Arts Volunteers in Canada: Overview


The spirit of volunteering has been a vital part of the social fabric for as long as there has been, well, a social fabric.

That’s the premise behind, a volunteer matching service that connects people and opportunities in Canada.

Video: Catherine, volunteer with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra for over 40 years.

However, just like the issue of unpaid internships, the relation between volunteer and paid work can be a bit of a grey area: a UK cultural institution was recently branded “unethical” for replacing paid Front of House staff with unpaid volunteers (a recurring issue that TUC and Volunteering England already addressed in 2009 in their Charter for Strengthening Relations Between Paid Staff and Volunteers). The Museum Association’s Cuts Survey 2013 reports this development across the sector as a growing and rather worrying trend, with Mark Taylor, the MA’s director, commenting:

Unpaid work can be exploitative and, even worse, it reduces the diversity of people who can enter the museum workforce: only wealthier young people can afford to work for nothing, especially in expensive cities like London.

In the three years I spent in Canada, I noticed that volunteering in the arts – and in the community at large – was a widespread and often well defined practice. The organisations I worked with fully acknowledged the diversity of volunteers’ motivations and depth of commitment and clearly recognised their rights and responsibilities. In this series of posts about Arts Volunteers in Canada, I am featuring some interesting resources and examples that are not quite addressing the paid/unpaid work polemic, but instead highlighting the positive role of volunteers in successful initiatives and programmes that complement employees’ efforts and further organisational missions.

This is part 1 of a series of 4 posts on arts volunteers in Canada.

Note: just as my previous posts on Funding for the Arts in Canada and Shared Spaces & Cultural Hubs, this is rather Toronto-biased than truly pan-Canadian.

Volunteering in Canada

Volunteering is considered as a civic responsibility in Canada: it’s a way to build skills, strengthen community links and improve well-being.

Volunteering is encouraged at all ages and levels:

National Resources

There are plenty of resources available, for example through Volunteer Canada, the national advocacy organisation for volunteerism and civic participation. They have developed a Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement, conduct research (for example on volunteering & healthy ageing) and influences public policy.

Specifically for the art sector, Hill Strategies regularly publishes a statistical report on volunteers & donors in Canada, summarised elsewhere on this blog.

Other national initiatives of interest include ArtsScene, a “network of leading young business professionals who support the arts through volunteerism and patronage”, and Timeraiser, a silent art auction at which participants bid volunteer hours instead of money.

Arts Volunteers in Toronto

The City of Toronto is managing an extensive volunteer programme, especially for all its city-wide events and festivals (such as Doors Open Toronto and Nuit Blanche). Around 1,500 volunteers are currently registered with the Special Events Office.

Toronto Arts Foundation – the fundraising arm of the Toronto Arts Council – runs the Toronto Arts Volunteer Network. They promote volunteering opportunities in a bi-monthly newsletter and feature a selection of volunteer stories on their website.

In the next 3 posts, I’ve selected examples from a range of large Toronto arts institutions who have developed their own dedicated volunteer scheme, looking first at the performing arts (part 2), then multi-arts venues and festivals (part 3) and finally museums & galleries (part 4).





Funding for the arts in Canada


TAC, OAC, CCA, CADAC: in the 3 years I spent in Canada, I have accumulated a nice collection of new arts acronyms. Now that I’m back in the UK, I want to spend some time reflecting on what I’ve learned, as I already started in a previous post on shared spaces and coworking, and I’m following up with an overview of the funding landscape. This is not exhaustive by any means, and it’s based on my personal, Toronto-centric experience of researching funding sources for various projects and organisations, mainly in music, media arts, community arts and multidisciplinary festivals.

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At a glance

3 different levels of government funding: one federal granting agency, Canada Council for the Arts; one funding body for each provincial government (full list); and several separate municipal Arts Councils (such as Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton).

A vast range of foundations: their status varies from government agencies (like Ontario Trillium Foundation), family foundations, corporate philanthropy funds or community foundations. They must be registered charities. Some clearly display their remit and assessment process, others don’t even have a website and don’t accept unsolicited requests; some operate on a national scope, others have a provincial or local focus.

