Features

The Scarborough arts community is ready for its close-up

Berton Woodward
Illustration of people playing music and taking pictures

You may find them on the Scarborough Bluffs, acting in a historical play. In an industrial strip mall, working on visual or performance art. Or soon, in a choir or garage band—learning, playing, singing. These are U of T Scarborough students, alumni and faculty who are embedding them- selves in local communities to help nurture and expand the arts in UTSC’s neighbourhood.

“It’s an exciting time in Scarborough,” says Julie Witt of the department of Arts, Culture and Media. “It’s an incredibly unique community in how many cultures and traditions are represented and how very active they are.”

Witt coordinates ACM Connects, which presents a range of artistic, cultural and scholarly programming every year. She says UTSC is increasingly stressing community involvement in all areas, including the arts.

The outreach has been building for years: English department faculty Daniel Tysdal and Andrew Westoll have held community courses on creative writing and storytelling at the East Scarborough Storefront since 2013; groups from the community often stage drama and music productions at UTSC; and student interns regularly get placements in Scarborough. 

But now planners want to do more. “We’re at the beginning of what we hope is a real shift in the conversation, in putting the focus and spotlight on Scarborough,” says Lynn Tucker, Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, in Music. “There are great things happening here. Now it’s about building the energy and capacity around those great things.”

Here is a sampling of how U of T Scarborough faculty and students are supporting Scarborough arts and artists.

“EMBEDDED”—IN COMMUNITY MUSIC

When you think of people who are “embedded,” the first to come to mind may be war correspondents. But UTSC has plans for embedding in a very different field—community music. In a new area of focus launching this fall, Music & Culture students will visit and learn from community music partners. Ultimately, they will work with them as part of a senior- level seminar course.

The expectation, says Lynn Tucker, is that students will then “come back to the classroom to share and critically reflect upon their experiences.”

Tucker, who is an Associate Professor of Music, Teaching Stream, believes these new service-learning opportunities will benefit not just the students—but the community hosts, too. “Our students are so incredibly passionate and excited to be working with music, and so creative in their ideas that I think there’s a real energy they can offer those organizations.”

Tucker believes the possibilities are vast. She has recently hired Christina Beharry to do a broad mapping project of music-makers in the eastern GTA. It will concentrate on Scarborough but go north to Newmarket and Uxbridge and east to Ajax, Pickering and Oshawa. “It’s a huge region, and we’re still working our way through it,” says Tucker.

And the range will be broad indeed. The mapping can include local orchestras, bands, choirs, non-profi organizations with a music focus, community centres, places of worship, traditional cultural heritage sites and even bars, legion halls, restaurants and home garage-band hangouts.

“We are looking to blow the doors wide open at UTSC, and engage with all kinds of music-making from all around the world,” says Tucker. “And what better place to do that than Scarborough, which is one of the most diverse communities in North America, and at UTSC, which is one of the most diverse campuses.”

Even working within traditional Western music, the Music & Culture program has always been one of UTSC’s major faces to the community, holding on-campus public performances by the String Orchestra, the Small Ensemble, the Concert Band and the Concert Choir. Also, the choir has partnered with the Scarborough-based Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra.

Then there are volunteer groups led by U of T Scarborough students and alumni. The UTSC Community Concert Band (now known as the Rouge River Winds) is made up of a widely diverse group—high school students, community members, and of course students, alumni and staff. It brings people together for a weekly evening of music-making. So does Ruckus, the UTSC Alumni and Community Choir. On campus and off, says Tucker, “our focus is on engaging people and learning through the act of music-making.”

AN ARTS HUB IN A STRIP MALL

It’s not the first place you’d expect to see an art gallery. Y+ contemporary, a studio and storefront gallery, is tucked between a chiropractor and a plastic-moulds maker in the interior of an industrial strip mall off Morningside Avenue. The location fits the pioneering vision of the four founding artists, all of whom graduated from the Studio program in 2015. They wanted to establish a place in their own neighbourhood where they could continue working together, and where other Scarborough artists could meet and show their work—no need to head downtown.

