CSARN 2018 : Entering the “mystical age of ageism”

Addressing challenges that face senior artists

Earl Miller recently attended the CSARN 2018 Annual Conference in Toronto on behlf of the VAAAAV. Here’s his report.

CSARN (Canadian Senior Artists’ Resource Network) is a non-profit organization established to help professional artists “keep active and creative as they age”. It held its 2018 annual conference Maintaining Creativity 3: Relevance on April 19th at Toronto’s Metro Reference Library. The 2018 conference was divided into three sections: a panel titled Relevance, a talk on the effect of the arts on memory by the neurologist Luis Fornazzari, and a panel on “housing options.”

The first and the third were of direct interest to senior artists as these panels centred on the precarity and challenges they face (memory is certainly topical, but outside of art being linked to memory retention, Fornazzari’s lecture was relevant neither to quotidian nor professional concerns). Relevance was inspirational and offered a theme germane to senior artists’ career retention. More importantly, however, it highlighted community as central to senior artists’ policy, a theme that the housing panel strongly reiterated. While short on immediate solutions, it underscored the urgency of addressing senior artists’ housing, which is at a crisis point in Toronto just as it is in other Canadian centres. That urgency plus the call for prioritizing community made Maintaining Creativity 3 worthwhile as a springboard for the discussion and implementation of policy that impacts seniors in the visual arts, media arts, and crafts.

3) Report

Maintaining Creativity 3: Relevance was a well-attended conference with nearly 200 audience members, 1/3 of whom were visual artists, at least by hand count. The conference offered artists a solid starting point for further discussion on senior artists’ precarity. Before discussing the takeaways though, one important caveat: only one indigenous person was in attendance in a room of mostly white senior-aged women. This shortcoming was lost on speakers with the exception of the keynote, actor/filmmaker R.H. Thomson. Accordingly, the conference bypassed inter-sectionality except for passing mentions of senior women’s housing problems and race and gender marginalization among actors. What Thomson did note that was reiterated in the conference’s two panels, Relevance and Housing Options, was senior artists’ need for community. The subsequent exploration of community, especially in relation to seniors’ housing, made this conference worth attending.

Actor and singer Taborah Johnson set Relevance’s tone as inspirational rather than informative, reciting a motivational spoken word poem with evocative lines such as entering “the mystical age of ageism” and then “I am a lance to pierce the shroud of ageism.” Shortly after Johnson’s recitation, the nettling question of just how to maintain relevance in an ageist society received varied responses. Both Max Dean (the only visual or media artist on the panel) and Thompson pointed to seizing “opportunity” for retaining relevance. Gibson, a writer and retired publisher, stressed maintaining one’s presence as established earlier in life. Johnson reminded the audience to “make your voice heard.” In contrast to ranging thoughts on relevance, there was consensus that a supportive community was of central importance. Thomson reminded us that “art is a community experience.” This discussion of community, moreover, links the Relevance panel to the subsequent Housing Options one.

As Housing Options’ moderator Scott Walker told the audience, “Everybody in the room is concerned about where they are going to live as they got older.” The consensus among the four panelists (Jessa Aglio, Beth Komito-Gottlieb, Andreas Kalogiannides, and Sean Gadon), all of whom hold expertise in public housing, was that housing in Toronto is at a crisis point with seniors particularly vulnerable. Kalogiannides, the Executive Director of Toronto Music City, a non-profit building serving Toronto musicians, warned that “if we don’t get these solutions right in the next five or six seven years, all the things that make Toronto a good place to work will disappear.” Aglio concurs. An arts administrator, advocate, and founder of “Groundstory,”an initiative addressing the impact of gentrification on the arts, she sees firsthand that “It’s a crisis out there.” Sean Gadon, the Director of the City of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Office, acknowledged the lack of affordable community-controlled housing in Toronto and the financial challenges seniors face (65 year olds pay 50% of their income to rent, and that number rises dramatically as they age).

The consensus solution-wise was that dependence on the city to build affordable housing is unrealistic in today’s developer-friendly climate. Gadon stressed that arts groups must take initiative to develop an “intentional community” (a planned residential community). Thus, Beth Komito-Gottlieb, a steering committee member of a feminist-inspired housing project for senior women called Baba Yaga Place, presented a workable model for a planned community, and Kalogiannides outlined an ambitious community-building resource. And Gadon did end on an optimistic note, informing the audience that with the city, “you persevere, and you win.” But lobbying let alone development can take years. For those going nowhere on the long waiting lists for housing, Aglio mentioned her organization is studying how to generate more revenue for artists so they can stay in increasingly unaffordable cities.

Did Maintaining Creativity 3 itself lead to anything proactive? In short, no, but problem pinpointing and solution raising mark a solid beginning. The financial well-being of senior artists is at risk, not just in Toronto but across Canada in large and mid-sized cities. Clearly, time is of the essence in addressing senior artists’ precarity.

– Earl Miller, May 2018