– Registered charities can also conveniently receive tax-deductible donations through online platform Canada Helps (at a credit rate of up to 29% of the gift depending on the province).

– – –

Three levels of Arts Councils

Municipal level

Toronto Arts Council is a not-for-profit organisation that distributes public funds under a Grant Agreement contract with the City. Its two key operating principles are arm’s length funding and peer review.  It is governed by a 29-strong Board of Directors, 5 of whom are City Councillors, and draws on the expertise of 54 volunteer committee members who advise on grants for theatre, dance, visual arts/film & video, music, literature and community arts. Grants are assessed by a jury or committee of artists and arts administrators specialised in the relevant discipline.

TAC only funds artists and organisations based within the limits of the City of Toronto, or projects with a Toronto-based lead applicant, with an emphasis on partnerships & innovation (e.g. collaboration with other arts organisations) and public impact (outreach, audience development, participatory elements, especially outside the core & youth audiences). Funded organisations also must receive significant ongoing support from other sources, public or private. 75% of all support from TAC is for amounts less than $10,000, and ⅔ of grants are reserved each year to new projects and individuals.

TAC’s budget is currently set at CAD $16 million for 2014 and growing year on year, as the City of Toronto has committed to increase arts funding per capita from $14 to $25 by 2017 (via additional revenues from the billboard tax).

A parallel organisation, Toronto Arts Foundation, raises funds from donations and sponsors to further the goals of the Toronto Arts Council, through research, strategic networks and awards. It also manages an Arts Volunteer Network.

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Provincial level

Ontario Arts Council celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013. An arm’s-length agency of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, OAC supports artists and arts organisations through 65 different granting programmes in arts education, Aboriginal arts, community arts, crafts, dance, Franco-Ontarian arts, literature, media arts, multidisciplinary arts, music, theatre, touring and visual arts. A board of 12 volunteer directors, appointed by the Government of Ontario for a three-year term and representing communities throughout the province, is responsible for setting OAC’s policies and oversees the organisation’s operations.

OAC’s strategic priorities are to support the lives, careers and work of individual artists, especially Aboriginal, francophone, culturally diverse, new generation (ages 18 to 30) and regional artists; enabling people of all ages and in all regions to actively engage and participate in the arts; and ensuring that the creativity, innovation and excellence of Ontario’s artists and arts organizations in all their diversity are seen and acclaimed locally, nationally and internationally.

In 2012-2013, OAC funded 1,793 individual artists and 1,076 organizations in 232 Ontario communities, for a total of $52.1 million. Grants, both operational and project-based, are allocated through a peer assessment process.

Some granting programmes, such as Writers’ Reserve and Theatre Creators’ Reserve, are administered by third-party recommenders – publishers, literary organisations and theatre companies who may have an interest in publishing or developing the submitted proposals.

Additionally, OAC manages private donations and bequests that fund awards and fellowships; it also administers the peer assessment process of several awards, prizes and scholarships on behalf of the Ontario Arts Foundation, a public foundation with assets of $62 million.

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Federal level

Created in 1957, the Canada Council for the Arts is “Canada’s national, arm’s-length arts funding agency”. They provide funding to individual professional artists and arts organisations through a peer assessment process, award fellowships and prizes (from private donations and bequests) to about 200 artists and scholars and conduct research to further their mandate to support, promote and celebrate the arts.

CCA also operates the Musical Instrument Bank, a collection of close to 20 historical stringed instruments worth a total of over $36 million that musicians have to compete to borrow, and the Art Bank, “the world’s largest collection of contemporary Canadian art”, available for private space rentals, public loans and outreach programmes.

Peer assessors – nominated by other artists, arts organisations, the public or themselves – can normally only participate in review committee once every 24 months. The selection and assessment process is detailed at length on CCA’s website.

A few figures taken from the 2013 annual report:

– $181.2 million as total parliamentary appropriation
– $153.4 million allocated to grants, prizes and payments
– 629 peer assessors
– 11-member Board from across Canada

– 20,355 artists awarded $32 million to support a wide range of activities, including research, creation, professional travel, market development and payments for the presence of books in public libraries.
– Approximately 1,000 arts organisations received $93 million in operating grants, representing approximately 66% of the Council’s total granting budget.
– 1,704 organisations received $28 million in project funding, 20% of Council’s granting budget.


