The Accessibility Arc: Arts in the Parks at Five Years

November 4, 2020

Jodi Lastman

Arts in the Parks is a program with accessibility at its core. Five years ago the initiative was established by the Toronto Arts Foundation to make the arts more accessible to more people.

The organization’s 2014 and 2015 Arts Stats surveys found that while most Torontonians value the arts, higher-income households were significantly more likely to attend arts performances. Among those that experience barriers to the arts, the most notable challenges were: cost, time and geographical distance.

And so, Arts in the Parks set out to eliminate cost, scheduling and geographical barriers by bringing family-friendly free, live performances to local city parks outside the downtown core.

The program launched in 2016 and has brought some of Toronto’s best live events including dance classes, workshops, theatrical performances, movies and festivals to parks in Etobicoke, Scarborough, East York and North York.

MABELLEarts at Broadacres Park in 2016. Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

Getting Arts into Parks

I met Jaclyn Rodrigues when she first started in her role as Community Engagement Manager at the Toronto Arts Foundation. The challenge before her was a daunting one. All summer long, all across the outskirts of the city, hip hop dancers, big band performers, puppetry professionals and drummers would explore new stages and connect with new audiences. Park People became an official partner of Toronto Arts Foundation helping the artists connect with local community park groups. And, Arts in the Parks took off out of the gate.

The first wonderful and exhilarating season of Arts in the Parks was exhausting and thrilling, and it was just the beginning. As Jaclyn shared:

“As much as we thought we were by reducing barriers by taking performances to parks, we quickly recognized other barriers and others that were just behind them. We never let that be demoralizing. Instead, it became part of the creative process. What can we learn? What can we do? How can we be better?”

Jaclyn describes this process as an “accessibility arc.” In other words, the more one leans into accessibility, the more barriers are revealed. However, it’s vital to think of the arc as never-ending. Jaclyn says: “it’s a circle, there’s no end to our accessibility journey.”

Translation builds Community Connection

Although often described as a universal language, the arts can sometimes be experienced in a language that makes some feel excluded.

In the second year of Arts in the Parks, the focus turned to connecting local communities to artists and artists to communities. As Park People and Toronto Arts Foundation worked more closely with community park groups language gaps became apparent.

Shadowland Theatre in Scarborough’s Alexmuir Park in 2018. Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

For example, Jaclyn remembers working with Shadowland Theatre in Scarborough’s Alexmuir Park, home to many Asian and South Asian residents. Working directly with then Councillor Chin Lee, Shadowland was able to translate all of their promotional materials into simplified Chinese. Jaclyn explains that while Shadowland’s giant puppet, stilt walker and musical performances could be enjoyed by virtually anyone, the invitation they extended needed to be accessible and welcoming:

“If someone receives an invitation from you, and it’s not in their language, they’ll automatically say ‘it’s not for me. That’s the opposite of the message we wanted to send to communities’

Today, promotional materials are not only translated into multiple languages but signage, audience evaluations and outreach all incorporate translation. Moreover, language interpretation, including ASL, has been offered from the stage during several Arts in the Parks performances.

Ballet Creole at Scarborough’s Alexmuir Park in 2018. Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

Being a Host

Even though the art performances take place in shared, public spaces, Jaclyn, her team and many of the artists who produce events still view themselves as hosts:

“When we the artists and the local park groups invite people to the park, we are the hosts. We collectively make it our job to think about what will make the audience, our guests, be most comfortable.”

This hospitality lens helped Arts in the Parks identify transportation as a key barrier that stood in the way of people accessing the free performances. To address this hurdle, they invested in renting busses and establishing key pick up points throughout the community.

They also offered snacks to audiences because, as Jaclyn puts it:

“We’re setting the stage for an enjoyable afternoon. Part of hospitality is making sure we’re thinking about the fact that people will need something to eat. So we provided people with food.”

Quality wayfinding, temporary seating, shade structures and publicly accessible bathrooms have all been added each year of the program. The next part of the curve will involve providing rubber matting, bussing and wheelchair accessible bathrooms that make the park space accessible to those with physical disabilities.

“Making the performance more accessible for one group enhances the experience for everyone,” says Jaclyn. “Rubber matting is not only ideal for wheelchair users, but it’s helpful for moms with strollers and for seniors who may use walkers, canes or other assistive devices. It’s just good design.”

Seating available in Little Pear Garden in Beverly Glen Park, 2019, Photo Credit: Toronto Arts Foundation for Arts in the Parks. 

Taking it Online

Due to the impacts of COVID-19, many of this years’ Arts in the Parks events happened virtually. It was not an ideal way for Arts in the Parks to celebrate five years of bringing the arts to communities. However, the virtual format had a surprising upside for artists and communities that may not have otherwise attended the performances.

When jes sachse an artist, writer and choreographer who addresses the negotiations of bodies moving in public/private space, accepted her Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award at the Mayor’s Arts Lunch she shared that there were indeed benefits that came with the virtual format. In her acceptance speech she shares:

“I feel gratitude for a world where I can be comfortable at home with ASL and closed captioning and treated with dignity at an event like this. Grateful to folks hosting this and learning how to host accessible events.”

The “accessibility arc” it turns out, is a perfect metaphor. It curves and bends, and continually offers opportunities for those eager to lean in and learn. Through their Arts in the Parks program, Toronto Arts Foundation has demonstrated that they’re eagerly leaning into each new accessibility challenge and fully embracing what it means to make the arts accessible.

Thank you to Toronto Arts Foundation for the photos. Cover photo credit: Arts Etobicoke & Delta Family Resource Centre in Wincott Park, 2020

Arts in the Parks is an initiative of the Toronto Arts Foundation, in partnership with Toronto Arts Council, the City of Toronto and Park People.


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