28 May 2019

Mentorship and apprenticeship have been a longstanding tradition in the arts, where traditional methods of knowledge transfer existed long before schools specializing in training for the visual arts, theatre, music, dance, craft, literary arts, media arts, etc. In the arts, it is still tough to get started, and to keep going. Whether the need for transfer of knowledge and expertise presents itself at the beginning, middle, or end of an artist’s career, resources to support this activity are often scarce, and bandwidth within cultural institutions to make time for such activity is stretched thin. Artist residencies, courses, and conferences are available, but often the need is local and resides in the everyday. Cultivating a culture of mentorship at the local level makes practical sense.

Getting a leg up

Most artists and arts organizations are under-resourced (rarely enough funding, each person wears several hats to get the job done), so growth opportunities largely come through the act of doing – baptism by fire. Opportunities for formal training and mentorship are sometimes difficult because it might mean making an investment of time and money that mean temporarily sacrificing crucial income earnings. Here in Canada, we have granting programs that can help with short-term professional development, student loans for longer-term professional programs, and we have the Banff Centre, which was founded in 1933 as a learning centre to foster excellence in artistic and creative development in the arts. We’re fortunate to have such resources, but there are still barriers to access, even with grants and bursaries offered. Artists at the beginning of their careers (regardless of age) face the biggest obstructions. Such challenges are not unique to Canada, and it is interesting to investigate how problem-solving around this question plays out elsewhere.

The Big Idea: Paying it forward

I first came across The Big Idea / Te ariā nui of New Zealand when I met Elizabeth Vaneveld, its founder, at the IFACCA Summit in Santiago de Chile in 2014. She’s a human dynamo, and at the time, her full focus was bent on leveraging cross-sectoral knowledge – parlaying her business savvy to build a relevant online capacity-building platform for the arts and culture sector. She also wanted to build a window between the business community and the arts community to equip artists with a broader matrix of skills to help them succeed in making a living from their art practice. Elizabeth has since passed on the leadership baton, but her legacy is thriving.

On The Big Idea’s website resides a wealth of digital assets: articles, a list of events, job postings, advertisements, opportunities, (space/calls/collaborations, etc.) and a fantastic newsletter. Best of all, however, is the mentoring framework. Twice annually, a call for mentees goes out, inviting anyone in the arts sector to apply – you could be an artist, an arts professional, or employed by an arts organization. Once candidates are selected, a team of mentors develops a plan with each individual to cultivate skillsets tailored to the goals the artist-candidate has set for themselves. The team then works with the candidate until the goals are accomplished – and when the candidate has completed the work laid out for them, they in turn become part of the pool of potential mentors. The mentees become mentors, able to pay forward what they have learned. The program has grown, and is now available in several regions across New Zealand. The resulting community of mentorship practice is inspiring. It is a human, community-oriented, generous approach. We need more of this in the world! 

Akoulina Connell

Akoulina is an experienced executive and arts advocate who catalyzes systems transformation through co-creation and data innovation strategies to increase agility, transparency, and public engagement. She has worked in both the public and private sectors; she has led two provincial funding agencies, was managing editor of a literary press, worked in the IT sector, and has held communications roles for Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, Statistics Canada, Service Canada, and Transport Canada.