A dynamic sector that drives change

These are a few examples of interesting initiatives – active, recent or with a lasting impact – again based on my own experience, with no pretension to accurately reflect a whole national sector.

Governmental level

At federal level: CCA just released a paper and launched a blog to open up dialogue on public engagement in the arts. They also provide a Leadership for Change funding stream (previously Flying Squad) to enable organisational change.

At provincial level: OAC runs Compass, a programme that supports both organisational and professional development.

At municipal level: TAC is piloting new initiatives, such as Space for Art (spaces for administration, programming and exhibition at below-market rent), special grants for projects in selected heritage sites and libraries, and a partnership with the Toronto District School Board to to provide opportunities for artist residencies, mentorships and performances in school as part of a new festival.  TAC also supports a Research Fellow, currently Jinni Stolk from Creative Trust.

Online reporting

All governmental arts funding bodies have teamed up to create a shared online reporting platform, the CADAC, for financial and statistical information on operational grants. Since 2008, instead of reporting separately for each governmental grant they received, organisations can upload their audited statements and enter their budget projections; funders have access to this information to assess funding bids and are now able to analyse sector-wide data.

Arts service organisations

Creative Trust was a capacity-building organisation that wound up its operations in 2012, when its mission was achieved. Over 10 years, they ran the Working Capital for the Arts programme, assisting over 50 mid-size and small companies to eliminate deficits, create working capital reserves and improve their governance, planning and management skills; helped companies undertake capital projects to upgrade and repair their aging facilities; and engaged companies in a comprehensive audience development programme.

Business for the Arts – “Canada’s national association of business leaders who support the arts since 1974” – runs ArtsVest (a “matching incentive and sponsorship training program”), ArtsScene (a “network of leading young business professionals who support the arts through volunteerism and patronage”) and boardLink (“a  matching program connecting business professionals with volunteer board and committee positions within the arts organizations in their cities”).

Agenda-setting foundations

Metcalf Foundation supports capacity-building and organisational innovation in the performing arts (as well as projects and initiatives in the environmental and local economies realm). Through the Creative Strategies Incubator programme, it supports 3-year development plans to address self-identified issues on a theme changing every year (in 2014: engaging audiences and building communities around your work). It also funds full-time internships to support the next generation of arts managers. Professional development grants from $500 to $10,000 are available for performing arts professionals (who have to be affiliated with a registered charity), and selected Innovation Fellows can propose and develop the research of their choice. Recent Fellows include Jane Marsland, examining fiscal sponsorship models in her Shared Platform report, and Shannon Litzenberger, dance artist and author of Choreographing our Future.

– As well as providing funding for what they call Vital Initiatives, Toronto Community Foundation publishes an annual Vital Signs report and recognises Vital Ideas and Vital People. Donors can choose the field of interest or even designated charities they want to invest in.

Ontario Trillium Foundation, “Canada’s leading grantmaking foundation”, is a government agency that works with over 300 community volunteers to review more than 3,000 grant applications each year, of which about half are successful. Their focus in the arts cover heritage, participation, leadership and social and economic change. Through their granting priorities, they encourage collaborative projects and youth engagement.


A wide range of corporate foundations

Operational funding mainly comes from governmental sources, and while some foundations support organisational development, others, especially corporate philanthropic bodies, are solely focused on providing financial support to projects that match their specific remit – “signature cause”, target demographics, type of impact.

Here are three examples of philanthropic foundations from the financial sector:

Royal Bank of Canada runs an Emerging Artist Project, providing “sponsorships and donations with organizations whose programs bridge the gap from academic excellence to professional careers in all forms of art.” Their commitment is mainly for the visual arts – for example with a nationwide painting competition in partnership with Canadian Art Foundation – and film – their support of TIFF is highly visible in Toronto.

