistic circle each year.  Recently, a concerted effort has been made to keep older teens coming to Art City by engaging them as youth volunteers and creating Art Squad, a neighbourhood beautification program, specifically for them. 

That kept those participants coming, but also brought some challenges. “It’s a tightrope we’re learning to walk. We want to protect the younger children from some of the angsty expressions (of the older group) but also  accommodate the high-school ages, to have space for conversations that involve mental health, gender identity, self-harm and complicated family dynamics,” Ruth said.

Guidance counsellors have provided professional development opportunities for Art City staff, including a one-day workshop for those who felt ill-equipped to help teens who approached them about serious personal issues. Art City has established working relationships with area schools that come into play when concerns arise about a particular child.

Positive stories about participant successes – big and small – abound at Art City, but Ruth cautions that not all its stories have happy endings. “We also see kids that we loved, and had big hopes and dreams for, struggle as adults. That’s just the very real side of community work. The warm and fuzzy stories are there, but I wouldn’t be doing my community a service by whitewashing the reality of what it’s like to live in poverty.” Ruth is one of five full-time staff. Seventeen others work part-time. More than 35 volunteers provide assistance.

In Toronto, Art City St. James Town opened its storefront facility in 2000. The downtown neighbourhood, dominated by high-rise buildings, is now home to 25,000 people, many of them newcomers from South and Southeast Asia.  

Coordinated by executive director Nadijah Robinson and two, part-time staff, St. James Town’s free workshops in painting, drawing and sculpture are developed and facilitated by professional artists. They are designed to foster creative thinking, promote self-esteem and a sense of personal accomplishment. The benefits of arts programming are significant, Robinson said. “It develops social skills, communication, even math and science skills and critical thinking.”

Last year, 141 youngsters – ages 6 to 15 – registered for workshops and the new youth leadership program intended to fill a gap in neighbourhood services for pre-teen and early teen kids. “We had three weeks of leadership camp (for kids from local middle-year and high schools.) During that time, the participants created an afterschool, fashion-design program for other kids their age. It’s been really popular, full, since we offered it,” said Robinson, now two years in her job.

The work day for Robinson and her staff includes walking to four neighbourhood schools to accompany kids to the afterschool art classes, complete with snacks. Also on St. James Town`s agenda are themed programs including one for the newest newcomers to Canada. It features music, print-making, poetry and sculpture. 

“I find recent newcomers feel kind of lost amongst kids who have been here a longer time, and they have difficulty making friends,” Robinson explained. “I thought it would be good to have a program specifically for them where their experience of just having arrived is normalized. It’s something they can talk about or not talk about through the art they create. They can develop socialization and the artistic language to express themselves in different ways.

“We designed it to investigate Toronto as a city as well as the places they come from, honoring both their cultures of origin and their new cultural identity.”

Koop has long recognized the power of art to transform lives. She, herself, attended free art classes as a kid. “It changed my life,” said the first generation Canadian whose paintings have been exhibited world-wide in the decades since. 

Recently, Koop attended a planning session to map out Art City’s future direction in Winnipeg. Some 40 kids participated in the visioning exercise alongside the adults. “It was beyond anyone’s expectations. You had
six-, seven- and eight-year-olds all invested, making suggestions that adults would make. They were asked to name the good things about Art City and one of them was ‘family.’ These kids felt empowered enough to get up and express what they felt their needs were in the community and the (Art City) building.”

At the end of the evening, a little girl handed Koop an envelope. It contained a picture with a heartfelt message: Thank you for making Art City happen. 

In the mid-1990s when her beloved West Broadway neighbourhood showed signs of decay, Koop rallied like-minded Winnipeggers to help lift the culturally and economically diverse area back up. Amidst those grassroots efforts, Art City was born.

Inspired by the Winnipeg project and with guidance from Koop, it wasn’t long before folks in Toronto launched a similar facility in St. James Town — Toronto’s most densely populated neighbourhood. It will mark 20 years in 2020.

In Winnipeg, Art City’s whimsical façade exudes a welcoming vibe — a streetside invitation to kids of all ages to come in and make art. No registration, no money required.

“West Broadway is overcoming a long history of poverty and the challenges associated with poverty, as well as systemic discrimination and generational trauma. Similar to a lot of communities, it’s in the throes of a drug crisis,” said managing director Josh Ruth, whose involvement with Art City spans 17 years.

“At Art City, it’s a safe environment — physically, emotionally, psychologically — and everything is free. We try to make it so there’s virtually no barriers. What we’re really trying to do is create a capacity in young people to learn creative thinking.

“The philosophy of Art City is that by giving people the opportunity to express themselves through art and collaboration, we build community and a sense of belonging in the community. Because it’s all ages and we feed our participants a healthy meal at every workshop, that also builds community,” Ruth added.

