Gritty Mississauga arts community making a name for itself
Mississauga is not known as a destination for lovers... of the arts.
The small but scrappy arts community within the city’s disjointed cultural scene is overshadowed, and somewhat consumed by the energy of Toronto’s dizzying gallery life, performance offerings and organic incubation of the next big thing.
Canada’s cultural epicentre hosts large star-studded events, has the institutional clout of the country’s major arts organizations and features a range of options to cultivate one’s craft.
The clustering of culture has a hive effect, often pulling artists and other creatives from across the country, the way bees are drawn to honey.
As a suburban-esque area, Mississauga is quietly trying to challenge the notion that the arts end before its borders. A push for more artistic life in the city has been led by local artists themselves and the Mississauga Arts Council (MAC), which has long been the beacon for those who wish to perform their craft in the community they call home.
MAC has assisted artists for years and since the start of the pandemic, Mike Douglas, executive director of MAC, has seen how important grants from the association are to keeping the cultural life of the city alive.
Over the last two years, MAC has received about $130,000 in special funding that has been given to local artists in the form of microgrants for small projects ranging from $1,000 to $6,500.
“I think that amount of money was enough to keep hope alive,” Douglas says.
By connecting artists to opportunities in the region the council has given hope to many who would have otherwise met the same fate of so many whose passion comes with constant sacrifice.
Though many suffered through the last 19 months, barely able to pay the bills, some artists found the opportunity to take a step back.
Rohan Dhupar is attending the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London England, he is in a program called creative practice. It focuses on the development and process of creative expression through exploration.
“Honestly, I never really saw myself staying in Mississauga, after wanting to pursue the arts,” Dhupar told The Pointer. “But it sort of came on my radar that there were opportunities to be a practicing professional artist in Mississauga without having to venture too far out.”
The born and raised Mississauga artist attended Cawthra Park Secondary School in their dance program and was exposed to MAC through the arts school. For post-secondary Dhupar switched his focus to musical theatre at Sheridan College in Oakville.
After finishing school in the United Kingdom, Dhupar says he will be returning to the City and continue collaborating with the artists in the area. Giving him inspiration is Colleen Snell who owns Frog in Hand, a Mississauga based dance-theatre company.
“Colleen has been a really great mentor to me since a few years ago in developing my practice and developing my goals in being a professional artist, and situating myself within the context of the City of Mississauga,” Dhupar said.
Frog in Hand uses places as a way to ground their art. The pieces they perform are rooted in the atmosphere and environment where the artists find themselves in.
“Mississauga has always been a really beautiful place,” Snell told The Pointer. “I'm very connected to place, and I'm moved by the idea that when we enter public spaces, our work gathers more meaning because it's connected to the people we find there.”
Snell has created her art in many different places, like Montreal and London, England, but there was always something pulling her back to her hometown.
Colleen Snell (left) participating in a dance class.
(Photo by Francesca Chudnoff)
Hers is not the typical, shop-worn Hollywood story of young starlets who leave their small town for the bright lights and big city.
There are misconceptions some artists have about Mississauga as being a place that lacks opportunities, she says. The various industry scenes are growing, in large part because of MAC, but also because of the artists who choose to stay and create within Canada’s sixth largest city.
With a recent mega-push by local leaders to invest in massive studio spaces for film and television production, artists like Snell could represent the start of a new wave.
“I keep coming back to Mississauga because I want to make the arts accessible and listen to the things that are already happening here,” she says.
There is a huge ecosystem of independent artists and cultural infrastructure within Toronto, something Snell hopes she can create in Mississauga as well. She does this by using spaces unique to the City like the Small Arms Inspection Building in Port Credit. The factory used to create ammunition and guns for the troops in the Second World War, but now represents a creative space to host dance-theatre performances.
With more and more younger urban professionals flocking to areas like Port Credit, the once sleepy suburban feel of Mississauga is rapidly being replaced by a much more cosmopolitan vibe.
The first large professional show Frog in Hand put on appeared at the Small Arms Inspection Building.
“Folks from all walks of life were congregating there, and all with this idea that they could save the space and reclaim it for, for people,” Snell says. “I just sort of feel [it] in my bones when I look at the lake… It just feels right to be here.”
Zachary Seto, a 16-year-old student at Cawthra Park Secondary School, has also found a desire to create in his own city.
“My main goal was really trying to find different opportunities to put out my art, and as I always say, bring my visions to life,” Seto told The Pointer.
While many were stuck at home longing for normal life, Seto trusted the process and critically thought about how the pandemic affected him. As the pandemic took shape, Seto worked through his emotions and created his art by drawing from unique perspectives many of us were forced to see this strange new world from.
Zachary Seto (left) with his duet partner Rakeem Hardy at Seto’s last self-funded creation called Nostalgic Beings of Synthesia.
(Photo by Anita Wing Lee)
He wanted to show his work to the world but faced barriers during the process of applying for grants. Instead of letting it defeat him, he found determination.
“It was trusting the process and stepping into the unknown, because when you do that you don't know what's ahead, but you just know you can trust yourself, which is the only thing that really matters,” Seto says.
The grade 11 dance student applied for any grant he could to bring his idea of a dance film to the screen. MAC was the first to accept his idea. Seto is a new member to the council, and after completing his dance project, Estrella Emergence, wanted to give back.
“I did this by going to different places and saying, would you want to be a part of the project and just building it up?”