–  Scotiabank’s Bright Future programmes cover education, health, social services and arts & culture in 29 countries. They are title sponsors for the municipally-run Nuit Blanche and the CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto, and nationwide for the 20-year-old fiction award Giller Prize.

Manulife Financial has chosen volunteerism as its ‘signature cause’ and fulfills its CSR in three different ways: by providing financial resources to volunteer programmes (Luminato Festival is a recipient); by encouraging its employees at all levels to volunteer, with paid community hours (not restricted to the organisations it funds); and by running a matchmaking website for individuals looking for a volunteer opportunities and organisations,

A Problem Shared…

Tools of the Trade

Arts organisations use all sorts of office settings, from small and casual bolt-holes to grand, more formal venues. Physical environment clearly influences productivity and mood of the team, so space and resources need to be adequate.

Unfortunately that’s easier said than done, with rent taking such a big chunk out of a company’s budget. But there’s another way to look at the question of space for arts organisations: rent could be a good investment in a mutually beneficial creative environment, so that a building becomes an active player in a particular city’s cultural ecology.

Co-working, shared workspaces and cultural hubs are on the rise because they solve problems. For example, a hot desk at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation (known locally as CSI) starts at CAD75 a month – and comes with a business address, mail delivery, 24/7 access and shared services such as free wifi, free coffee, cheap printing and meeting rooms. This can offer a low-cost, temporary solution for an organisation trying to bounce back after reductions in income.

The venue management publishes open source toolkits, incubates projects and operates a crowdfunding platform. They also fix the wifi if it goes wonky and remove those pesky paper jams.

And for added value, members get to be part of a thriving community of freelancers and entrepreneurs, both not-for-profit and for-profit, from a variety of sectors. An internal communications system, networking events of all types and sizes and a big communal kitchen allow members to constantly exchange services, contacts and ideas.

CSI started with 14 founding tenants in 2004 and now has three locations in Toronto and one in New York, so it’s clearly working. It’s a social enterprise that acts as a community enabler, not a commercial landlord draining away resources.

The management team publishes open source toolkits, incubates projects, runs a micro-loan fund and operates a crowdfunding platform. They also fix the wifi if it goes wonky and remove those pesky paper jams.

There are other models out there, other ways to turn office rent into community investment. Also in Toronto, 401 Richmond is a 200,000 sq ft historic warehouse renovated under the principles of eco-restoration and openly inspired by Jane Jacobs (‘Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings; new ideas must use old buildings’).

Current tenants include over 140 cultural producers and micro-enterprises: 12 galleries, artists, designers and architects, a music shop, a bookshop, many arts festivals and environmental and civic agencies.

The management company, Urbanspace, organises tenant-led Nuit Blanche events and open studio days, and services include an arts-based childcare centre, a friendly café and a luxuriant rooftop garden. Here too, the community is based on shared values, and tenants are selected – from a long waiting list – to contribute to the creative mix.

Still in Toronto, Artscape, a registered not-for-profit organisation founded in 1986, manages several buildings that offer affordable live/work studios for artists, offices for arts and civic organisations, and performance and exhibition spaces at a discounted rate for charities.

They have also developed models and tools for creative placemaking. The latest Artscape building, a 75,000 sq ft renovated primary school, hosts a wide range of tenants, including artists and musicians, a large multidisciplinary arts festival, a youth-focused grant-making organisation, a world music promoter and a few more in between. The hallways and stairwells – nearly 10,000 sq ft over three floors – are used as exhibition spaces, and an independent café has set up shop on the ground floor.

Open studios at Artscape Youngplace Opening  Photo- Garrison McArthur Photographers

These three examples in Toronto have strong links: one of the founders of CSI is the president of 401 Richmond, who was in turn inspired by Artscape. All took time to develop and mature, which is why they have deep roots in the local cultural ecology.

Creative placemaking, connected networks and sustainable platforms can enable artists and arts organisations to adapt to a changing environment.

If you’re thinking of pooling resources to save money and find creative synergies, existing models are there to provide ideas and inspiration, and they tend to share openly their history and principles.

They’ve enabled and inspired countless projects on their home ground, and I’m hoping that these insights will be useful to cultural innovators in other cities and countries.

