Margo Charlton: Making an impact
After 17 years, initially as Theatre Officer and subsequently as Research and Impact Manager, Margo Charlton will be leaving Toronto Arts Council and Foundation in mid-September. “I’m semi-retiring and will be consulting on arts impact and organizational planning,” she notes, adding, “It’s been a long and interesting journey.
As our first Research and Impact Manager, Charlton has defined the role and ensured that every research project has told the story of the value of the arts to Toronto.
Toronto Arts Council and our affiliate, Toronto Arts Foundation, aim to make the arts accessible to all Torontonians. As part of that, we regularly survey and consult the public, arts supporters, artists and arts organizations to glean a better understanding of the current state of the arts in the city and the benefits the sector brings to Toronto.
What exactly does a Research and Impact Manager do? Charlton says it best: “I’m interested in the impact of the arts on the quality of life in Toronto – from individual artists to large institutions, artists and the work they create adds to our social discourse, prompts us to see in new ways, and brings us joy, surprise, and wonder. I want to better understand how Torontonians see artists, how artists are fulfilling their own objectives, and how our programs can continue to support Toronto-based artists.”
After working in the arts sector in Winnipeg for nearly two decades as a theatre director, producer, and community arts organizer (including forming the Popular Theatre Alliance of Manitoba and serving as the Theatre Officer at the Manitoba Arts Council), Charlton began doing research and impact work as part of her role at TAC in the early 2000s, also completing a Master’s degree at York University that focused on the impact of the arts on communities.
She feels her background in theatre lent itself well to her emerging interest in research, particularly the curiosity that comes naturally with being a director.
“I’d come into rehearsal with more questions than I had answers. Finding the right questions and the answers would be a collective journey – together we would find the essence of the play and the path towards opening night,” Charlton recalls.
“As someone working in community-engaged theatre, I was also keenly aware of social justice and the challenges faced by many communities. Who has power? Who faces barriers? Who gets to talk?” she notes. “Evaluation and research is also about addressing these questions.”
Assisting with the local consultation process that led to the birth of the Neighbourhood Arts Network (a strategic initiative of the Foundation which offers accessible arts programming, awards, and partnerships to artists across the city), in 2010, and then working as lead researcher on the large-scale Transforming Communities Through the Arts study of three local neighbourhoods in 2011, drove home the importance of such research, Charlton says.
In 2013, Charlton spearheaded Arts Stats, in partnership with polling and market-research firm Leger, producing a series of reports documenting Toronto public opinion about the arts, arts support and access to programming.
“Being able to ask Torontonians a series of questions about the arts and to get their opinions about arts access really opened my eyes to the importance of surveys,” Charlton says. “I learned a lot about crafting good survey questions and how to analyze the data and to take that information and make it accessible to a wider audience.”
Following Toronto City Council’s approval of a significant funding increase to TAC beginning in 2013, it became imperative to understand and document the impact of new funding. Given her research background and interest, Charlton was the ideal candidate to fill this new role.
Charlton says the extensive work in communities during the SSHRC-funded Transforming Communities Through the Arts project, the annual Arts Stats surveys, the Leaders Lab leadership training program (she’s currently working with University of Toronto professor Mark Campbell to develop a research paper on this project), and evaluation of the annual Arts in the Parks program are among the most memorable research and evaluation projects during her time in the role.
“Arts Stats has proven to be a good advocacy tool for Council and Foundation but also for the larger arts and culture sector,” she points out. “Leaders Lab has been an opportunity for the council to invest in arts-sector leaders and to enter into discussions about new leadership models and how arts-sector leaders are having an impact on our city; and evaluation has played an important role in the development of the Arts in the Parks program, and also helped us share our learnings further afield.”
While the arts sector is increasingly looking at ways to use research to better understand the problems and benefits involved in practicing, presenting, and producing art, “the biggest challenge is how we think about impact,” Charlton says. “While I love a good chart full of interesting data, to know the impact of the arts is also to understand the human element – the storytelling, grounding information in lived experience.”
Even in semi-retirement, Charlton plans to continue analyzing the impact of the arts – she’ll be joining PROCESS, a Toronto-based team of urban planners, designers, and artists who aim to transform how we plan, design, and experience places and communities. (She can be reached at email@example.com.)
A new Research and Impact Manager will join TAC and the Foundation this fall.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude to Margo for initiating so many of our important research initiatives,” said Claire Hopkinson, Director and CEO of Toronto Arts Council & Toronto Arts Foundation. “Her experience and expertise, her perspectives and her passion to help artists have contributed significantly to a culture of learning at TAC and the Foundation.”
“I would like to thank all the people who took the time to share their stories and opinions with me,” Charlton says. “Artists, arts workers, theatre committee members, community members, volunteers, members of boards of directors, audiences, project participants – thank you for your trust and enthusiasm. And thanks to TAC and Foundation staff past and present – you’ve all made this a delightful journey.”
(🔊 To hear Margo talk about her journey into arts research, have a listen to her interview on Mass Culture’s podcast HERE.)