INQUIRE: Experts Talk Arts Advocacy

We asked three of arts industry leaders to share their insights + perspectives on arts advocacy. These experts agree; no matter what our involvement with the arts, we need to speak up about the impact it has on our lives and work together to ensure the industry continues to thrive!

Left; Brenda Leadlay, Middle; Emma Doran, Right; Jim Smith.


Brenda Leadlay, Executive Director, BC Alliance for Arts + Culture

Brenda Leadlay has a professional theatre career that spans over 35 years as an actor, creator, director, dramaturge, educator and producer.  Before moving back to Vancouver in 2016, she spent 5 years in Ottawa as the Artistic Executive Director of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival at the National Arts Centre.  Previous to that, she was the Artistic and Managing Director of Presentation House Theatre and The Norman Rothstein Theatre as well as the founder of The Chutzpah Festival. Brenda also served as the Artistic Director of Tamahnous Theatre from 1993 to 1996 and has been nominated 3 times for Jessie Richardson awards for her work as a director and collaborator.  Brenda has an MFA in directing from UBC.

Emma Doran, Executive Editor, The Dance Current

Emma Doran is a Toronto-based writer, editor and researcher who is enthralled by watching people move. She is currently the executive editor at The Dance Current magazine. In 2016, she finished a postdoctoral fellowship at the Modern Literature and Culture Centre at Ryerson University, where she researched the origins of dance criticism in popular periodicals. Before embarking on this research, Doran studied at Winnipeg’s School of Contemporary Dancers, completed an MA in dance at York University and a PhD in communication and culture through Ryerson and York universities. 

Recently, Doran has been a guest speaker at ArtsLink New Brunswick’s Going Critical Forum, The National Ballet of Canada’s Emerging Arts Critics program, Generator’s Performance Criticism Training Program and a jury member for Musicworks magazine Sonic Geography writing contestShe has published in the journals Early Popular Visual CultureMedia History and Performance Matters. She also worked at Dance Collection Danse archives and has been a contributor to The Dance Current for over a decade. 

Jim Smith, Co-founder, Artistic and Executive Director, DanceHouse

Following studies in music and then commerce, Jim worked in tourism for the Government of Ontario. In 1990 he moved to Montreal and began working in the professional Canadian arts sector at La La La Human Steps. After a move to Vancouver, Jim co-founded Eponymous, an arts management and production agency. Under the aegis of Eponymous, Jim is currently the associated with Company 605, Compagnie Vision Selective, Kidd Pivot, Les Productions Figlio, Wen Wei Dance, and Vancouver New Music. He also represents Veda Hille, Crystal Pite and Wen Wei Wang. In 2007 Jim co-founded and is the current Artistic and Executive Director of DanceHouse, a subscription series of mid-scale dance presentations at the Vancouver Playhouse. Jim is a past President of the Canadian Dance Assembly, a founding member of Made In BC, and has sat on a number of other not for profit boards of directors. He is currently on the board of the Canadian Arts Presenting Association (CAPACOA) where he is chair of the International Development Committee.

What does it mean to be an arts advocate? 

Brenda: Being an arts advocate means being passionate about the “arts” and understanding the role that creativity plays in our everyday lives. It means talking about how the arts help us understand the world, what it means to be human and how to live. It’s about understanding the value that creativity brings to our wellbeing – our sense of self, our mental health, our intelligence, and our humanity, to name a few. Most importantly, it means speaking up about why the arts are important to you when someone challenges the value of art, of culture, of heritage and of creativity. If we don’t speak up, others won’t see the connection to creativity in their own lives and they won’t understand how art and creativity are integral to their everyday lived experiences.  

Jim: Being an arts advocate means that you place a value on the arts in your life and subscribe to the arts being important to our society. Consequently, you are prepared to give a voice to this value in a range of situations, forums and contexts. It can include conversations around the dinner table with your family, friends and neighbours, exchanges with your children’s teachers or school administration, or communications with your elected officials (or during an election process, those individuals presenting themselves as candidates).

Emma: I tend to think of arts advocacy (in the capital A sense) as belonging to those who fight for big policy changes and equality in a direct way. I also think of artists doing quieter work – maybe it’s political or provocative – who may not be trying to get noticed, but rather they engage communities around them in meaningful ways.

In what ways do you advocate for the arts in your own life?

Emma: I have never really thought of myself as an advocate. That said, I suppose my job as an editor does entail pieces of advocacy, as does most non-profit work in the arts. One thing that I like about The Dance Current is that from day one, founding editor Megan Andrews was insistent that the publication should be by dance artists for dance artists. The magazine has also be an equalizer of genre. Why should ballet or contemporary dance be treated as more important than folk, dance, social dance or street dance, to name a few?

Right now, and for me, being an advocate is mixed up with being an ally, which means I do a lot of listening. What is going on in the dance and performance communities across Canada? What do performers care about? Whose stories should be told and who should tell them?

I also think it’s very important to acknowledge when you have taken a misstep. When someone takes the time to point out that something you did or didn’t do has hurt them or has a negative impact within a community, it’s easy to get defensive. Moving past that defensiveness is where growth can take place.

Jim: At a relatively young age, I was clear I wanted a career in the arts. Consequently, I have always been very unabashed in talking about the arts, my aspirations to be in the field when I was younger and, now, my professional life. It is not so much that I think I am that interesting to anyone, but more that it is necessary for my own understanding and for that of those to whom I speak. The arts suffer from a romanticism that make many in society believe that arts cannot be the basis of a professional career and a means to make a living. Better information about what a professional career in the arts looks like is necessary. Whenever anyone asks me what I do for work, I don’t hold back in saying I work in the arts, and if people become curious and ask questions, I take that opportunity to share much about my career, be that about my education, the path that got me here or clarifying what I actually do in the course of a day. (I am surprised by how often this is a question asked in earnest.)