This article was originally published in International Arts Manager.  

5 Questions to… Rebecca Cotter, Water-on-Wheels

5 questions to...

Water on Wheels (WOW) provides mobile water refill stations to outdoor events in Ontario and further. It was created by Rebecca Cotter, Toronto-based event planner and instructor of special event management, and as we were chatting about industry trends and the joys and sorrows of teaching, I got to ask her 5 questions about this genius invention.

1. How did you start WOW?

I got the concept from my experience working at Downsview Park (in Toronto), putting on concerts and festivals every weekend, and standing in the field after everyone’s gone and contemplating the garbage that each event generated – more garbage than anyone has ever seen in their life. That’s what you’re left with when people go home after having a good time. And a lot of it was plastic bottles.

As I was responsible for managing the full logistics of site cleaning and recycling, I was wondering how to make it more efficient. The bottles often still had beverage in them, and you pay by weight for site cleaning, so the bill was heavy!

I did some research and came up with the concept: the Water on Wheels stations connected to a tap water source. I got the first station built in 2010 and started with a sketchy website.

At the moment, the legislation is becoming stricter about waste, and there’s a very active push to ban commercially packaged water, for example in schools and on municipal properties. People are more and more aware that tap water is high quality water, and that bottled water is environmentally costly. There’s a trend to carry your own reusable bottle. So I’ve been fortunate, because my idea came up at the right time.

WOW at Luminato Festival,  Distillery District, Toronto

WOW at Luminato Festival, Distillery District, Toronto

2. What’s up for you now?

This year will be big – it took me 4 years to get there. When I launched, I knew I was a bit ahead of the social trend. I always have a booth at trade events, and we generate a lot of interest, but people still often think that they can’t afford it.

We’re present at over 100 events a year, mainly in Ontario, where we rent out one or several water stations. This year, we have also started manufacturing and selling our stations across North America.

I started with the rationale to eliminate waste, but event planners are also concerned about how much it costs. Our stations are available to rent, and we’re priced competitively, but when you add other factors, especially transport to places in the US, it can end up being not so cheap. It is certainly cheaper to get a food vendor to sell bottles – but not if you factor in the environmental and human cost.

Selling stations is a new development and it works out better for some clients, but we’ll continue to rent out, to downtown festivals, one-off events etc.

WOW Water Table

WOW Water Table

3. How much time do you spend on WOW?

I always ran my business in addition to my other occupations (previously a full-time event manager and a part-time event planning instructor, now a full-time teacher and part-time event contractor). In the high season, May to September, it’s pretty much full-time, but mainly on alternative hours – evenings and weekends.

I’m the owner, and I hire between 8 and 10 part-time people for the summer season, to drive,  unload, hook up the station to a source, and stay with the unit on site.

4. Concretely, how does it work?

We usually connect to a fire hydrant or outdoor hose tap. Sometimes we need a permit to access water, ranging around $100-$150, which includes use of water. It all depends on the municipality, but I’ve never had a situation where clients had to pay for metered water.

We provide a meter reading to all our clients to show them how much water was used during their event, which generates very positive PR. We can estimate how many bottles were saved or diverted.

A regular bottle fills up in 10 seconds. If every tap is continuously used on one station, we can fill up 1,200 to 1,500 bottles an hour.

We’ve done events from 100 to 100,000 audience members, and for the bigger events, we provide 3 to 4 stations. A typical outdoor concert means 25 to 30K bottles refilled a day – smaller community events range from 3-5K bottles.

Refill station

Refill station

5. Apart from saving on waste, what are the benefits for audiences and event organisers?

The research we conducted shows that without the stations, ⅓ of people who refill would be motivated to buy a $5 bottle. Clearly not everyone who refills for free would buy a bottle of water. Actually, if you had $5 to spend at an outdoor event, would you buy beer or water? Most people would choose beer – so without free water, the cost of not having WOW is what you would pay in First Aid & Emergency services, to take care of people who are dehydrated, throw up, pass out… We worked closely with people in first aid services and were able to correlate the evidence: more water = less First Aid.

