Event Recap: Arts and the SDGs

By Emily Hansen, SDG Cities Lead, 10C Shared Space

Artwork featured above by Manny Chukwu, artist and 10C team member. You can see this piece in the stairwell at 10C and learn more about Manny’s artwork here.

On June 7th, 2022 SDG Cities hosted a Community Learning Series to discuss Arts, Culture and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

This discussion was prompted by a curiosity about how the arts and arts organizations can contribute to the SDGs contributing to wellbeing, sustainability and social cohesion in our communities. SDG Cities was joined by Sarah Haanstra, Manager of Toward Common Ground, Jess Agilo Founder, President & CEO of ArtsPond/Étang d’Arts, and Michelle Peek of Founder of Art Not Shame

From the perspective of a community impact practitioner, Sarah talked about Results Based Accountability (RBA) as a frame for how the SDGs can apply at a local level. Sarah presented RBA as a framework to help situate local work in the context of the broader global SDGs. 

Sarah talked about her work on resilience, both at the community and individual level, as a way  to think about the contributions of the arts to wellbeing. Sarah shared a perspective that the arts contribute significantly to protective factors that create resilience such as a sense of belonging, identity, connection to others, nurturing relationships, positive mental health and others. Measuring the impact of arts on wellbeing – and the SDGs – can mean examining how your project, initiative or work locally contributes in a positive way to those protective factors that support resilience. 

Jessa presented her thinking about the paradox and possibilities of arts and the SDGs. She described a paradox where artists struggle to articulate their contributions to social change, and those active in social change movements to recognize leadership in the arts sector. This is demonstrated by the historical lack of engagement with arts and artists in development of the  SDGs and other social change frameworks. 

Jessa framed the possibility in terms of what she calls –  illumination, representation and activation. Illumination requires a deeper understanding of the role and potential of artists to create and drive social change. Representation requires that artists are at the table – the SDG table and local policy making tables – playing an active role in change making. Activation comes as we involve artists as participants and leaders in building solutions to realize the SDGs.  

In her work with ArtsPond, Jessa connects to 12 of the SDGs. Sharing one example, groundstory was a collective action project to understand the root causes and ripple effects of gentrification in Toronto and Hamilton. ArtsPond is also actively involved in training young leaders in the arts, and development of a cultural land trust among other inspiring initiatives. 

Michelle, who is admittedly new to thinking about the SDGs, shared her work with Art Not Shame as an example of what the arts can do to create belonging, increase access to creativity while supporting wellbeing, community building and social justice. Michelle highlighted an opportunity for arts to play a role in “scaling deep” or in other words working help change the hearts and minds of people recognizing that “ the challenges identified by the SDGs are spiritual and ideological as much as they are material.”

As a concrete example of how arts organizations can connect their work and programming to the SDGs, Michelle shared about the 2020 Mural Project: Art in Hard Times. This was a community-led process in the early days of the pandemic. Ultimately – the project aimed to reduce pandemic related isolation and voice important messages to the world. Many of the issues and themes were connected to the SDGs including: environmental regeneration, housing, water, equity and many others. The impact of the project was expressed through quotes collected from participants that explained more about the art they created and how it connected to their message. The result was a collaboratively developed digital mural and a series of original songs by Joni NehRita that captured the process. 

What’s Next? 

This conversation provided an opportunity for artists, arts organizations and those working in community impact sectors to explore questions about how the arts can be a part of our work to activate the SDG locally. We discussed the value arts bring to the community and how they can support community wellbeing, inclusion, resilience and many other goal of the SDGs. There is also a recognition that art can, and should exist and be practiced for arts sake – recognizing  the inherent role and value of art in shaping our lives, relationships and ways of being. 

We also learned that art and culture are not driving principles of the SDGs – yet art has the potential to contribute significantly to many of the SDGs. Given this gap – do we need an 18th culture focused SDG?

We are grateful to our panelists and those who joined us for the conversation. Looking forward to more discussions of arts, creativity, belonging and sustainability in our communities!

Watch the recorded session here

Panelist Biographies: 

Sarah Haanstra (She/her) is the Manager of Toward Common Ground (TCG), a project of the Guelph Community Health Centre where she is also the interim Primary Health Director.  In her role with toward Common Ground, Sarah led the development of a local wellbeing framework that guides the work and focus of TCG. She has also led many projects focused on understanding local needs and impact.

Jessa Agilo (She/her) is the Founder, President & CEO, ArtsPond/Étang d’Arts, a nonprofit organization  that aims to strengthen the potential of artistic expression to nurture healthy human ecosystems that cultivate equity and social cohesion. Jessa is an integrated arts creator, producer, educator, knowledge seeker, changemaker, and serial social entrepreneur with a three-decade career boosting social, spatial, economic, digital, and accessibility justice with, by, and for equity-seeking groups across all disciplines in Canadian arts and culture. 

Michelle Peek (She/her) is the Founder of Art Not Shame a community-engaged, multidisciplinary arts organization serving youth and adults in Guelph and across Ontario. Michelle is a community-engaged educator and photographer. She is interested in the transformative role of art in community-based social justice projects and mental wellbeing. Michelle holds a PhD in English and Cultural Studies from McMaster University, where she studied love and belonging in contemporary queer, Indigenous, and human rights literature.


Maggs, David. 2021. Art and the World After This. Metcalf Foundation. https://metcalffoundation.com/publication/art-and-the-world-after-this/  

United Cities and Local Governments. 2018. Culture in the Sustainable Development Goals:  A Guide for Local Action. https://www.uclg.org/sites/default/files/culture_in_the_sdgs.pdf 

Culture 2030 Goal campaign. 2021. Culture in the Localization of the 2030 Agenda: An Analysis of Voluntary Local Reviews. Published in Barcelona, Paris, Abidjan, Montreal, The Hague and Brussels. https://cultureactioneurope.org/files/2022/01/af_culture2030goal_2021.pdf 

Department of Finance Canada. 2021. Measuring What Matters: Toward a Quality of Life Strategy for Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/services/publications/measuring-what-matters-toward-quality-life-strategy-canada.html 

Hill Strategies. 2021. Canadian’s Arts Participation, Health and Well-being. https://hillstrategies.com/resource/canadians-arts-participation-health-and-well-being/ 

Garrett, Ian. 2015. Arts, the Environment & Sustainability. https://www.americansforthearts.org/sites/default/files/Arts&America_Environment.pdf 

Kabanda, Patrick. 2020. At the UN, the Arts Emerge as a Force for Sustainable Development. https://sdg.iisd.org/commentary/guest-articles/at-the-un-the-arts-emerge-as-a-force-for-sustainable-development/  

Voices of Culture – Culture and the UN  SDGs: Challenges and Opportunities. https://voicesofculture.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/VoC-Brainstorming-Report-Culture-and-SDGs.pdf 

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