Toronto’s Arts & Culture Sector Today and Tomorrow: An Interview with Lila Karim

Lila Karim is the Founding Executive Director of North York Arts (NYA), a charitable multi-disciplinary arts organization that provides arts programming and services to six city wards in Toronto. Prior to NYA, Lila worked for other non-profit cultural organizations including the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair, Reelworld Film Festival, and The Harold Greenberg Fund.

Lila has extensive experience in Toronto’s cultural sector as an artistic producer, programmer, and administrator. Partnering and developing a community of artists, filmmakers, musicians, curators, has resulted in over 500,000 audience attendees to events and programs Lila has produced. Lila's engagement with businesses, funders, and neighbourhood organizations has created opportunities for artists and cultural producers to develop, grow, and thrive in areas of the city previously underserved.

Tell us about your experience as a woman in the arts and culture sector. Do you feel as though your career path or opportunities have been shaped or limited by your gender?

My career path has definitely been shaped by my experience as a woman working in the cultural sector. Early in my career, the divide in roles between women and men in the sector was very evident. I was working as a production assistant for an animation studio, assisting the various production coordinators and producers who were mainly women. However, the other departments in the studio—particularly the creative departments with the directors, animators and technical experts—were roles mostly held by men. 

Since my area of expertise and career growth has focused on arts administration, non-profit management, and event planning, my career opportunities have evolved in positions that would be deemed as “feminized roles” in the sector.

There is still the glass ceiling in larger institutions where men still mainly hold the positions of leadership.  

Over the last three years, I believe we have made great strides in the sector with several talented and inspirational women appointed to CEO, Executive Director, and Artistic Director positions. However, more work has to be done to keep up this growth while also focusing our collective support to build career opportunities of BIPOC and LGBTQS2+ leaders, creatives, and artists concurrently.

How would you describe Toronto’s art scene? What about North York’s? 

Undoubtedly, Toronto has a world-renowned and innovative arts and culture scene. The city is bursting with creativity, is home to the most artists and cultural workers in Canada, and has many loyal patrons who support cultural events throughout the year. 

Over the last 10 years, I feel that Toronto’s art scene has greatly improved because art access is no longer limited to the downtown core. Through intersectional partnerships, artistic visioning, political leadership, and community collaboration, Toronto has transformed into a “programming canvas” where all neighbourhoods are connecting and providing access to the arts for a wide range of diverse communities and residents. An example of this programming lens is the upcoming City of Toronto’s "Year of Public Art" celebration in 2021.

As the Founder of North York Arts (NYA), I have been fortunate to connect with and support the North York arts community over the last nine years. NYA is a registered charity and one of six Local Arts Service Organizations (LASOs) in Toronto whose purpose is to deliver on the city’s social, economic, and cultural goals, outside of the downtown core. 

With such an expansive geographic reach, large population, and diverse community, there’s a rich and active arts scene within the varied communities of North York (whether it’s around world music, visual art, or performance).

 Many artists based in North York are newcomers to Toronto who bring an international, storytelling-focused vision to their artistic practice.

Can you describe the work you do with newcomer populations? 

Accessible programs and events produced by NYA cater to the residents, artists, businesses, families, seniors, and/or youth in all neighbourhoods within the region, including our newcomer populations. NYA has produced a number of localized programs to provide a welcoming experience for newcomer community members, as well as professional development experience for newcomer artists. 

For our community members, NYA created the "Second Act Youth – ESL Theatre Program", a series of theatre-focused workshops to help newcomer youth feel more comfortable and confident speaking English. These workshops provide an anti-oppressive space for participants to practice English in innovative ways using improv, drama, and theatre exercises. 

Additionally, the "Northbound Exhibition Program" gives priority to newcomer artists, along with new-generation and emerging artists. This program provides in-kind exhibition space, administrative assistance, and marketing to support the professional development of artists by showcasing their artwork in public spaces. All profits from sales go directly back to the artists. 

How has the arts and culture sector changed during the pandemic? How do you anticipate it evolving as we move forward?

Without question, the pandemic has been devastating to the arts and culture sector with live event cancellations, job losses for permanent staff, suspending contracts for artists, performers, musicians, and independent producers, reduced government, philanthropic. and sponsorship support and business closures—all within a very short period of time. Many arts organizations in Toronto are not sure if they will survive the impact of COVID-19, and, like most arts organizations, NYA has had to either cancel or redesign our community programming for an online audience.

As part of our advocacy efforts with partner LASOs, NYA presented a "Recovery, Rebuilding, Renewal in the Wake of COVID-19" proposal to the City of Toronto in June.

We've been re-imagining how the sector can operate during this period of recovery while recognizing that the LASOs’ community arts programs are an invaluable tool to facilitate healing, collaboration, and rebuilding. 

We presented ideas for future programming and procedures to transform large community celebrations into micro-gatherings spread throughout a park, digital consultations and workshop formats including delivery of supplies to participants, establishing new evaluation models that include social and economic tracking, developing protocols for public art creation and integration, outdoor “traveling” concerts, and multi-disciplinary online live performances. 

How can Torontonians support the arts as we strive to recover from the economic impact of COVID-19?

There are many ways for Torontonians to support the arts during the recovery and rebuilding phase. Here are some recommendations below:

Donate. Support an online fundraiser or crowd-sourcing campaign for a local artist, arts organization, or project. There are a number of different arts charities, groups, and projects you can find via Canada Helps or GoFundMe, where you can support the project vision or the organization’s mission.

Buy local. Consider purchasing artwork or merchandise from a local artist or artisan from their online stores.

Waive the refund. For patrons who have purchased a ticket to a theatre show, dance, or music performance that is now cancelled, consider offering the purchased ticket value as a donation to support a future event. 

Volunteer. Consider donating your time, skills, and expertise to support a small arts organization as a volunteer board member or mentor. You can find volunteer postings in the sector on the Work in Culture website.

Advocate for the arts. Write to your local Councillor, MPP, and MP emphasizing the importance of continued support and investment of the arts within your community. Continued investment in the arts from all three levels of government is critical in the recovery and rebuilding process. 

What advice can you offer to young professionals who want to establish a career in the arts?

Working in the arts is truly an amazing, rewarding, and exciting career. My advice to young professionals who want to establish a career in the arts includes:

Build relationships and find a mentor: The arts is all about connecting with people, so be proactive to meet cultural workers, artists, and leaders in the sector, perhaps through an informational online chat first and work toward a mentor relationship with someone who can support your career growth. I have been very fortunate to have a number of mentors and advisors throughout my career. 

Professional development: Never stop learning through free online programs and webinars or taking a specialized course. And be aware how the sector is changing with specific training and best practices regarding inclusivity, equity, and diversity. Professional development has been an ongoing aspect of my career.

Create a project or opportunity: Don’t hesitate to create and build a project idea or initiative that you have been developing. Find collaborators who support your vision and can help take your project to the next stage. Working in the arts is about being creative, innovative, and bold enough to try out new ideas or concepts. 

Stay calm, focused, and thankful: Working in the arts is a privilege—keep perspective and always remain grateful. 

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