We did the VELD electronic music festival in Downsview Park in 2012, at the hottest time of the year. The grass was so burnt that it looked like a beach.  We had a line-up from morning to night, 300 people deep, and we refilled 55-60K bottles in 2 days. Under such conditions, people can get severely dehydrated, and it’s the event planner’s responsibility to ensure their safety.

It’s really all about the audience experience. The concept has now been around long enough that people expect it. If it’s not there, it would be a disappointment. We get a lot of interaction on Twitter, people check if we’ll be where they’re going. That’s actually our best marketing device – after having a station at an event: if ticket holders want us at their event, then they’ll request us on Twitter.

Some clients work with their sponsors to brand our stations. They might give out refillable bottles, provide extra staff wearing a branded T-shirt… that’s a very good way to offset the rental fee and a very good example of sponsor activation. It shows real value for the sponsor, because  we can actually measure how many people interacted with us, and it’s a meaningful interaction: when people have been in the sun all day, they’re really grateful for the chance to drink some fresh, cold, free water. We’re everybody’s best friend!

Water on a summer festival day

Water on a summer festival day

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For more about Water on Wheels, visit the brand new website and follow them on Twitter.

Activate your Alley


…and so the alley could once again become a special world, not so much a place for the discards and helpless but for a wider range of city dwellers. It offers one of the few urban rather than suburban or rural ‘retreats’, an enclave just off the busy street, a step away from the hurly burly.

from Alleys: A Hidden Resource by Grady Clay

As the streets of Toronto are disappearing one more time under a beautiful blanket of snow that will turn in no time at all into slush and ice, an article on alleys and urban renewal in Torontoist made me long for the days when you can go out without the mandatory down-filled uniform (video). After all, now is the perfect time to plan for next summer’s alley parties, so here are a few thoughts, images and links.

Eventful Alleys

World Cup screening, Alley Network Project, Seattle (2010)

World Cup screening, Alley Network Project, Seattle (2010)

‘Alley activation’ is one of the core activities of Seattle-based not-for-profit International Sustainability Institute. Focusing on the network of alleys around the historical Pioneers Square and working collaboratively with residents, business owners and community groups, they have developed the Alley Project Network to promote local arts, commerce and healthy living.

Since 2008, the Alley Network Project has hosted art installations, documentary screenings, bike festivals, Tour de France and World Cup viewing parties and performance art shows, attracting over 5,000 visitors to the alleys surrounding Pioneer Square.

They share the lessons learned in a handbook (pdf) that provides a step-by-step guide to organising an alley event, from a planning checklist that would be relevant to most situations (including cleaning, signage, communicating with residents…) to a breakdown of the alley permit application in Seattle, useful to understand the kind of process and responsibilities that might be involved in other contexts and plan in consequence.

The handbook opens with the guiding principle behind the ‘alley activation’:

Putting people in your alley is a first step. People breath new life into spaces that have long been used for illegal activity or dumping trash. Our approach was to throw unique events. After hosting numerous events over several years, we can see Pioneer Square’s alleys transforming. A bicycle repair shop recently moved into one alley – with its front entrance in the alley. Plants and flower pots are starting to sprout up in the nooks and crannies of alleys. And some shops now feature their signs and menus on alley doors. All of these steps are collectively starting to change how these spaces are perceived and used.

The cobbled back streets have hosted photo slams (local professional journalists presenting 5 to 8 minute photographic essays on a variety of topics, from prison photography to portraiture), a summer festival called Alley-Palooza, various screenings (documentaries, World Cup, Tour de France…), PARK(ing) Day installations and an annual dog parade (with hot chocolate and live music), all of which are free, broadly inclusive and involve local businesses or interest groups. Coming up: a Bike Love Party, with beer and tattoos. In late 2013, the Project also led a series of community consultation workshops to develop a new “historically appropriate” lighting and resurfacing design.


Alley Design Concepts Survey ‘open house’ (2013)


There are many other projects around the world injecting a new life into the dark and neglected back alleys, most of which I borrowed from Vancouver blog This City Life.

