Five BOLD Ideas around Mental Health for Calgary Artists and Arts Workers


by Lisa Mackay


One year ago our Rozsa Executive Arts Leadership (REAL) participants shared their final presentations online instead of in-person for the first time. We captured those presentations through written summaries, blog posts, as well as graphic recordings by Calgary artist Sam Hester. One pair of participants, however, did not do their presentation at that time. The sudden onset of COVID-19 created a level of stress and practical challenges made it difficult for them to get together and create a presentation for their complex challenge: How might we better care for the mental health of Calgary’s artists and arts workers? When the dust of the pandemic began to settle, Col Cseke and Scott Carey refocused on their complex question, and found it incredibly timely and prescient. They created a podcast as their version of the presentation to present their five BOLD ideas.

For context, each REAL participant was to identify a complex issue that they are facing in their arts organization, which was then elevated to an arts-sector-wide issue. A complex issue is defined as an issue that has multiple perspectives, multiple parts, and multiple solutions. The participants were paired up based on their proposed issue. The duos of participants then got together to come up with five different ways to approach and deal with the complex issue they had identified.

Col and Scott had a full year’s worth of experiences, many of which both exacerbated the mental health issues in the arts community and focused increased attention on how to address them. They identified five trends they felt were at the crux of the matter, and used existing programs or Calgary groups to both illustrate an approach to the trend and introduce ways of working towards permanent solutions. This approach to the final presentation not only lead to a more concrete conversation, but highlighted and boosted some creative and successful initiative in the city.

The analysis of which trends to include and which resources to share drew from their unique perspectives. Col Cseke is a playwright, director, and community collaborator. He’s the Artistic & Executive Director of Inside Out Theatre and has had the pleasure of premiering many new works as a playwright or co-creator on stages across Calgary. Previously Col was the Alberta Theatre Projects’ Playwright-in-Residence, Artistic Associate for The Scottish Opera’s Anamchara international project, Co-Artistic Director of Verb Theatre, and spent 8 years as a member of the Downstage Creation Ensemble. Under Col's leadership Inside Out has been recognized with a Not-For-Profit Innovation Award and a Cultural Leaders Legacy Award at the Mayor's Lunch for Art Champions. As an individual Col was also presented with a Cultural Leaders Legacy Award and was named to Avenues Top 40 Under 40 list in 2018. Scott Carey works as the Grant Writer at the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. He is also a working musician, performing evenings and weekends at corporate, wedding, and festival events. Outside of work, he spends a lot of time hiking in the mountains, watching basketball, golfing, gardening, reading, and learning and listening to new music.

Their five BOLD ideas outline important aspects of the issues of and solutions to mental health and wellness for Calgary’s artists and arts workers.

1. MENTAL HEALTH AND FINANCIAL WELLBEING: The pandemic has highlighted discrepancies in income between artists and the rest of society. Even the Federal Government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) money could only go to full time or part-time staff, not to contractors, though it did illustrate that Universal Basic Income was functionally possible, effective, and potentially life-saving. Col and Scott discussed how Universal Basic Income as a concept gained traction in the past year. They pointed to Basic Income YYC, a Calgary-based group that “ believe in and support the creation of a basic income guarantee program that would create a regular, predictable income, universally and unconditionally available to all who need it, and sufficient to provide for a decent life style and enable full participation in the community.” The group’s inaugural project gave local artists from the disabled, deaf, and mad community an honourarium to explore the topic and create an artistic response. The results are still posted on Basic Income YYC’s website. This first BOLD idea was thoroughly discussed and dissected from multiple angles. Scott brought up the GoFundMe pages for artists, citing the Jazz Musician Relief fund as one that was effective, especially since the money distributed had no strings, regulations, requirements, or paperwork involved.

2. RACIAL EQUITY AND MENTAL HEALTH: The pandemic also highlighted the racial inequities of our society, and Col and Scott reflected on how this impacts access to, and quality of, mental health support for IBPOC communities. They pointed out that racism itself IS a health issue for marginalized communities. The work of Colour Factor was discussed, a non-profit organization aimed at decolonizing wellness and creating brave spaces of healing for the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) community, through conversation, collaboration and creativity. Citizen Artists YYC was another group discussed, particularly their Chat & Chew gatherings. They are a group that “see the importance of keeping equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility (EDIA) concerns front and centre as we go through so much change everywhere including the arts sector.” And finally, they discussed the impact of the 35/50 initiative - a Calgary and Edmonton-based call-in to performing arts organizations and collectives receiving public funds to ensure inclusion and equity of IBPOC and women/non-binary individuals. The first collective action item the 35//50 Initiative has brought forward is to achieve a minimum of 35% IBPOC and 50% women or non-binary people in paid, professional positions by the 2024/2025 theatre season

3. MAD PRACTICE: The third BOLD idea turns to the Mad community, and the importance of recognizing that mental health is not separate from other aspects of one’s health or life, it isn’t one and done. Mad practice, a term coined by Calgary artist JD Derbyshire, is about reclaiming the identity of people with mental illness with pride and celebration. They pointed to JD’s show Certified, which casts the audience in the role of “a Mental Health Review Board tasked with determining JD’s current state of sanity by the end of the show.” It is through experiences such as this, Col and Scott determined, that the community can understand the multiple ways that mental illness is lived and experienced.

4. ART AS THERAPY VS THERAPEUTIC: The pandemic has forced many people to shift their experiences and expectations of art. Whether you are an art lover that had to adapt to online performances, or a person who picked up an instrument or paint brush for the first time while stuck at home, the pandemic has underlined the importance of art to our lived experience. How will this change the conversations around art post-pandemic? Will this change the way we create art? Is this an opportunity for arts advocacy? And is it dangerous to value art simply for its therapeutic qualities in society? While discussing these topics, Col recommended looking at the work of rice & beans theatre out of Vancouver. This theatre company featured the stories of migrant workers, and intended to tell their stories as a theatrical operetta production. When it, along with the rest of the performing arts world, was cancelled, they dove into creating multiple way into the stories, beyond a stage production. They hosted a talk show online, created Spotify playlists, an “agricultural EP” of the songs that had been prepared, a podcast, and a digital song cycle. This widening of entry points makes the important stories perhaps more meaningful to listeners, and changes the way their audience experiences art.

5. WORKPLACE CULTURES IN THE ARTS SECTOR: Col and Scott discussed the office and workplace cultures that arts workers navigate, and whether they are helpful or harmful to mental health. The pandemic has again opened up a more fulsome conversation sector-wide around the mental health of staff, and a look at whether existing policies are sufficient. They also broached the subject of toxic positivity as it relates to work environments, where the topic of mental health can be awkward and quickly shut down with dismissive positive statements. This can make issues more difficult to bear, and doesn’t prepare staff for conflict or the emotions of others. There are necessary conversations where colleagues are going to feel intense emotions, such as those around Black Lives Matter, or #StopAAPIHate, and to insist on polite, respectful tones, is to prioritize the comfort of the many over the justified emotions of the few. Both Col and Scott felt that it was important to foster work environments where mental health conversations are welcomed and encouraged in a safe space.

You can download their podcast here, where it is presented in two parts. What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you think Col and Scott covered the most pertinent aspect of mental health in the arts sector? We invite your feedback on social media, on our blog, or by emailing any of us.

The other Five BOLD Ideas presentations can be found here, and we encourage you to have a listen! This year’s cohort of the REAL program will be doing their presentations a bit differently as well. They will be part of an Arts Leaders Speaker Series currently in development. Stay tuned for more information on attending these events!

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