Art City’s goal is that children will learn to love the arts — not only as observers but as participants; that through art, they will learn healthy self-expression and find ways to connect with people across societal and cultural barriers.

Guided by community artists, kids can try their hand at painting, film and digital photography, digital art and ceramics. Professional artists from Winnipeg and elsewhere in North America — eight to 10 each year — are also invited as guests to deliver workshops.

On Saturdays, activities are focused on traditional and contemporary Indigenous arts.

“We think it’s important for people from all backgrounds to learn about and learn to love Indigenous culture. Developed with that in mind, the program has been very successful. We noticed with cultural content in our regular programming that the kids loved it and we wanted to build on that,” Ruth said.

“We bring in (Indigenous) artists who are very high-profile contemporary artists and a lot of families participate in that program together.”

Art City also spreads artistic joy throughout the city through its outreach program, providing facilitators and supplies for 16 weekly workshops hosted by partner youth organizations.

All told, Art City Winnipeg welcomes some 5,000 young people and adults into its artistic circle each year.  Recently, a concerted effort has been made to keep older teens coming to Art City by engaging them as youth volunteers and creating Art Squad, a neighbourhood beautification program, specifically for them.

That kept those participants coming, but also brought some challenges. “It’s a tightrope we’re learning to walk. We want to protect the younger children from some of the angsty expressions (of the older group) but also  accommodate the high-school ages, to have space for conversations that involve mental health, gender identity, self-harm and complicated family dynamics,” Ruth said.

Guidance counsellors have provided professional development opportunities for Art City staff, including a one-day workshop for those who felt ill-equipped to help teens who approached them about serious personal issues.  Art City has established working relationships with area schools that come into play when concerns arise about a particular child.

Positive stories about participant successes — big and small — abound at Art City, but Ruth cautions that not all its stories have happy endings.

“We also see kids that we loved, and had big hopes and dreams for, struggle as adults. That’s just the very real side of community work. The warm and fuzzy stories are there, but I wouldn’t be doing my community a service by whitewashing the reality of what it’s like to live in poverty.”

Ruth is one of five full-time staff. Seventeen others work part-time. More than 35 volunteers provide assistance.

In Toronto, Art City St. James Town opened its storefront facility in 2000. The downtown neighbourhood, dominated by high-rise buildings, is now home to 25,000 people, many of them newcomers from South and Southeast Asia.  

Coordinated by executive director Nadijah Robinson and two, part-time staff, St. James Town’s free workshops in painting, drawing and sculpture are developed and facilitated by professional artists. They are designed to foster creative thinking, promote self-esteem and a sense of personal accomplishment.

The benefits of arts programming are significant, Robinson said. “It develops social skills, communication, even math and science skills and critical thinking.”

Last year, 141 youngsters — ages 6 to 15 — registered for workshops and the new youth leadership program intended to fill a gap in neighbourhood services for pre-teen and early teen kids.

“We had three weeks of leadership camp (for kids from local middle-year and high schools.) During that time, the participants created an afterschool, fashion-design program for other kids their age. It’s been really popular, full, since we offered it,” said Robinson, now two years in her job.

The work day for Robinson and her staff includes walking to four neighbourhood schools to accompany kids to the afterschool art classes, complete with snacks. Also on St. James Town`s agenda are themed programs including one for the newest newcomers to Canada. It features music, print-making, poetry and sculpture.

“I find recent newcomers feel kind of lost amongst kids who have been here a longer time, and they have difficulty making friends,” Robinson explained. “I thought it would be good to have a program specifically for them where their experience of just having arrived is normalized. It’s something they can talk about or not talk about through the art they create. They can develop socialization and the artistic language to express themselves in different ways.

“We designed it to investigate Toronto as a city as well as the places they come from, honoring both their cultures of origin and their new cultural identity.”

Koop has long recognized the power of art to transform lives. 

She, herself, attended free art classes as a kid. “It changed my life,” said the first generation Canadian whose paintings have been exhibited world-wide in the decades since.

Recently, Koop attended a planning session to map out Art City’s future direction in Winnipeg. Some 40 kids participated in the visioning exercise alongside the adults.

“It was beyond anyone’s expectations. You had six-, seven- and eight-year-olds all invested, making suggestions that adults would make. They were asked to name the good things about Art City and one of them was ‘family.’ These kids felt empowered enough to get up and express what they felt their needs were in the community and the (Art City) building.”

At the end of the evening, a little girl handed Koop an envelope. It contained a picture with a heartfelt message:  Thank you for making Art City happen.

By Laurie Nealin


To learn more about Winnipeg Art City and Art City St.James Town, visit their websites at http://www.artcityinc.com/  and http://artcitytoronto.ca/  Staff in both locations are available to consult with people wanting to establish an art centre in their own community.

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Contact Stephanie Duprat for more information at
1-888-634-5556 x106 or stephanie@mzpinc.ca.