Green Alleys

Vancouvery Photo c:o Ben Nelms for National Post

Country Lane, Vancouver (Photo: Ben Nelms for National Post)

Vancouver has been running a Country Lane programme for several years, ‘countrifying’ back lanes by depaving them, save for 2 concrete strips, and planting durable grass.

Montréal has a similar volunteer-run programme, Ruelles Vertes – the website offers lots of links and practical tips (in French).

Chicago has retrofitted over 100 laneways since 2006 and produced a free Green Alley Handbook (pdf) for inspiration.

San Francisco is also developing a community-led Living Alley concept and offers workshops to residents to help them design and implement a Living Alley Network.

Ruelle Verte, Montréal (photo Sylvain Ouellet)

Ruelle Verte, Montréal (photo: Sylvain Ouellet)

Public Art & Design

Athens street

Pittaki Street, Athens, Before Light & Imagine the City (2013)

Sydney has developed a curated programme of commissioned public art, Laneway Art, featuring among many other projects the lovely Forgotten Songs by Michael Thomas Hill, a sound installation commemorating the songs of fifty diurnal and nocturnal birds once heard in central Sydney; yarn-bombed steps in Sussex Lane by Knitta founder Magda Sayeg; and a giant PVC donut by Brook Andrew.

Austin Art Alliance created “temporary activations” in Alley #111, a “mix of installations and multi-generational happenings” including visual and sound installation, an opening party, a Pecha Kucha and a family day.

Athens-based non-for-profit urban renewal organisation Imagine The City partnered with creative studio Before Light to illuminate one seedy back-alley for one year, gathering “Chandeliers, shantungs, bell shades, paper Asian lanterns (…) retrofitted with new wiring and weatherproofing” to create a party-ready fairy-tale atmosphere (video) that makes the alley both safer and prettier.

Dublin‘s city centre Dame Lane got ‘activated’ for 8 full days by designers me&him&you, who conducted a community consultation to install colourful custom seating, a ‘play me’ piano and lots of plants.

And finally, small street parties everywhere have their own planning toolkit (covered a few months ago) which goes hand-in-hand with the outdoor event accessibility guide.

Laneway Project Dublin

Laneway Project Dublin by me&him&you (2010)

Street Art

Most of the banner images I use on this blog were taken in Toronto’s back alleys.  They provide access to garages and business back doors – and, incidentally, perfect canvases for street artists.

Lego Head - Spud & DMC

Lego Head – Spud & DMC – via Torontoist

Toronto is developing guidelines and programmes for street art, encouraging commissioned murals to ‘beautify’ neighbourhoods and deter vandalism (including graffiti). A map of these official murals is available on the City website, and if some are easily forgotten, others are pretty epic, such as Andrew Schoultz’s ‘The Winds Are Changing‘, which I try to walk by as often as I can.

Left to their own devices, alleys develop other interesting sights. Local guide Graeme Perry (from whose website the opening Grady Clay quote is borrowed) has been leading free walking and cycling alley tours for 10 years and has documented his favourite categories on his website: greenery, textures and ‘funk dump junk’.

Graeme Perry_GreenGraeme Perry_TextureGraeme Perry_funk dump junk

Local photographer and urban cyclist advocate Yvonne Bambrick also captures the alley sights, here framed within reclaimed bicycle wheels:

Yvonne Bambrick, Rusted (2013)

Yvonne Bambrick, Rusted (2013)

Yvonne Bambrick hot pink

Yvonne Bambrick, Hot Pink (2013)

If Toronto’s alleys lend themselves well to urban exploration and graffiti safaris, they’re also prime estate for another type of activation, also a bit more on the wild side than previous examples.

Every summer for the past 3 years now, the Ossington neighbourhood has hosted an Alleyway Party that has everything from local bands – including Toronto’s very own Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk-Super Band, dancing in the rain, communal BBQ, giant Scrabble and collective garage door painting. It’s a bring-your-own, pass-the-hat affair between neighbours, with no lane closure – traffic is usually very light – or formal schedule. Time to get planning…

Ossington Village Alleyway Party

Ossington Village Alleyway Party (2012)

Ossington Village Alleyway Party Scrabble