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Art and Social Justice: AGO Creative Minds Talk at Massey Hall: Guest Blog By Amy Bagshaw

As emerging Interior Designers, the way you address space and accessibility has power and can positively change lives. Established artists and designers can offer insight into how your work can be, perhaps should be, transformative. As famed Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei suggests: Everything is Art. Everything is Politics.


On Sept. 20th, 2016 Massey Hall in Toronto, CBC Arts, The AGO, and The Banff Centre hosted a powerhouse panel of artist-activists in their inaugural Creative Minds lecture series.   Moderated by CBC’s Matt Galloway, Giller Prize Winner writer Andre Alexis, Canadian interdisciplinary artist Rebecca Belmore, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta, and award-winning musician Buffy Sainte-Marie spoke candidly for over an hour on topics of oppression, inspiration, arts activism, and surprisingly, optimism.


To a sold out and enthusiastic crowd who were welcomed by an incredible performance by soprano Measha Brueggergosman, the panel wove engaging stories and described artistic motivation through the standpoint of their experiences with race, gender, and class.   Galloway opened the discussion with a challenging question: What is Social Justice? All of the panel members, including Galloway, struggled with this question.   It seems that this is one of the reasons the panel was put together in the first place: because the appearance of Social Justice is as elusive as the definition. It is hard to define because our experiences with it are so remote. This lecture created an opportunity to extend this important conversation, not to pinpoint the final definition per se, but rather to say: here is where Social Justice is needed, these are the groups that are working tirelessly to make this happen (eg Black Lives Matter, Idle No More), and here is how art and design can give the immediacy and inspiration to make change embodied. Fellow audience member and scholar of Equity Studies and Social Justice Kimberley Duguay commented “What the panel brought to light was how difficult it was to find the definition of social justice and that it brings us to essentially ask more questions; to question where to find social justice in a country that is still in the slow-moving process of de-colonizing.” Indeed, to a rousing response Buffy Saint Marie gave the catch-phrase of the night: Stay Calm and De-Colonize.


To consider art as a conversation, and a dialogue that assumes risk has positioned these artists as controversial. Addressing issues of marginalization, power, and visibility while moving towards inclusive has not been an easy road for these or any artists who have struggled to be heard. As Canada approaches its 150 year anniversary in 2017, The Creative Minds summit considers if Social Justice is being practiced by Canadians and if, as Deepa Mehta (whose new film “Anatomy of Violence” was debuted at TIFF this year) suggests, the “hope for peace” is being realized. In closing, the artists shared that it is many young activists that are inspiring them to continue to be optimistic about the future.


Leaving the talk, I found the panel’s optimism was infectious. Agreeing that it is often the new fresh minds that inspire change, I am reminded how my student’s eagerness to explore and change their environments transforms my outlook on the world. It is often too easy to slip into despair with the tragedies occurring every day in our world, but pursuing a career in the noble field of Interior Design doesn’t just distract us from harsh realities with pretty spaces, it creates opportunities for communities to come together, revolutionizes the way we live and work and exist together locally and globally, and inspires others to do the same. What if your designs were also political – tools to manifest Social Justice? Creativity, in all its forms, is a conversation. What is your creativity trying to say?


The Creative Minds series will continue in the Spring of 2017. Check out for more details.


Amy Bagshaw is the new Program Coordinator of the Bachelor of Interior Design at RCC Institute of Technology. She currently teaches Art History (on campus and online) and will be teaching Design & Society in the fall.  She has been hired as Program Coordinator effective September 19.

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