Art for Social Change | Canada



Funded by:

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)

ASCgraph2Partner Organizations

  • Simon Fraser University (SFU): Host Organization
  • Arts Network for Children and Youth
  • Ashoka Canada
  • Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Calgary Arts Development
  • Cirque du Monde (du Soleil)
  • Concordia University
  • Decidedly Jazz Dance Works
  • Judith Marcuse Projects (JMP)
  • University of Calgary
  • University of Lethbridge
  • University of Toronto (UofT)

Lead Researchers

  • Judith Marcuse, Project Director,  SFU
  • Katherine Boydell, Co-Investigator, UofT
  • Lisa Doolittle, Co-Investigator, University of Lethbridge,
  • Lynn Fels, Co-Investigator, SFU
  • Anne Flynn, Co-Investigator, University of Calgary
  • Jennifer Spiegel, Post-Docotral Fellow, Concordia
  • Rachael Van Fossen, Co-Investigator, Concordia
  • Annalee Yassi, Co-Investigator, UBC


Project Description

ASC refers to the broad spectrum of ways in which the arts are used to engage people and encourage positive change. The research program involves the participation of community members, students and change makers from a wide variety of sectors, including the health and justice systems; civil society, environmental, intercultural, elder and youth-focused organizations; and professionals working in the fields of social innovation, social enterprise and public policy. Five field study projects involving arts-based dialogue, performing, visual arts and social circus, as well as the creation of a learning institute, will enrich both research and the resources to be created. On-line videos, publications, public gatherings, exhibitions and performances will contribute to the work of ASC practitioners while bringing knowledge of this potent and effective form of change work to a wider public.


Purpose: to develop, implement, and evaluate transferable arts based facilitation processes with diverse community members across professional, disciplinary and cultural silos to inquire and address concerns of common interest.

In a three-year series of arts-based facilitated workshops in Vancouver, Calgary and Lethbridge, we will investigate the use of arts-based facilitation processes in social innovation initiatives.  This Field Study will be informed by the pilot Chataqua Project, recently undertaken by JMP, a year-long process that provided evidence of the positive impact of art-based facilitation to advance possibilities for the development of partnerships and collaboration. This field study will provide data on effective ways to develop relationships, understandings and insights through arts-based facilitation that nurture new collaborations and enrich possibilities for positive change. Judith Marcuse Projects (JMP), SFU, Ashoka, The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, McConnell Foundation and Vancity will be key Partners in this field study.

Purpose: To assess how artistic skill-building in social circus projects with youth at risk propose new ways of working that build self-esteem, material skills and ethical and aesthetic sensibilities.

Cirque du Soleil’’s social circus program, ‘‘Cirque du Monde’’, has been teaching circus arts in a range of at-risk communities across Quebec, and in over 80 communities in 25 countries. The project will analyze the cultural politics of social circus and to develop methodology that could be useful in evaluating the social and cultural dimensions of social circus projects. Dr. Jennifer Spiegel, will examine social circus projects with First Nations and mixed ethnicity Quebecois communities in rural Quebec and in Ecuador, where Cirque de Soleil is providing mainly Quebec-based trainers to train Ecuadorian instructors for a program entirely run and operated by the Ecuadorian government allowing for a comparative analysis of current social circus pedagogy within distinct contexts. The research will draw on critical and performance ethnography including techniques of performative inquiry, analysis of program materials and teaching methods, and semi-structured interviews with trainers, instructors, participants and community leaders, analysis of social circus performance creation processes and presentations analyzed in light of changing aesthetics of circus. In addition, Dr. Spiegel will undertake social circus instructor training at NCS as part of a participant- observation research method in order to effectively work with instructors in assessing individual projects. Cirque du Monde and Concordia are partners in this field study, along with participation by partner, The National Circus School in Montreal.


Spiegel JB, Parent SN. Taylor S and Yassi A. “Report on the Questionnaire Survey Conducted among Social Circus Participants at the “Rassemblement” Event, Quebec, May, 2014: An Art for Social Change Project” University of British Columbia, Vancouver, November, 2014.

Spiegel, J. B. "Résultats de l’étude de recherche sur le cirque social au Québec" (with English summary, tables and graphs). May 2016.

Spiegel, J. B., and Parent, S. N. (2017). Re-approaching community development through the arts: a ‘critical mixed methods’ study of social circus in Quebec. Community Development Journal, 1-18.

Spiegel, J. B. Cirque Hors Piste: Re-Approaching Community Development through the Arts. Synthesis of research conducted by Dr. Jennifer Beth Spiegel. June 2017.

Purpose: to link research creation and public performance more fully with social activism through partnership engaging universities with community-based and/or ASC organizations.

““Encounters”” is a research creation project led by artist scholar Rachael Van Fossen. Building on two earlier projects, an ensemble of artists and students from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, life experiences, and faiths will, through a series of workshops in both undergraduate and community settings, share persona stories and, through the act of performing another person across vastly different life experiences, build a performance. Community collaborators advising research and participants will include grassroots organizations promoting intercultural exchange and social equality across differences of racialization, immigration, gender, sexuality, age and other common marked and unmarked differences. This process provides an example of the utility of performance tools to build intercultural communication, and investigates aesthetic experience as a means to ‘‘understand’’ and know difference and commonality. Data from this field study will inform researchers on good practices for meaningful social engagement between university students, artists, and community organizations; and provide insights o partner capacity building, evaluation, and knowledge exchange. The data generated will contribute to adaptable ASC processes and tools to continue a sustainable methodology in ASC intercultural and intergenerational communication into the future. This research draws on relevant discourses and practices in intercultural performance, and will build upon existing theorizing of engaged aesthetics. Partner Concordia University will collaborate with ASC organizations including Herencias, Teesri Duniya Theatre, and the MAI (Montreal, arts interculturels).

Purpose: examines the effectiveness of engaging in the arts through dance in creating a sense of community and in the reframing of personal identity in two community-based, programs, one of them in collaboration with a university.

In the first, program participants are residents of subsidized housing complexes for senior citizens (largely first generation immigrants to Canada with varying degrees of English language proficiency), and students/recent graduates. In the second, participants have been diagnosed with Parkinson’’s disease. Through the use of arts based inquiry, we will research the process of knowledge transmission from a research-intensive university to the local community involving faculty members and students working off campus and interacting with diverse populations. This university-community partnership will be used as a research laboratory led by Anne Flynn and Lisa Doolittle to study the impact of dance classes on populations of immigrant seniors, in order to evaluate the effectiveness of engaging in the arts, such as dance, in creating a sense of community; develop more research focused evaluation tools; and identify effective strategies regarding program design, operation and management. Partners are Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, the Alex Seniors Health Centre (exact title from Anne) and Universities of Calgary and Lethbridge.