At this month’s “Creative Catalyst: Art & Social Innovation” symposium, the Ryerson School of Interior Design became home to a discussion that arises every so often into collective consciousness: art and social innovation.
Simply put, art and social innovation is the idea that art, in all its broad, amorphous incarnations, can be utilized towards changing a variety of social circumstances for the better. The event discussed questions like, “How can art drive public engagement and hope?” “How can art inspire new social economies?” and “Should artists be expected to enable social change?”
Featuring remarkable personalities such as photographer Ed Burtynsky, curator Sophie Hackett and artist Steven Lambert,the event was orchestrated by creative agency Madeleine Co. The inter-disciplinary agency’s mandate is to utilize creativity for the dissemination of ideas and dialogue, particularly in the name of social innovation, bringing to light social issues such as youth empowerment and diversity in representation.
“In this day and age it’s really hard to capture attention from people because we’re just so distracted, we’re overwhelmed by all this information from people about all these different issues around the world,” said Nicole Bazuin of Madeleine Co. The design group aims to create fun, immersive experiences that allow the research surrounding a variety of issues to reach an audience it would not have otherwise reached on both a micro and macro level. Micro, in the sense that it can have individual effect, macro, in the potential for systemic effect.
What makes artists relevant to this discussion? According to Madeleine Co., it’s that artist’s undefined role in society leaves them unbound by restrictions. They’re granted the freedom to take risks, and risk is essential for innovation. Madeleine Co.’s Cheryl Hsu points out, is that, “art can communicate a message in a powerful way without pandering or preaching.”
For example, Burtynsky’s devastating photographs of landfills, factories and landscapes inform the viewer in a way that leads them to think and come to their own conclusions. It relieves the dissemination of knowledge of being patronizing, which could deter engagement with research.
The symposium itself, sold-out, succeeded in its drawing of a crowd who displayed a genuine interest in the topic. That being said, it is important to question whether events like these truly facilitate the kind of environment necessary to ignite social change. Or if rather, they serve to stand in for any actual social change, leaving the audience feeling like they’ve already accomplished something merely by showing up.
Madeleine Co. cited their desired demographic as reaching beyond the art world, inviting policy makers and industry in order to combat the sort of closed circuit discussion that runs in circles. An admirable goal, but in reality, the demographic, mostly students/academics, may have ranged in profession, but potentially failed in socio-economic diversity. This is likely due to the fee for entrance.
The threat here of course, is that this event was only accessible to an audience which is already familiar with such issues and ideas as opposed to igniting discourse amongst demographics unfamiliar with the matter. That being said, Madeleine Co. has held events with similar themes in the past for free.
For the time being, the concept of art for social change has been re-brought to the forefront of our consciousness. Madeleine Co. gave a convincing argument as to why artists make ideal purveyors of such change, and the symposium offered up some interesting topics and discussions.
Perhaps whether or not change is quantifiable is irrelevant and the real benefit of events like these are that they remind us of the persistent need for improvement. They lead us to consider the power of art for social change, and to go forth after social innovation with informed optimism. This kind of recognition of the power of art’s role in societal betterment not only serves to validate the role of the artist within society, but also serves to call upon artists to utilize their creativity for the betterment of society. The call has been made, let action resume.