This article is part of a 4-part guest series on the community arts sector, by Tasneem Dairywala.
Tasneem is an award-winning contemporary visual artist and educator. Outside of her personal art practice, Tasneem works as the Executive Director of Art Ignite, and brings inclusive visual arts programming to the Flemingdon Park neighbourhood.
Tasneem will be releasing her first children's book, How to Show Love, in Spring/ Summer 2022. To stay up to date on her work, subscribe to her monthly newsletter and follow her on Instagram. Stay tuned for her next post!
Part 1 (2015-2019)
I want to use this post to write about my journey as a professional artist and share what I found helpful along the way. I hope the links provided will help you as you begin your career.
When I graduated from OCAD in 2015, I had absolutely no idea about how I could use a BFA degree to find work. I had a lot of health issues during my student years, and it took me 6 years to graduate. During this time, I didn’t develop the type of friendships I had hoped for because I was always in between different years. So I began my career clueless, but determined. If you’re reading this post, you know about ArtReach, which makes you already way ahead of where I was upon graduation.
I had a Parks, Forestry and Recreation job as an art instructor since high school. One day, there was an information session for employees. I had never spoken to the facilitator before but that day I decided to, and I am so glad! I asked if there were any openings for art instructors. There weren’t, but he pointed me towards someone else he knew who told me about Toronto Arts Council.
I was so thrilled at the idea of getting a grant to do projects I designed. So I researched all the grants I was interested in, and then looked up organizations that were funded by them. I joined all of their newsletters, and then sent them all emails introducing myself and requesting meetings. Many of them responded and I finally felt visible and supported. This is the best part about this sector. People genuinely want to help.
Through these newsletters, I found out about Cultural Hotspot. I didn’t know what Cultural Hotspot was but I decided to go to their information session. They were focusing on East York that year, and North York the next year. I live and work right at the boundary of East York and North York so I was very lucky and got awarded grants two years in a row. This was my step in the door. This is how I met staff from The Neighbourhood Office, North York Arts and Flemingdon Park Library, where I still facilitate programs. I delivered my first art programs while volunteering at North York Arts and Vibe Arts. This helped me meet amazing mentors who provided me with so much support. A special shout out to Melissa Foster from NYA!
As my experience with programs grew, and as I developed more relationships, the amount of grants I got also increased. I didn’t suddenly turn into an amazing grant writer. I had just gotten to know lots of fabulous folks who wanted me to succeed and were willing to spend their time correcting my errorful writing. Allie and Paulina were part of my ‘Go Tasneem!’ team. Thank you to you both!
All this time, I was still looking for work and hadn’t realized that I had created a lot of amazing fulfilling work for myself. Owais Lightwala, my only friend in the sector at that time, was the first one to point this out. He encouraged me to register a non-profit organization so I could apply for bigger grants and volunteered to be the Board Chair. With help from him, my husband and a lot of other wonderful supportive people, Art Ignite was born, and it’s been going strong for almost 5 years now. At the time I was registering, a lot of people told me it was not easy to sustain a non-profit and that most failed within 5 years, and I was like, “But I have a vision board!!! It will succeed!” And I was right! Vision boards are awesome. So is being ‘Executive Director’. Although that title comes with doing review engagements. I was not aware of those when I registered. They’re awful. If you decide to register a non-profit, make sure you have at least one board member who understands how they work inside and out. Don’t take this on by yourself!
This led to project grants from Ontario Arts Council, Toronto Art Council, Inspirit Foundation, and of course, ArtReach. While registering as a non-profit isn’t necessary to apply to most of these grants, it does open up more opportunities and gives me the freedom to work independently. I had a baby two years after Art Ignite’s incorporation. After that, I was extremely grateful to work under an organization I was in charge of. No other job would have provided me with the flexibility I needed while parenting a newborn. It’s also really wonderful to have created an entity that now supports other artists along with myself.
Every opportunity I received is linked to relationships I made in my first year as a professional. I had to take that first step of researching, reaching out and staying visible in order to find work. I hope this post will help you get started on your journey!