Harbourfront Centre, Toronto: making sure ‘everyone is imagined’

Harbourfront Centre is an international centre for contemporary arts, culture and ideas, operating a 10-acre campus in Toronto, Canada. Joe Turnbull spoke to Iris Nemani, Chief Programming Officer at Harbourfont about its engagement with disabled artists and audiences over several years, culminating in CoMotion, its first international Deaf and Disability Arts Festival, which took place in April 2022.

Aerial shot of a large arts centre overlooking the water front in Toronto
Harbourfront Centre’s 10-acre ‘campus’

For Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA) are described as ‘foundational values’. “Harbourfront Centre is committed to providing a welcoming, accessible and inclusive experience for all artists, staff, volunteers and visitors,” says Chief Programming Officer, Iris Nemani. “To be inclusive and accessible ensures everyone is imagined in the presentation of and engagement with our cultural offerings.”  

As such, its approach to programming disabled artists is intertwined with providing accessible experiences for audiences, making for joined up thinking across different departments. This focus goes back until at least 2016, when a partnership with the British Council saw Harbourfront undertake research into relaxed performances, delivering a series of them in its venues. This included programming UK artist, Jess Thom, aka Touretteshero’s Backstage in Biscuitland as part of its World Stage programme in the same year. 

Following on from this initial engagement, Harbourfront continued to work closely with access consultants on all aspects of the organisation, including its workplace, website, and campus. The changes have been integrated slowly over time. “Some recommendations have been simpler and faster to implement,” admits Nemani. 

“Some of the recommendations have taken longer as they are capital and infrastructure changes that can both be costly and challenging to implement. At present we are amid a capital renovation in our main building that will see an existing ramp with too steep an incline be redone for a safer and more accessible entrance to one of our venues. New doorway openings are being built wider and new reception desks and portable bars are being built with access leading the design.”  

A woman with two lower limb prosthetics balances on a wheelchair
A performance from Cripping the Arts. Photograph: Michelle Peek.

In addition to this investment in making its infrastructure more inclusive and accessible, Harbourfront has recognised the need to roll out training across its workforce, rather than responsibility sitting solely within a community engagement or programming team, as Nemani explains:

“Harbourfront understands the importance of having the commitment of the entire organisation in this work. It must be embedded in onboarding new staff. We have identified particular teams, those that work directly with the public be it visitor services, security, front of house, box office and hospitality; or those that support the artists – the programmers, producers and technicians, everyone must be trained and informed on the best ways of working with our constituents always thinking about the fundamental idea that ‘everyone is imagined’. While all staff and volunteers are trained in accessibility service, we have also implemented a staff role, Summer Guest Accessibility Coordinator, to support our visitors onsite during our busiest months of summer.”  

Since 2016, Harbourfront’s programming of disabled-led work has grown and become more ambitious. Crucially, Harbourfront has worked in partnership with colleagues in the Deaf and disability community to deliver its programming. In 2019, in partnership with Tangled Art + Disability, Toronto Metropolitan University and the British Council, Harbourfront hosted Cripping the Arts, Cripping the Stage – a three-day symposium with panel discussions, exhibitions and performances. The following year, they produced Pandemic Postcards – Twenty-one digital postcards telling the stories of artists within the Deaf and disabled community living through the isolation of lockdown. Nemani describes how this led to their biggest disabled-led event yet.

“Both Cripping the Arts, Cripping the Stage and the international arts festival Unlimited at Southbank in the UK, have been important catalysts and inspiration for committing and presenting CoMotion: an International Deaf and Disabled Arts Festival this past April 2022. We understand the importance of giving Deaf and disabled artists the opportunity to present their work on main stages and to offer these works to the general public.”

Two performers stand on stage in front of a sea of lights
Signmark performance at CoMotion Festival. Image courtesy of the artist.

CoMotion Festival celebrated art informed and shaped by the lived experience of disability or Deaf culture, with an international perspective from this global community of artists.  It featured a diverse series of engaging performances, events, visual art exhibitions, workshops and panel discussions including a world premiere performance, a leadership development opportunity and eleven new visual art commissions. 

Renowned Canadian playwright, actor and disability advocate, Alex Bulmer, who curated CoMotion explains some of the thinking behind it:

“Disability is an experience of living in a world dominated by a ‘one size fits one’ design.  A growing international assembly of Deaf and disability-identified artists are pushing back against this design, shouting to the world ‘We exist!’ CoMotion Festival brings an international perspective to the disability experience and celebrates these new expressions and ideas through unexpected art and crip aesthetics.”

CoMotion also gave Harbourfront the impetus to really push the boundaries in terms of their access provision for audiences. Nemani expands:

“CoMotion was an opportunity for our audiences to be introduced to Deaf and disabled artists in a variety of genres all in one place, challenging us to broaden and redefine what it means to be accessible. From Pay What You Wish ticket pricing, to relaxed performances, to American Sign Langauge and audio described work, to chill out zones, to both in-person and digital work, to assistive hearing devices and sighted guides, this festival allowed us to really dive into what can access mean for our audiences. Working with an accessibility co-ordinator who was responsible for both access for audiences as well as access for artists, it allowed Harbourfront to offer a greater level of access than ever before.”

A group of dancers move expressively whilst holding on to a white piece of material
Vivian Chong side bend with Karen Kaeja, Ben Landsberg, Emily LeBlanc, Brayen Cairn, Suzanne Lis. Photograph: Sarah Puja Jones

Harbourfront now sees itself as a vital part of the arts and disability ecology within Canada. “Each of the presentations has built on the prior work presented,” says Nemani. “And was driven by the aspiration to be a cultural leader in the presentation and support of Deaf and disabled artists’ work.” 

The organisation is also a willing advocate on the international stage too. Nemani explains:

“Partners like the British Council, Tangled Arts + Disability, Creative Users, and Unlimited in the UK have been both inspirations and collaborative colleagues in learning and supporting, strengthening the Deaf and disability arts community locally, nationally and internationally.  Inviting in curators like renowned playwright, actor and disability advocate Alex Bulmer, gives better insight and knowledge into what the current cultural conversation is and needs to be. As well, in 2022, Harbourfront Centre has been the lead curator and producer of the year-long international collaboration entitled Nordic Bridges. Through this initiative, Harbourfront Centre has been able to share ideas around accessibility with arts organisations across Canada and the Nordic region.”

Besides continuing to identify access barriers across its campus and indeed throughout the organisation, Harbourfront is already planning more disabled-led work for the future:

“Programmatically, we are looking at what a second edition of CoMotion might look like, being sensitive to the time that artists need to create and present new work. As well as looking to further engage Deaf and disabled artists in other programs Harbourfront Centre presents throughout the year.”

CoMotion Festival 2022 Trailer

Find out more about Canada’s disability arts sector in our country profile.

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