Musagetes Guelph Café

Musagetes Guelph Café Poster stapled with rusty nails to a neighbourhood telephone pole.

Cafe poster by designer Gillian Wilson. Image by Vanessa Tignanelli.

The Musagetes Guelph Café created temporary communities by offering a variety of expressions, opportunities, and conditions to respond to. Just some of the Café activities included: a casual chat about Sudbury over a brunch record listening session; sipping grape soda and snacking on samosas at the Guelph Black Heritage Society while listening to David James Hudson’s spoken word poetry; proposing ideas for improvements to St. George’s Square via Jenn E Norton’s suggestion box; listening to live music in a school yard while watching some free-style breakdancing; and enjoying a burger at a free BBQ on the city limits. More…

Over four days and 20 events, the Café was attended by over 700 artists, researchers, business owners, students, families, activists, municipal figures, cultural producers, and engaged citizens. The program was designed to ask questions about the complex issues of how culture is central and meaningful to people’s lives in Guelph. Activities offered space for constructively provocative discussions and shared experiences of art and culture such as live Oxford-style debates. It was agreed that the arts and culture in Guelph can be deeply meaningful, but a strong argument was made that they are not central to all peoples’ lives. We learned from our debates that the concept of centrality must be looked at geographically, ideologically, culturally, and socioeconomically. We began with the questions: How do we build strong communities with art? At the conclusion of the Café, we asked ourselves: For whom are arts and culture important? And where should they occur?

Our Objectives for the Café were:

· To visit Third Places: alternative social spaces for community.

· To define and inspire future co-creations—some involving Musagetes and some independent of our work—that bridge communities and disciplines.

·  To learn from music by articulating and tracking music production and presentation models from alternative to institutional efforts, and by engaging musicians and cultural producers in a conversation about the special characteristics of this craft which brings people together and offers models for supportive, co-creative production.

· To forge a stronger relationship with Guelph at spatial, community, social, and municipal levels, in the hopes of future co-creations between Musagetes, the municipality and the community.

This Café included projects within the social fabrics of the city itself: four newly commissioned projects by artists Paul Chartrand (Dunnville); Jenn E Norton (Guelph), Janet Morton (Guelph), and Postcommodity(Albuquerque/Phoenix/Santa Fe/Tulsa); and a music tour, All Over the Map, to Kortright Hills, Willow West, and Two Rivers neighbourhoods.

We offered Guelph a clearer picture of Musagetes’ vision and values locally, nationally and internationally by designing a culminating moment of artistic programming and conversation. We engaged the City of Guelph at a deeper level. Thanks to our partners, we engaged new people and worked with new groups, such as the local chapter of Cub Scouts Canada, the gaming community, the punk community, field naturalists, budding philosophers, and the QPOC (Queer People of Colour) community in Guelph. We co-created conversations, activities and artistic projects that amplify shared approaches, and values.

Previous Cafés have hosted deep conversations about the effects of artistic practices in cities. Musagetes’ Cafés in London (2007), Barcelona (2008), Rijeka (2010), and Sudbury (2011), brought together local narratives and external viewpoints on each city by inviting local and international thinkers and cultural producers to share their approaches.


Our public sphere in Canada—historically a safe space for participation in democratic debate—is rapidly diminishing as it has become a site for entertainment, corporate investment, and surveillance. The Café was designed to stand in as a momentary metaphorical public space for participation and discussion about the meaning of culture and community building. With a group of municipal figures, cultural organizers, artists, writers, and musicians from Guelph and Sudbury, we defined co-creation, here paraphrased:

Co-creations offer an opportunity for shared processes and learnings. The intention behind using the word ‘co-creation’ now comes from the fact that ‘collaboration’ has been folded into various industry and marketing jargon and its meaning has been drained, sanitized, and corporatized. Co-creating, in Musagetes’ case, takes place in the form of artistic projects which are forged together between artists, community members, our organization, and other partner organizations; and also in the form of encouraging and supporting environments which are set up for the production of co-creative work. Characteristics of co-creation include: dialogue, improvisation, and dispersion of ideas and resources across varied groups that might not otherwise be possible. Co-creating comes together without a preconceived notion about the end result but instead enables ownership.

Conversation is the backbone of the Café model, and venues, formats, timing, and guests are all essential to the casting of a conversational moment. The artist and pedagogue Pablo Helguera has written that a well-conducted conversation relies on a carefully crafted dialogic structure to arrive at mutual understanding and learning without losing the balance between interlocutors. For this to succeed, it is important for the instigator of the discussion to know about the depth of engagement he or she is achieving with the audience.[i]

Different dialogic structures were consciously designed to achieve different results: informal social gatherings allowed for intimate conversations to unfold naturally, presentations and panels offered a range of perspectives on local issues, debates encouraged lively sparring within a safe space of respect, and live interviews at events tracked and articulated participants’ experiences. Paulo Freire has written that before democracy becomes a political form, it is a way of life, characterized by shifting awareness through changing minds. He says that this kind of change cannot appear or develop except in debates examining common problems.[ii] Democracy relies on dissensus as much as on consensus. The Café included moments for both and did so consciously, as a way to gently direct conversations into the most productive areas.

The Café established a new type of publicness for Musagetes in Guelph as a leader in encouraging co-creation between various community stakeholders. The activities and conversations galvanized a collective identity, presence, and sphere of action for the arts and culture in Guelph. Most importantly, the gathering highlighted that there were many missing voices from the margins, voices that could not be properly amplified because they were not there. As we learned from our Annual Retreat in 2012, “being there” and being together is critical to the building of community. The arts we have in Guelph are not central and meaningful to all residents—far from it—and there is still much work to be done. Through legible, visible co-creative efforts, we can make the arts a more central and meaningful reality in more peoples’ lives, in our communities, and societies.

[i] Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook, (New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011), 46 – 47.

[ii] Paulo Freire, Education for critical consciousness (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), 29.