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Celebrating CSI Alumni: STEPS Public Art

STEPS Public Art, one of CSI’s many esteemed alumni, celebrated a pretty big milestone recently – 10 years! Please join us in giving them a hearty round of applause for so many years of excellent work.

Late last year, we had the privilege of taking part in a video dedicated to STEPS anniversary. You can check out their full video here, and catch a condensed version below featuring CSI CEO, Tonya Surman, and STEPS Executive Director, Alexis Kane Speer. 

After their big anniversary party at CSI Spadina, we knew we had to catch up with them to learn more about their experience and their first decade of social impact. Read on for the full interview!

1. Tell us about STEPS!

STEPS Public Art is a Canadian charity and social enterprise. Through public art management, cultural planning, hoarding exhibits, and artist capacity building services, we bring meaningful public art projects across the country. We also run charitable programs that support artists and communities (such as the CreateSpace Public Art Residency).

Community is at the heart of what we do. You might know us for landmark murals (like the Equilibrium Mural), but our portfolio includes mixed media installations, research, and strategic cultural plans.

2023 was a special year because it marked our 10-year anniversary (fun fact: we started out at CSI)! Since then, we’ve grown on a national scale to bring new services, programs, and public art initiatives across Canada. Our work continues to support equity-deserving artists and foster vibrant communities through public art.

2. How did you get your start, 10 years ago?

I’ve always personally been interested in the role that art can play in reimagining spaces and getting people talking about social issues. Following an incubation at CSI, STEPS launched our first public art project. The program began as a platform for young people to engage with issues in public space in St. James Town, one of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods at the time. This relationship with St. James Town led to the creation of the World’s Tallest Mural, our first large scale public art installation.

During this time, it was CSI’s advisory support that led to the development of our charitable social enterprise model, strategic goals, and board of directors. This entrepreneurial environment allowed STEPS to scale its services and become the national public art organization it is today servicing municipalities, developers, and communities.

3. What were some moments of growth and big impact that stand out from the last decade?

STEPS is recognized as Canada’s only national charity focused on cultivating vibrant public spaces and multidisciplinary public art. To date, we’ve achieved:

  • 800+ public art installations
  • 1,320+ paid artist opportunities
  • 3,445+ youth leadership opportunities
  • 36,000+ community engagement opportunities

During the 2020 pandemic, we expanded our team nationally to support artists and clients across the country. We launched new services across cultural planning and public art management that respond to the unique needs of communities of all sizes. We also started hosting national residencies and forums to cultivate mentorship, training, and paid opportunities for emerging and equity-deserving artists.

When we began this work, there were no organizations supporting the advancement of community-engaged public art across Canada. We’re motivated to get Canadians more engaged with shaping public spaces and we look forward to the next decade of public art impact!

4. What do you anticipate for the future of STEPS?

We get really excited about innovation and experimenting with new media, so you can expect more large-scale, multimedia work in the future! On top of that, we’re working on developing larger cultural plans, conducting more public art research, and deepening our relationships with Canadian artists and networks to bring more meaningful cultural projects to life. Our programs and services will continue to evolve to respond to the changing needs of communities.

We don’t know what Canadian cities will look like in the future. But we believe in the power of public art and the important role that artists and communities play in making public spaces feel safe and welcoming.

5. What’s a lasting idea about the importance of public art that you’d like to leave people with?

Public art is more than just a mural–it sparks conversations and new ways of interaction with public spaces. Public art has the ability to amplify underrepresented voices, strengthen communities, and ultimately foster a sense of home and belonging.

Most of all, public art can be a catalyst for social change. For an artist, it can be an opportunity to showcase diverse stories through artistic expression. For a community, it means feeling safer in spaces surrounded by art that is representative of its community members. For STEPS, it means providing opportunities that fosters equitable public art practices and strengthens community well-being.

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