Toronto Arts Council throughout the years

Featured Story: the history of TAC

January 2018

Beth Reynolds and former Associate Director Anne Bermonte smile while holding up pieces of paper
Beth Reynolds and former Associate Director Anne Bermonte (date unknown)

Toronto Arts Council has grown a lot throughout the years. This is something that Beth Reynolds, former Director of Grants, emphasized in her outgoing speech this past December 2017. After thirty-one and a half years at TAC, Beth has retired. People who are familiar with the organization, she emphasized, couldn’t imagine what it was like in its beginnings.

The idea for Toronto Arts Council emerged in 1973 when Toronto City Council, spearheaded by Mayor David Crombie and Alderman William Kilbourn, requested a nine-person working group to advise the City on the role it might play in enhancing the quality of life in Toronto through the arts. The working group, consisting of four artists and five arts entrepreneurs, came up with the idea to create a Toronto arts granting agency.

Among their recommendations was that the agency’s governing Board of Directors should have a majority of working artists as members - something that Toronto Arts Council maintains to this day. City Council endorsed the proposal in 1974 and Toronto Arts Council immediately went into action with a total budget of $315,000. In its first year, TAC distributed grants to fourteen arts organizations.

A sign that reads "Visual Artists This Way" rests on a chair
Applicants used to hand-deliver their grants to the TAC office. This photo is from 1993, taken at TAC's former office located at 141 Bathurst Street

When Beth began working at TAC, eleven years after it was established, she became the third full-time staff working under the leadership of Executive Director Rita Davies. “There were no emails, no computers, no voicemail. The technology was a typewriter,” and phone messages were written on pink slips, recounted Beth. But it wasn’t just the technology that has changed. “When I started, we were explaining to people that Etobicoke and Scarborough weren’t part of the City of Toronto.” Prior to amalgamation in 1998, Toronto Arts Council had a relatively small footprint.

Yet the impact Toronto Arts Council has had on the growth of the arts sector has always been significant. TAC has supported many of Toronto’s much loved arts establishments with first-time grants. In 1975, Toronto Arts Council gave seed funds to Festival of Festivals, Toronto’s first international film festival (re-named Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 1994). Needless to say, it has blossomed to the world-renowned film festival we know today.

Many other organizations have received first-time support from TAC throughout the years, including:

1976: Ontario Crafts Council (now Craft Ontario)
1977: Toronto Theatre Alliance (now Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts)
1979: YYZ Artists’ Outlet, Tafelmusik, Harbourfront Reading Series: International Festival of Authors, Mercer Union, Gallery 44, Elmer Iseler Singers
1982: Native Earth Performing Arts
1985: Artscape, Factory Theatre, Esprit Orchestra
1990: Inside Out
1992: Native Women in the Arts

and many more.

With the introduction of the first grants program for individuals in 1986 (the Grants to Writers program), and the subsequent programs for individuals that followed, TAC has also invested in the creation and production of many seminal works from Toronto artists including Anne Collins, Brenda Longfellow, Denise Fujiwara, Claudia Moore, Chan Ka Nin, Wayson Choy, Paul Lee, M. G. Vassanji, Djanet Sears, and Harry Freedman, to name a few.

Former grants assistants Norma Garcia and Rachel Feldbloom are surrounded by boxes full of paper applications
Former grants assistants Norma Garcia and Rachel Feldbloom-Wood sift through paper applications on deadline day (2013)

Toronto Arts Council now distributes over $18 million in grants to approximately 1,000 arts organizations and individuals every year. The demand for arts grants is increasing, with requests  doubling in the past four years. In 2015, under Director and CEO Claire Hopkinson, Beth Reynolds’ tireless work to move Toronto Arts Council’s grant application process online was fully realized. The move online makes it easier for artists and organizations to submit their applications, and for grants officers and jury members to review – a far cry from the paper, photocopies and hard materials that once consumed TAC offices during deadline day. 

Beth said that she was able to work at TAC for so long – not only because she loved the work, and was inspired by the artists, staff and board members that she encountered throughout her career– but because everything was constantly changing. Beth reminded us that while we always must look forward, it’s also important to occasionally look back to our humble beginnings. TAC wouldn’t be what it is today without the support and trust we receive from city council, Toronto residents, organizations, and dedicated staff like Beth Reynolds. We wish Beth all the best in her new chapter of life.