The Power Plant

Photo of Joshua Heuman, Curator of Education & Public Programs and Elyse Rodgers, Power Youth Coordinator,
Joshua Heuman, Curator of Education & Public Programs and Elyse Rodgers, Power Youth Coordinator,
We sat down with Joshua Heuman, Curator of Education & Public Programs and Elyse Rodgers, Power Youth Coordinator, to learn more about Power Youth and their outlook on providing youth with extraodinary and accessible arts programs.

First of all congratulations on being a finalist for the Arts for Youth Award. What is being nominated for this award mean to you?

Joshua: Wow. Well, The Power Plant works really, really hard to be as inclusive as possible when it comes to contemporary visual art. I think a big part of that is making sure that there are educational opportunities for people of all ages across the city. Power Youth is such a perfect example of that.

Elyse: It’s an honour to be nominated. Like Josh said we've been working on this since it officially started in 2014 but even before that, with a Toronto Arts Council grant, we did pilot a program. It's been an honor to be part of it since the beginning and see it grow over these past four years. To be nominated and to be recognized for that achievement - I think it’s great for the youth to see how well the program has grown as well as the artists in residence that they work with, because we are always looking for new artists.

What inspired the team at The Power Plant to create this program?

Joshua: Well that's a great question. I think contemporary art has a particular reputation and we want to make sure that [people know] that it's for everyone. Power Youth specifically focuses on underserved youth in parts of the city where contemporary art may be less accessible. The program began in Weston Mount Dennis at the Humber Clubhouse, the St. Alban's Boys and Girls Club as a pilot and expanded to include the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club and the Spruce Clubhouse in Regent Park. We feel very fortunate that just in the last year we've been able to expand to two more sites in Lawrence Heights and Sanderson Park as well. 

Elyse: We saw this need for youth programming as part of our gallery offerings, but we hadn’t hit that target youth audience and I think we were looking to continue to build. It's also an opportunity to employ working and teaching artists in the city. I think what's so great about contemporary art: we're constantly changing, constantly evolving. 

How are youth participants responding to the program? It must be exciting for them to create art with a professional artist and also have their work exhibited at one of Toronto’s leading contemporary art galleries.

Elyse: We have a 15 week intensive program where we all work together and learn from the youth about what they want to do, and they get to work with the artist to help them do it. For instance, last year they were really excited work with a spoken word and hip hop artist Testament (Matthew Ray Jones) from Unity Charity - we have a lot of crossover with other organizations too. [The youth participants] were really excited to be able to produce and host this variety event at our spring exhibition, which is at the Harbourfront Centre every year. A youth who worked with Testament wrote this really awesome poem and presented it. It was really moving, and at the end he said Testament taught him to be more open and express himself better, and that working at Power Youth has taught him to be more creative. I just spoke with a youth at Lawrence Heights and he told me what it meant to come to Power Youth. he said: “it’s a space that I won’t be judged to make art” and “it's also really cool to come together as a group to make a piece of art.” That was really moving.

How has the program impacting your artists in residence and how has it influenced their own artistic practices?

Elyse: I have the lucky opportunity to work really closely with these artists. What the artists learn most is to be flexible with their practices. We’ll have a call for proposals and they’ll submit a proposal based on an idea, based on their own work, sometimes in connection with exhibitions, and we want them to have that plan and project in mind, but we also want them to evolve with the youth. They know when they sign on, it's going to change. To work in these neighborhoods is not working in a fancy art studio. It's working with what we have, and that's okay. I think they learn to value the process of collaborative art making over making a final project because that’s what contemporary art is: it’s promoting the process and the ideas and how it relates to that. We've really supported different artists’ careers over the years. Some people were from Toronto, and some people from other countries who now call Toronto home. One artist in particular comes to mind that we worked with for a year, Ekow Nimako. He’s a Lego artist and he was selected because youth wanted to use everyday materials to make art. After working with him early on, he has taken some of the ideas he’s developed with us and offers “Building the Block” workshops which is an opportunity for youth to think about their futures for their families and their communities through Lego.

Joshua: I bumped into Carlos Delgado who was an artist-in-residence with Power Youth a year after his term with us and he reported that it was a great professional opportunity for him and that he really used it to springboard into showing in commercial galleries. He was really so occupied producing artwork for those opportunities that he felt he was drifting away from teaching opportunities.

Power Youth officially started in 2014. How has the program evolved since then and where do you see it going for the next few years?

Elyse: It evolved from a pilot program in January 2014 at just one clubhouse. We saw the results from that - seeing these kids come together and work together in this art making process for first time - they hadn’t had that opportunity before. We used what we learned from that to apply for an Ontario Trillium Foundation Seed grant from 2014 to 2017 which we received as well as additional funding from Toronto Arts Council each year and other sponsorships. That led us to then reach out to the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Clubs and Regent Park. We saw kids of different ages come in. Originally, we mostly had youth in the 13 to 18 age range, but we really now see this need for the 11 - 15 age range. .

This year, we've developed lots of different public programs with the library to test out what works. We're also worked in Lawrence Heights, building something from scratch. There is a lot of art programming in Lawrence Heights, but I think it's this contemporary art and our 15 week project that's something they never had before. One youth who I met this year said he’s been part of lots of art programs, but this is by far the best.

Why is it important to give youth access to the arts?

Joshua: When it comes to contemporary art, this is the art of our time. Everyone has heard me preach the gospel of contemporary art. Contemporary visual art is the visual art of our time, grappling with issues that are of global significance, of national significance, of local significance. Even if it's an artist from halfway around the world, what they are working on what they are speaking to relates to what we are experiencing here in Canada and here in Toronto specifically. The Power Plant is a facility that charges no admission, but even that isn't always the biggest obstacle. Sometimes it's “can we get there?” And if they can't get there, if they can't come out to The Power Plant, we will do our best to get to them.

Elyse: I think we’re in a period of time that schools, especially high schools, are not providing as much art education. For me, getting into this field and wanting to pursue art education, it’s seen that there's a need for arts institutions to start providing access to arts education. It’s one of the reasons why I have such a passion for this program. I was always more comfortable in museums than schools. I think teaching arts education not only teaches us to value art, it's being cultural custodians and seeing where art fits into the cultural landscape. It teaches creative thinking and abstract skills that can be applied in many different career paths.I think one of our major goals of the program is collaboration and teaching youth not only to explore these different art materials and gain skills, but to learn how to work together. They're gaining the skills, these communication skills and teamwork skills that are applied to any career path they choose.