The final product was filmed at the Port Credit Small Arms Inspection Building, and featured dancers from the elite Juilliard School for the Performing Arts, the Canadian Contemporary Dance Company, Ryerson University and the Toronto Argos dance team.
MAC strongly engages artists to get involved within the community, and by promoting art to the city and forming partnerships with various industries for collaborations on projects, the association firmly stands behind Mississauga artists. Douglas told The Pointer, MAC recently picked up a contract to paint a mural in a new building. The project will employ seven artists with a budget of approximately $45,000.
An scene from Frog in Hand's Stories in the Woods production.
(Photo by Nettie Seip)
MAC provides members with opportunities to learn from experts in their respective fields, help them market themselves or apply for government grants; these experiences never come with a cost for the participants.
“If you'd phoned us up and said, ‘I need a wedding singer’, we would get you one, and it wouldn't cost you anything, and it wouldn't cost the wedding singer either,” Douglas says. “We're about creating opportunities for artists to lift the quality of life in Mississauga.”
For Gabriela Rodgers, MAC has provided a stepping stone for her full-time career as a singer and songwriter. Since the age of 12, she’s participated in open mics, where twice or three times a week she could be found after school.
One evening at a Metalworks Studio event, Rodgers was approached by a non-profit organization explaining how she should join to connect with other artists in the industry. Little did she know this association would soon grow to be the place for Mississauga artists and provide Rodgers with many experiences that helped build her career.
“It was more like granting me an opportunity,” Rodgers says of MAC. “They would say ‘Oh, there's a singing competition coming up, you should go audition for it’.”
Gabriela Rodgers began her singing career at age 12, and compared to other artists, she said she “started late.”
Since becoming a member, Rodgers has shared her voice during sporting events and at fundraisers. After taking a step away from the industry, she was greeted with a Mississauga Arts Award (MARTY) from MAC for best emerging artist.
“I like the fact that I have more recognition in my city,” Rodgers tells The Pointer. “Since I started off in the arts council they've always been behind me and they've always given me the opportunities.”
Like many artists in MAC, Snell is particularly proud of the work accomplished with the backing of the association. The countless emails, Zoom meetings and understanding of her art means more than just financial assistance. Frog in Hand largely showcases contemporary dance, which can sometimes be misunderstood, especially in suburban environments, she says.
MAC has encouraged her unique vision and helps advocate for more Mississauga-based artistry.
“I just always feel that they emphasize and understand and believe in the work that I'm doing,” she said.
While MAC’s artists are appreciative of the ongoing support, emotionally and artistically, to continue to perform they need financial support as well. MAC cannot support its artists solely from their grants which is where the City of Mississauga needs to lend a hand.
For 2022, the municipality is offering four grants for various cultural events, performances and arts, all which assist organizations to continue their work. The grants are not specifically arts-based and are available for all non-profits.
Rohan Dhupar (centre) performing in Distance Dances under dance-theatre company Frog in Hand.
(Photo by Kendra Epik)
In February 2019, the Brampton Arts Coalition Committee (BACC) delegated to Brampton City Council raising issues of almost non existent funding from the City to its arts community. The group used a conservative population for the time of 594,000 residents and found Brampton was putting less than a dollar per person toward the arts. During the same presentation, a conservative estimate of $2.76 was how much Mississauga was putting toward the arts.
Toronto in comparison to the Peel cities, spent far more money than both combined as shown by the BACC presentation. In 2016, the Toronto Arts Foundation explained in its art fact sheet how much of an economic impact the arts accounted for in the city.
That year, the arts and culture sector contributed $11.3 billion to Toronto’s GDP, greater than the combined GDP of the energy, agriculture, forestry and mining sectors in Ontario.
Compared to other major cities in Canada, both Brampton and Mississauga spend merely a fraction on the arts.
The pandemic has decimated arts and cultural industries across the province. Billions of dollars in revenue and fundraising has been interrupted.
Estimates for operating revenue in 2020 in all of Canada’s arts, culture, entertainment and recreation sectors fell, despite government assistance. Less than half of the pre-pandemic operating revenue was generated during 2020, leaving workers to use emergency benefits; more than half employed in the sector used the subsidies, according to a Statistics Canada report.
The Canadian Emergency Revenue Benefit (CERB), according to Douglas, kept hope alive for many people.
“This was hugely, hugely helpful at keeping, not only the artists whole, but the venues whole,” Douglas says. “It's been a phenomenal testament to enabling the arts to survive.”
As politicians plow forward with reopening the economy, Douglas is worried what the end of CERB will look like in the arts industry. Despite restrictions on capacity limits lifting and Ontario moving forward with further reopening plans, he is not confident everything will return to normal anytime soon. Many people have been accustomed to being at home or are not ready to be around people just yet.
There will be an audience-acceptance hill to climb Douglas says, which will take time.
“I'm afraid, like tourism, we are going to be the last one back, and are going to suffer the greatest scars from this pandemic, economically.”
He says the arts are invaluable, a magical and spiritual experience to understand our fellow humans and our own humanity.
“The arts help us to know ourselves and to meet other people, and to cross bridges that couldn't exist without nonverbal communication,” Snell adds.
For her and other artists in Mississauga, their creations benefit the life of the city and the lives of its inhabitants. It connects the community, often without saying a word.
“It's like having a whole series of colours,” Snell vividly explains. “A whole palette of emotion that you can reach for when words fail, because words have failed and will continue to fail. So there needs to be something else.”
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