~ 7 Minute read.
In the ongoing raging debate about Toronto’s laneways and what to make of them, no one seems to be able to generate a consensus as to what should be allowed, prohibited and the amount of density that’s reasonable. I have my own opinions on the matter but that’s for another writing.
Working quietly in the background is Womxn Paint, an organization empowering women artists to express themselves through their art. Womxn Paint organizes a yearly jam, now in its second year, to transform a carefully selected downtown alleway into an outdoor art gallery, while making a big celebration out of it.
Beyond the celebratory aspect, it also creates a platform for the artists stories to be heard and raises the awareness of the potential for laneways to be become animated public spaces (more on that later). Headed by our friend, the indefatigable Bareket, Womxn Paint is a celebration of art and a demonstration of how community leadership can bring positive change with nothing more than cans of paint and an unwavering drive. Bareket is known around Toronto for her murals and you will have no doubt seen her “Smile” traffic signal control boxes around the city.
This community enterprise requires serious relationship and entrepreneurial skills, showing us that being an artist, is not just about producing art that gets people excited, and although that’s important, one has to get that art in front of the right eyeballs for it to have an impact. In other words, talent alone does not make a successful artist.
You may have guessed where I’m going with this? Yes, you’re right, this applies to architects too! The most visible ones are not always the most talented ones, but those who have one way or another developed solid business savvy. More often than not, their awesome tactical and operational skills were not learned in school, but elsewhere. It goes to show that soft skills are just as important as acquired technical knowledge to make any enterprise successful, particularly design businesses.
Say what you want about Bareket’s ability to produce beautiful art with a positive message, it’s her communications, relationships and permanent positive attitude, as well as her ability to mobilize an army of other artists that makes her laneway painting events possible.
Let’s not forget about the purpose behind it all.
What makes her successful in bringing all of this together? I’m going to go out on a limb and identify the following key aspects of her success:
The organization has a clear purpose, that makes it easy for like-minded people to get behind it.
The whole project is a collaboration with different entities, both institutional and private working towards a common goal and that goal isn’t “let’s paint pretty murals”. It forces organizations like StART, Womxn Paint (and even rvltr!) and many others, to collaborate with each other in support of that purpose. Without it, it would just be a bunch of people painting murals in an alleyway.
Her event is inspiring and community driven.
She’s a strategic communicator thanks to her past experiences in marketing and PR and knows how to garner attention quickly and effectively.
Did we mention that this whole endeavour culminates in a big party, where the public is invited to take over a laneway for a day and enjoy the art as it’s being painted on walls and garage doors? The warm embrace of the community, both the local residents and owners of the alleyway who have welcomed Womxn Paint in their literal backyard as well as the general public, makes it very difficult to dislike as it is inclusive of just about anyone who wants to participate.
To me, #1 is the key to everything else, without it, it would be a lot harder to get support from all the various stakeholders and would end up having competing interests fighting for limited resources and each trying to pull the project in a different direction.
Womxn Paint’s clear purpose short-circuits all of that and serves as a reminder for everybody involved that the end result is meant to be greater than the sum of it parts (also the topic of an upcoming webinar of ours). Which leads me to my next point.
Collaboration vs. Competition
All these talented artists could be vying for the same rare and valuable mural real estate, each competing for a piece of the same pie. Womxn Paint takes the opposite approach, where they grow the pie itself, allowing a bigger piece for each artist. They do so by creating events and culturally relevant art that people actually want to see, instead of single painted pieces by individual artists. Fittingly, this year’s theme is “Uplifting each other”, underlining the importance of the event in creating a space where the artists can support one another as they’re building their respective careers.
And that’s the basis of creating value, as the total value of the project is much greater than the sum of its parts. It does so by building and fostering a sense of community around a topic that these people are passionate about.
I will sound like a broken record, but designers have a lot to learn from this. Instead of competing for the same pie, there are things that can be done to raise the way we value design as a society. Toon Dreesen, Principal at Architects DCA is a tireless advocate for #architecturematters and design as a way to bring about positive change in society. A lot of what he bring to the public discourse touches on how the higher upfront cost of good design can be offset by massive savings down the road in the way buildings are operated and maintained. Value engineering has a tendency to save costs upfront and defer them to future generations.
If a vocal and intransigent minority of architects, following Taleb’s example of the dictatorship of vocal minorities banded together with the likes of Toon, it wouldn’t be long until the changes we are seeking would come into effect. Alas, the industry is very siloed with people who are friendly-ish with each other, but still compete for all the same jobs at the micro level and then complain that their pricing structure is a race to the bottom, without looking at the state of the industry at the macro level.
Dreesen argues that if design and architecture were more valued as a society, then there would be more money spent on good design, because there would be an underlying tacit understanding of its intrinsic value. There are countless examples out there of markets that were created virtually overnight simply by finding new and innovative ways to demonstrate the value of a product or service (check out Terry O’Reilly’s podcast for that, he tells these stories better than I ever will).
The million dollar question is: What can architects do today, to raise the cultural awareness of the value of good design the same way Womxn Paint is doing for mural artists?
One final thought.
Art is a powerful tool for transformation. It has the amazing ability to draw us out of our day-to-day routine and send powerful messages, whether it’s mesmerizing visuals that get you to zone out and create your own universe in your head; or in the case of Womxn Paint, the activation of an underutilised and drab laneway, turning it into an open-air art gallery, bringing people together. Until the condos start sprouting up that is. Art is often relegated to the “nice-to-have” category, but I believe that what’s happening with Womxn Paint shows us that perhaps we have our priority backwards. Creativity and play should be encouraged, fostered and celebrated every day.
If you liked this or think you have an answer to the question above, please share with a friend and let us know your thoughts in the comments!