The Artist Spotlight series aims to celebrate creators at a time when art is being consumed the most. We wanted to invite individuals working within the creative field to provide their voice, opinions and suggestions for the improvement, development and future of the Canadian creative community.
Kelsey Butt is a jack of all trades. Currently working with Inside Out as the Event and Community Engagement Manager, Kelsey got their start in the music industry on the East Coast helping to produce festivals like the East Coast Music Awards, Halifax Jazz Festival and In the Dead of Winter. Always on the go, they shared with me the ways they are keeping busy during the pandemic with several work and personal projects including supporting creators with the QUEER FILM IS ESSENTIAL campaign, launching a full service accessibility program and inspiring others to stay healthy on Instagram with the hashtag #HealthyButt.
Q: Can you share a little about yourself and your background working in the Arts?
My background technically is in audio engineering and then I got into the music business working a bunch of festivals for like 6 years in Halifax, NS. From there I got into the film world working for the Out East Film Festival before I moved to Toronto in 2017 and started at Inside Out as the festival Event Producer/Manager. I worked a bunch of random gigs before I started at Inside Out in 2018. It was only like five ish months before I had gotten the job but there was a moment there that I thought that I wasn’t qualified (to produce festivals and events) here.
I’ve always dabbled in a lot of things though. I’m really into video creation right now and dancing has also been a huge creative outlet for me (check out some of their dance videos on Instagram). It’s something I can still do which is great because obviously there are no live events happening right now.
Q: How did you find the community here in the city coming from the East Coast?
I mean coming from a small town to Toronto it’s obviously a bigger city, the festivals have a lot more people coming through, you’ve got bigger budgets, there is a lot more funding that comes from bigger sponsorship for events here as well, which is pretty great (compared to the events sector in the East Coast). That’s actually something that’s been my goal while working at Inside Out; to create the opportunity for sponsors to provide bigger budgets and more opportunities for artists.
In the East coast, there is almost this scarcity mindset where there’s only so much money and everybody is after it, so it’s not so much working together where as Toronto has been good for that.
Q: You mentioned you’ve worked in a few different fields before film; can you share more about your current role with Inside Out?
I mean I don’t have the most extensive knowledge of the film industry, like that wasn’t my background and not necessarily where I thought I would be. The thought of calling myself an Event Planner or Event Manager is really strange to me and not something I ever thought I could make into a career. It’s funny though because its always something I did growing up as a kid. I would organize how we would get the booze, where we were going to meet up, where we were going to party, how we were going to get there, whose house we were staying at, etc. Where I’m from in Labrador, you’re either working in the mines, becoming a teacher or working somewhere in the health field, so like no creative options. I mean maybe you could become a music teacher or something but that’s it. I actually went to school to be a social worker (for 2 years, seeing how much red tape there was) and quit. I hated it. It was actually my university professor that told me, “if you don’t want to be there, then don’t waste your time”.
There is still a part of my job now that is community engagement or community work but I don’t have the government sort of tying my hands and determining what I can do or say.
Q: What is the most important tool in your practice?
As an Event Planner it’s hard to do any event without people or our members or supporters. I think things like Club Quarantine (a queer dance party) and those online events are good because it seems like people are still going. There’s also Hun House which is a space for queer BIPOC womxn, trans and non-binary folx.
Something I’m still trying to figure out is what people are really going online to do; is it to dance alone in their living room, is to watch movies, is it to meet and talk with people, is it to watch drag queens perform? Summer is also coming and people want to be outside so how do we address that desire? How do we address that missing piece of physical connection in a safe way? Are we allowed? How are we liable? Are we going to get the same support from funders and sponsors if we aren’t able to promise the same visibility in front of these crowds? How do we ensure people are going to be watching at home?
Q: How has your work/organization pivoted since physical distancing measures have come into effect? What are the plans for the annual festival?
We had to postpone the festival to October in hopes that we could have an in-person festival. Now that’s not really looking like a reality so we have started to shift our thinking to, if we don’t get to have that full-on experience is it all online? Is it portions of it that are online and some in person? What does that look like? How do we still bring the value of a film festival through? There is something really special about a film festival (and the in-person experience) that I’m not sure will resonate online. I think the fear (for Inside Out amongst industry giants like Hot Docs and TIFF) is that people will lose the idea that film festivals are important and that producers will skip over that step in their distribution of films. I think people do want to still come together; watching a movie together is special and sharing those reactions are important.
Accessibility-wise there are definitely things that we can pull from this, like how do we make sure our festival overall is accessible for people who can’t come to in-person events but can now access all the content online. So maybe that’s an option we want to continue or make sure to incorporate looking ahead. Being able to do both would be the dream. Last week, we had our Pitch Please Film Pitch Contest and we were actually able to have more pitches than ever before (since going digital) and from all over the world which was really great.
We have shifted our focus a bit because there are really no events right now aside from member meetups but there are a few projects I’m managing right now. The Library is an online educational platform that Inside Out is currently working on launching. The idea is that if you are an educator, you create an account and log on to get free access to queer short films and corresponding study content that’s targeted to the age group. There would be different themes or categories but we’re hoping it’s something that can change and adapt to provide educators with the resources they actually really need. We wanted to make sure it would be accessible for educators in more rural areas as well where these types of resources aren’t readily available. The soft launch for that is slated for late June.
