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Striving to make public art and performance inclusive and accessible

The Evergreen Ignite Series panel discusses the importance of bringing performance into the public realm and making it accessible to diverse audiences. 

Ignite Speak Series

Published on October 19, 2022

Public space and public performance may be more important than ever. 

After several years of isolation due to the pandemic, many people are looking for ways to come together and engage with others in their community. 

Public events and performances offer that important space to engage. With so much renewed enthusiasm for public space and events, how can those that help animate these spaces do so with inclusion and accessibility at the forefront?

That was the question asked last month at Evergreen’s first Ignite Speaker Series. The panel at Evergreen Brick Works’ TD Future Cities Centre was hosted by Leah Houston, from Mabelle Arts, and featured Anna Gallagher-Ross, from The Bentway, a non-profit that runs arts and event programming in the public space beneath Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, and Syma Shah, from Union Station/Osmington, Toronto’s transit hub, which hosts performances and other events. 

Here’s how our panelists saw our relationship with public space change over the past few years, and how we can strive to make public performances more accessible to diverse audiences.

Two people dancing on stage.
Daniel Stefek and Clémence Dinard at the Fall for Dance North Heirloom performance at Evergreen Brick Works.
Photo by: Marlowe Porter

Bringing performance into the public sphere

For more than 30 years, Evergreen has been helping cities across Canada prioritize access to public space. The immense benefits of public spaces include building a sense of community and improvements to physical and mental health.

“We saw our public spaces perform in new ways,” said Gallagher-Ross. “The Bentway became a vital place of connection for the vertical communities that surround it.”

But in addition to changing our relationship with public space, the pandemic also highlighted the importance of bringing performance and the arts in the public sphere.

“Art has the ability to change hearts and minds,” added Gallagher-Ross. “Public performance interrupts our daily rhythms and helps us see things in a new way. Why would we want to leave these art forms exclusively in the private realm?”

Shah says public art and performances give us a moment to experience something new, joyful or emotional.

“What did we have during the pandemic? Places like Union Station and parks continued to have art installations that people could go and enjoy,” she said. “And for us, I think it’s important to highlight and showcase artists, whether they’re emerging or more established. We want to let those artists tell their stories.”

Man puts on performance surrounded by large crowd at Bentway in Toronto, underneath Gardiner Expressway

Inclusion and accessibility

Public space offers unique possibilities when it comes to encounters with live performance. 

Gallagher-Ross says that over the past two years, The Bentway hosted a number of installations and performances that called attention to who is welcomed in certain places in the city, and who is actively excluded due to ability, experience or vulnerability. 

“The ways we can experience live public performance helps offer the kind of representation that we need to see in our public spaces.”

The important element for those that host a diverse array of programming, is developing strategies to ensure they can actually bring a broad demographic into these public spaces.

That begins with designing public spaces that feel welcome to as many community members as possible. That includes spaces optimized for differing abilities, spaces with visible wayfinding and ample lighting to help make people feel safer and at ease, and places that actually provide the space for diverse cultural activities.

“We also want to provide accessibility to arts and culture by providing free events,” said Shah. “It’s hard to discuss accessibility and welcoming without discussing the financial barriers.”

Both Shah and Gallagher-Ross also highlight the importance of going deep within community partnerships. 

“One of the privileges of my job is to sit across the table from community partners and listen to what they’re interested in making happen, and have that inform our curatorial approach,” said Gallagher-Ross. 

“The sign of a successful project is that it’s actually accessible.” 

Evergreen Ignite Speaker Series

The Evergreen Ignite Speaker Series is a series of experiential talks that showcase how public space can be used to build community and connection to one’s city. Through arts, social culture and public performance, this series of exploratory conversations introduces ideas that will spark thought and action around creating sustainable, animated, and inclusive public spaces in our cities.

The Evergreen Ignite Speaker Series is supported by the TD Ready Commitment.