“We wanted to create an arts hub in Scarborough,” says Y+ co-founder Tiffany Schofield, “to provide a resource for other emerging artists here who don’t have the infrastructure that you see downtown—the art centres and shared studio spaces and galleries that proliferate there.”

The 1,100-square-foot venue has an exhibition space in the front and studio space in the back where Schofi and her fellow artists—Danièle Dennis, Daniel Griffin-Hunt and Dorica Manuel—create new work. It has captured attention from the start, including a positive story in the Toronto Star and a strong turnout for an opening event in November. “We were shocked by the number of people,” says Schofield.

Y+ put out a call for submissions in December, and since then it has been exhibiting Scarborough-connected artists selected from the entries. The group has also received micro-funding from the Toronto Arts Council for a youth program: six young Scarborough photographic artists worked with Y+ to develop their skills, and then held a well-attended exhibit.

Once a month, Y+ holds a popular “Crits + Chill” night, where local artists show their work to each other and then critique it. “This is where we’ve seen the most growth,” says Schofi “It’s an opportunity to really connect with artists who are living and working here.”

The Y+ four have stayed connected with UTSC, too. They offer an award at UTSC’s annual juried exhibition of Studio program work, selecting a student to exhibit at Y+. And Schofi says they’re now talking with faculty about how to expand the relationship in the future.

The four artists, who all have day jobs, funded the storefront location themselves for the first year. Schofi says they are now finalizing grants, which should take the gallery through a second year, as they refine their vision.

“It’s become clear to us that it’s less important to attract people from downtown to our events,” she says. “As much as we want to get attention and support for the artists, we want to focus on getting people from Scarborough to come out and to build a cultural space of interest to people here.”

THE  SCARBOROUGH ARTS CONNECTION

One day Sasha Kovacs, interim program director of the community organization Scarborough Arts, got a call about a collaborative production at Tarragon Theatre in central Toronto. They needed more student actors. She knew exactly where to turn.

Kovacs, who was completing a PhD in theatre at U of T, had taught in UTSC’s Theatre & Performance Studies program. She knew the  talent there well. Scarborough high school students from R.H. King Academy and Agincourt Collegiate Institute were already involved in #TheDonnellyProject, adapted from a classic James Reaney play about an Irish immigrant family which was murdered by vigilantes in 19th- century Ontario.

“I immediately thought of the theatre students at UTSC,” says Kovacs, “and how it would be great to have this collaboration between high school and university students in Scarborough and the Tarragon Theatre. It was a great combination, from emerging to semi-professional to professional theatre, and having them all learn from each other.”

Each student group took on a separate section of the play, which was staged outdoors in May, at Scarborough Arts’ spectacular home on the Bluffs, in the Harrison Properties park. “It was a very cool thing, and quite unprecedented,” says UTSC’s Barry Freeman, Assistant Professor and Program Director of Theatre & Performance Studies. “As a model, it was absolutely wonderful.”

Freeman wants to see theatre students involved in more such projects in future. He is already in talks with #TheDonnellyProject partners about a follow-up collaboration, which would see a public performance in spring 2017.

And the UTSC/Scarborough Arts connection doesn’t stop there. The university is a sponsor of Scarborough Arts’ annual Scarborough Worldwide Film Festival, which features both Scarborough-connected films and international works that appeal to a multicultural audience.

“The larger idea of the festival is to screen films at locations across Scarborough,” says Kovacs. “We wanted to position UTSC as one of the hubs of arts-making in the Scarborough area.”

Scarborough Arts also involves U of T Scarborough students in its annual outdoor arts festival, Art in the Park, and helps place interns from UTSC’s Arts Management program.

Kovacs sees a strong affinity between UTSC and Scarborough Arts. “We want people to come to us—to stay in Scarborough and see art in Scarborough. Our mission is to connect the community to art and art to the community. And the art happening at UTSC is a big part of the artistic community in Scarborough.”