The second project is a concept I came up with that I think will work really well in collaboration with event companies. It’s like the tool library but for accessibility needs where you can get all different kinds of accessibility equipment. We actually received a grant after applying for money to research the feasibility of the project, so I’m really excited about it. The idea is that any event company or planner can come to my team of hired experts, who would all be folks who identify as having a disability, to get a full accessibility assessment of their space/event and be able to then rent all of the equipment they need from my warehouse. Ideally this would also tie into a volunteer program called the Accessibility and Safety Crew (ASC). The ASC is a program I originally started in Halifax and it was a team of individuals who are trained in mental health and crisis management and the accessibility needs of members of the audience. They wear high–visibility shirts so they stand out in large crowds. I know that addressing accessibility can be hard for event planners but it’s also part of our job to comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) requirements. I’m really hoping the city will eventually get behind this with some funding to make it sustainable and long-term for public events in Toronto.
Q: What are you currently working on (personal creative projects, collaborations, self care, etc.)?
Those two key projects I mentioned have been my main babies but I’ve been doing a few other things on the side too. I designed two versions of these t-shirts that were actually launched as part of a Giving Tuesday campaign that say “Queer Film is Essential” and they are still up for sale. That was a great experience and it’s so fun seeing people wear them. The next global day of giving through Giving Tuesday is December 1st, 2020. Other ways to get involved are listed on their website.
Then I started this whole #HealthyButt campaign on my Instagram. That started from seeing all of these posts saying things like, “you should be getting alllll of this done during this time” and it was causing a lot of stress for me because I felt like I didn’t have the motivation to do anything! So I made it a point to start doing something healthy everyday (it could be anything) and documenting it for accountability. I posted this huge rant about just doing what is healthy and positive for you. I said something like, “I ate an apple this morning” and I ended up getting a bunch of responses like “Yo, thank you. I actually did my laundry today” or I had someone text me a screenshot of them running 8km or another person finally cleaned up their inbox. I started skipping a lot too and then started getting videos of people skipping. The whole point was just celebrate doing something good for you and now I have this whole accountability network and community through social media.
Q: What keeps you motivated/inspired right now?
The #HealthyButt thing for sure but I also have a really great dance community. We just started meeting up at the park (at a safe distance) and I bought a bigger speaker so we can stand further apart, haha. We’ll just do drills or even just sit and hangout and talk with each other, so that’s been a great group to check-in with.
I’m really thankful for social media to be able to keep in contact with people and for my meetings at work too. I’m so fortunate to still have projects and things to work on; it gives me a fucking purpose! Those first few weeks were hard. Especially in events too, everyone was just kind of like wait, what are we going to do?
Q: How has your organization addressed the mental health needs of its employees, especially in light of increased violence, anti-racism and ongoing physical isolation due to the pandemic?
We have tried to keep our three weekly check-ins throughout this just to try and maintain an effort to stay focused and on task, that’s important. But there have definitely been a few days where I needed some time off and they’ve been really cool about that. We actually have quite a few employees that live alone so isolation has been really hard overall. We do have benefits for mental health as well which is great. Thankfully we can do pretty much all of our work remotely, it’s not optimal but there isn’t a rush to get back to the office.
We have always been able to have a really open dialogue with each other at work as well. I think being a queer organization we don’t shy away from talking about the “political”. We have shifted a lot of our current focus and support towards supporting Black Lives Matter. Something we have been talking about a lot is that we can always do better and making sure that we are supporting our whole community which is pretty large. Things like ensuring we do have significant representation of Black and Two-Spirited films and further addressing accessibility needs are incredibly important.
Q: How do you see changes in the economy and in the Arts & Culture sector affecting your work? What should individuals/organizations be focusing on? Is the future all digital?
I don’t think the future is all digital. It’s funny, before (the pandemic) I always pushed for more digital content but now that it’s the only option it’s too much! Physical and social interactions are just so important (for events) and not being able to go to markets or going into shared spaces is hard, especially for the Arts community.
I do think event spaces should be shifting their focus to online creation though, like providing space and equipment for people to just come in and do what they need to. If that’s a drag queen who needs a stage and lighting and a live stream or an online creator who just needs a space to make content safely. There has to be a way for event space to gets grants or funding to be able to offer their creative spaces for lower rates (or for free) to kick start the economy. Like how do we get this going again? This summer I’m missing three festivals I usually work for, so that’s like $10,000 of my income lost. How do I now go and create if I’m that much money short? With physical distancing and a cap on capacity it’s going to be hard to make your money back. How do I get funding right now if I have nothing to show for it?
Maybe that’s another approach organizations could take, find out what people need to create their art at home, safely, and get them that equipment. They don’t have laser printers at home or access to their studio, so maybe you connect them with a space or with professionals in that field or contacts they can reach out to or resources and sources for information and tools.
Companies need to know who they are trying to serve and what those people need. The people who need access to their spaces are not usually people that can afford it: students, marginalized groups, POCs. Companies should be looking at how they can make their spaces accessible, look for sponsorship and partnerships to cover the cost of providing free access to marginalized artists. Large not-for-profits and orgs with big names that get a lot of the funding should engage with the smaller NFP and collectives who actually need that money and are often doing more thought out and better work. There needs to be a larger conversation about how that money should be used or distributed to support the creative community as a whole.
I think the Arts community is what is truly getting a lot of people through this! Whether you’re watching creators on TikTok or reading books or watching movies,that’s all creatives and artists making that content. I hope that this is some sort of realization of how important the Arts really is, especially for funding. I think it’s easy to be dismissive of art and community programming, we’ve seen cuts to the budget before but now it’s like okay, there is still clearly a demand. Art is essential.