Brenda: In my role at the BC Alliance, I am always thinking about how I can help people understand the depth to which creativity can make them happier, healthier and more compassionate. I advocate for the arts whenever and wherever I can, if given the chance. I’d like to change the world so that governments realize that access to the arts is a human right. In fact, I’ve made it the focus of my work because I know how valuable creativity has been in my own life.

How can people – whether they are active in the arts industry or not – advocate for the arts in their day to day life?

Jim: I think it’s important to recognize that everyone involved in the arts – industry members or not – can, and should, take on a role advocating for the arts. The role you play in the arts informs the perspective you can speak from. For example, as an audience member, talking about your appreciation of the arts to your friends and family is an important function in building awareness of the arts in our broader society and the fact that it is a valuable part of your life. As a student of the arts or the parent of an arts student, talking about how you feel the arts contributes to education and development is of great value. As an arts worker or any kind, you can speak to how your interest and passion for the arts has lead you to a career in the industry and how your work contributes to the economy. As an arts leader, be it a volunteer board member or the executive director of an institution, you have a community responsibility to play a bigger role as an advocate; become a member of an arts association with an advocacy mission and get involved. These organizations play a critical role in working with the community, monitoring and keeping abreast of the changing issues within the sector, developing key messages in response to these issues and then coordinating the community at all levels to activate the delivery of these messages.

Generally speaking, the performing arts have been positioned in our economic system in the non-profit sector which requires a number of different stakeholders come together to enable the organizations to fulfill their mission. This includes an active audience buying tickets, a philanthropic community of individuals and foundations, corporations participating in the realm of sponsorship and the various levels of government to provide sustaining support to allow the sector to weather the ups and downs of favourable and less favourable economic times. Consequently the need to keep all of these stakeholders engaged in the arts sector is paramount for a healthy arts sector which contributes to a healthy society by providing shared experiences relating to our societal values and contributing to social cohesion.

Emma: First and foremost, go and see, hear, feel and experience art. Artists are always having to prove their monetary worth. To support performers, it’s important to get into performance spaces. Bring your curiosity and an open mind.

When you get the chance, engage artists. It’s challenging to put your work out there and hear nothing back.

I would add that sometimes it’s great to step outside your comfort zone. Go and see something by an artist that you’ve never heard of, in a genre that you know nothing about. Take a risk.

Brenda: Commit to doing just ONE thing in lead up to an important election. The simplest thing you can do is vote. You can also ask political candidates how they support the arts and why they think they’re important. You can attend an all candidates meeting. You can go to the BC Alliance website – ArtsVote BC – and use the letter writing template to send a message to a politician or two. You can share stories publically about how the arts have made your life better. You can use social media to share important messages about the value of art and creativity. You can sign up for our weekly newsletter which shares information about the growing importance of the arts to society. You can tell just one person that you believe that the arts are just as important as education and health care. Just one thing.

In what ways can collaboration contribute to successful arts advocacy? 

Emma: This is really big question that I wish I had more answers to. The phrase “resource sharing” comes to mind. Sometimes arts organizations are spending precious time and money doing necessary work that others are already doing. Collaborating can be a good work around for this. Effective communication between organizations can help in understanding what we’re all currently doing.

I also think it’s important to get outside of your bubble. Different communities have different needs and some won’t know that you even exist as an organization. Reach out and let people know you exist and what you can offer. Solicit feedback.

Brenda: This is probably the single most important thing we need to do. We need to come together.  People working in the arts or the cultural sector must become more political. We need to work together to deliver a unified message that can be easily understood and embraced. Politicians often say that the only time they ever hear from the arts sector is when they lose some funding and we need to change that. We can join forces with teachers, health care workers, social workers and others who understand how the arts, and the expression of our individual creativity, can make a better world. We just have to make it a priority.  

Jim: Collaboration is key to effectively advocating for the arts. The need to come together to identify, collectively agree upon, and prioritize the shifting key issues of the sector – in an ever changing world – is an ongoing process of dialogue. From there it takes a community of individuals and organizations working together to develop coherent messages and plan for the distribution and delivery of those messages to the various targeted audiences, be it the general public, the people who come into your venue, stakeholders, or politicians (to name just a few of the possible target audiences).

Is there a person or organization that you think does an outstanding job of championing the arts?

Brenda: I think ArtStarts in Schools is a perfect example of an organization who is doing things right. They are educating children about how creativity can help them solve problems, understand difference and feel confident in who they are. What’s more important than that?

Jim: While I am first and foremost a musician at heart and by training, my career choices have brought me to the discipline of dance. (This is primarily because I am a sucker for a cause, but that’s a whole other story.) Consequently I am very impressed by the work of Kate Cornell, Executive Director at the Canadian Dance Assembly (CDA) and Co-Chair of the Canadian Arts Coalition. The CDA is Canada’s national arts service organization in support of the professional dance community. It plays a critical role in creating the space for a national conversation about dance, allowing the sector to speak with a coherent voice to national issues. These can include raising awareness of the importance of dance in the public sphere as a means of expression necessary to the education of youth for example, or the integration of new Canadians to our society, to government regulation and funding issues with the federal government.

Emma: It’s humbling to think about the people all over Canada doing great advocacy work in the arts and the list of people that come to mind is long. I’ve had the pleasure of learning from and working with some generously outspoken artist advocates – charles c. smith (Cultural Pluralism in the Arts), Sandra Laronde (Red Sky Performance), Kate Cornell (Canadian Dance Assembly) and Kevin Ormsby (Kaeshe dance).

Categories: Featured, MPMG