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Ottawa’s arts community: The merger of Arts Network Ottawa and Ottawa Arts Council

When you imagine a city where the arts and artists are thriving, where artists are creative and innovating, where there are systems, infrastructure and investment in artistic expression and experiences, what City do you think of? A city where art is not just a form of expression but a catalyst for positive change, inspiring empathy, tolerance, and unity among diverse communities.

That’s the vision that Arts Network Ottawa and Ottawa Arts Council are working towards. And, it’s a vision that should excite us all.

Ottawa’s physical and economic landscape is undergoing major shifts – future connections via transit, revitalization of our core, 15-minute neighbourhoods across the city and an awakening nightlife, all places where Ottawa artists can bring ideas and innovation.

In the arts sector, there’s an exciting development on the horizon that’s set to amplify the power of the arts community in the nation’s capital. This is not a union of two similar nonprofits. This is an opportunity to create something new to better meet the needs of our creative community.

Telling the Ottawa story

Arts and culture play a significant role in Ottawa’s economy by boosting tourism, generating employment, fostering creative industries, organizing and hosting cultural events, and contributing to urban revitalization. In 2020, the cultural sector alone contributed more than $3 billion to Ottawa’s GDP (4.9%) and supported nearly 28,000 jobs.

A recent report from the City of Ottawa confirmed that Ottawa’s nightlife economy accounted for more than $1.5 billion in spending in 2019, almost 30% of daytime spending totalling $5.5 billion. Vibrant nightlife economies improve job creation, attract talent and investment, and promote and contribute to economic growth, tourism and city brand building.  According to the 2022 Nightlife Economy Survey, 88% of residents agree that a vibrant nightlife is highly important to Ottawa’s quality of life. Artists and arts activities are a driving force behind nightlife. 

Arts and culture are also highlighted in the Revitalizing Downtown Ottawa initiative: “There is an extraordinary opportunity to boost investments in this under-tapped sector through activities, events, infrastructure, support to artists, and public art. This will help support the city’s vision of becoming a hub of creativity and a destination for culture.” 

Why a merger now?

Both Ottawa Arts Council and Arts Network Ottawa are reimagining the effectiveness of the current nonprofit model and viewing the process through a new, innovative lens. When we compare these two organizations, similarities in program delivery, membership support and arts advocacy efforts actively align. Equally, the same passion for ensuring artists’ needs and the development of safe and creative spaces are prioritized in city planning. 

But it’s not just about ideals and principles; it’s also about practical benefits. Combining resources and services is a strategic move that will have a tangible impact on the Ottawa arts community. By pooling expertise and resources, a new organization can provide even more robust support to local artists and cultural organizations. This can lead to more funding opportunities, more professional development, and more advocacy for the arts at a time when they need it most.

There’s no question that the pandemic had a significant impact on the sector, particularly in the performing arts. This is exacerbated by the fact that access to funding is increasingly competitive as the number and diversity of arts organizations rise. The Ontario Nonprofit Network’s State of the Sector survey urges action for “a sector running on fumes, headed into unprecedented territory,” and highlights some devastating statistics. “Demand for services is sharply increasing and is at an all-time high. Nonprofit financial situations are on a downward spiral. As a result, nonprofits are cutting back programs and services, waitlists are growing, and nonprofit closures are climbing.” They reinforce that, “if policymakers continue to ignore the warning signs experienced by the sector, we fear that cutbacks, waitlists, and nonprofit closures will reach devastating levels and have a detrimental effect on Ontarians, in the immediate and long-term.”

This isn’t simply an Ottawa issue. Less than 500 kilometres away, the Waterloo Region has voted to cut its municipal arts funding. The Toronto theatre sector is on the brink of crisis. Further west, performing arts organizations in Manitoba and across the Canadian Prairies say they’re nearing a fiscal cliff crisis in the coming year and direly need support, after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and other health restrictions changed the landscape of live arts and their audiences.

This new model for an Ottawa arts service organization will bring a stronger, more unified voice when it comes to city planning and cultural sustainability while continuing to champion our local creatives, artists and residents.

The decline of the old systems and models and the rise of new ones

In late 2023, Arts Network Ottawa and Ottawa Arts Council embarked on a series of free learning and engagement opportunities where the arts sector and community could participate in crucial conversations. More than 300 participants contributed to date, through surveys and workshops facilitated by Evoke 2.0 Consulting. Discussion topics focused on how we craft a thriving future for the arts in times of uncertainty; how we explore the decline of the old systems and models and the rise of new ones;  what Indigenous philosophies, rooted in mutual respect and collaboration, can we incorporate into this new vision; and how do we address inequities in our organizations and our community as a whole?

Co-creation and collaboration are central to the success of any association or leadership organization. While the community engagement process is still active, the insight gained from the participants from surveys and workshops is providing a clearer picture of what the community sees as a viable, impactful new organisation –  highlighting what we should keep, what we should invest in, and what we should leave behind.

What’s next?

As the merger progresses, we can look forward to a brighter future for the arts in Ottawa. This is a story of resilience, collaboration, and the unwavering belief in the transformative power of the arts. Together, Arts Network Ottawa and the Ottawa Arts Council are setting a strong example of what can be achieved when a community comes together to support its artists and cultural institutions. 

Arts and culture make Ottawa a place where we all want to live. It animates our neighbourhoods and contributes to public safety. It inspires our children to be creative and grow. It transforms lives.

To participate or learn more about all facets of the merger and community engagement process, visit ​​

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