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Enriching Calgary's Arts Sector: The Future of Immigrant Council for Arts Innovation

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

By Lisa Mackay When Toyin Oladele took RAMP (Rozsa Arts Management Program) and began to work on her Capstone Project, few would have foreseen the impact it would have on the City of Calgary's arts community. What began as a program project eventually turned into a whole new organization; the Immigrant Council for Arts Innovation (ICAI). Toyin's own challenging experiences finding ways into the arts in Calgary as a newcomer and an immigrant artist and arts manager was the impetus behind ICAI, which began as a council of people dedicated to helping newly arrived artists and arts and culture workers find footing and employment in the city. From there ICAI grew into a registered organization, staffed by volunteers. As awareness of ICAI grew, so did the work, and the organization now has four paid staff members and has taken the summer to work on communications and expansion plans for the coming year. ICAI has developed several programs, including the Immigrant Arts Mentorship Program (IAMP), which concluded its first iteration in April. IAMP pairs newcomer arts professionals with local artists and arts managers working in the same fields to introduce the mentees to the Calgary arts community's people, processes, lingo, and landscape. Some of the other programs offered by ICAI include workshops, arts community meet and greets, artist talks, performances, and exhibitions. Toyin says she has learned a great deal in the past two years of running these programs and decided to dedicate the summer to putting her thoughts together and figuring out with her team how to use those learnings to improve ICAI. “I am very intentional,” laughed Toyin. “I need things to make sense and be practical. I don’t want to keep doing things the same way when I can clearly see better ways to work and better programs to create.”

One of the biggest things she has learned is that while their individual-focused approach was effective, it was also slow, and didn’t address the growing demands of the newcomer and immigrant community. “We just don’t have the kind of capacity required to help the number of people who come asking,” she explained. “Rather than creating new relationships one artist at a time, we want to focus now on building up relationships and knowledge that is available to everyone. The Rozsa Foundation, Calgary Arts Development, and Arts Commons, for example, know what we offer and how we do our programs. They, therefore, know how to support us and see that we are a resource for connecting with highly capable, qualified, and internationally trained arts professionals. We want to focus on developing further solid and informed relationships with more people in the arts community.”

IAMP Mentees, First Cohort

To work towards this goal, ICAI has hired a Communications and Engagement Manager, who will work on these relationships and communicate to the organization's two distinct stakeholders; newcomer and immigrant arts professionals and the Calgary arts community. The role of ICAI will be to connect the two in strategic and effective ways that benefit both groups. For the arts community, Toyin imagines an artist directory that groups and organizations can access and draw from when they are looking for talent that is more representational of the community at large. “We want to show people the amazing talent that immigrant artists bring with them, and help them find a place for their skills and experience in the community.” The more arts organizations and professionals know about ICAI and the work they do, the more they will have them in mind when dreaming up new projects, programming, or positions. The other half of the communications and engagement will be providing information and training for the varying needs of these new-to-Calgary arts professionals. “Not everyone who arrives here needs to necessarily apply for a grant. Some need to find exhibition space and meet local curators. Others need studio space or performance opportunities,” she pointed out. “We want to have these resources available to them, including access to the right people, so they can take those next steps, rather than having to rely on us for that."

A great example, she says (unprompted!), is the Rozsa Foundation arts leadership professional development courses. “I have learned so much in such a short time by going through all of those courses,” she said. “Integrating into the Calgary arts community required an understanding of the structure of Alberta non-profits, the systems for funding applications, and the lingo that is used here in the arts. I got all that from RAFT, and gained invaluable networking connections through RAMP.”

ICAI Board and Staff

Toyin has no desire to recreate these programs but wants instead to make sure that newcomers and immigrant artists know they exist and how to access them, starting with her own staff. “I realize every now and then how far I have come,” she laughed. “I encountered some confused faces from my staff and realized I was using all the lingo and knowledge I had learned. It was a good reminder that everyone starts at different places when they arrive. Now I have made sure that everyone at ICAI will be taking different professional development at Rozsa Foundation in the fall so we can all be on the same page.” Toyin knows it will be a lot of work to create, develop, and maintain the kinds of relationships and resources she knows will help new immigrant artists integrate into the Calgary arts scene, but seems unfazed. “I can see the kind of assistance and integration support new immigrant doctors or engineers get in this city – why should it not also exist for artists and culture workers? Who else is going to do it?” ICAI will be working in the fall with Alexandra Hatcher to do an audit of ICAI’s structure and compensation levels to make sure that everyone is making industry-standard wages, and that ICAI is built for the long haul. “I am so excited by the future of ICAI,” smiled Toyin. “I can see the difference and impact newcomers and immigrant arts professionals can have on the arts community in Calgary, and on the city itself as a result. I want to make this an inviting and welcoming city for skilled arts workers. This is just the beginning.”

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