ArtsSmarts brings together artists, teachers and students to explore the formal education curriculum using an art form as a means of discovery and co-learning. For example, music might be used to teach mathematics, or mural making applied to the study of history. This approach to learning has proven its significant and beneficial impact on student engagement and teacher practice over the past decade.

ArtsSmarts is also a network of arts, educational and community organizations at the local, regional and provincial levels. It serves as a forum for research, an idea and mentoring exchange, a means of securing private, public and academic participation and a source of innovative educational practice in schools.

Strategic Vision

ArtsSmarts envisions a sustainable, inclusive educational system that nurtures students’ development as critical thinkers and agents of change by engaging them in learning as an ongoing creative process.

While grounded in local collaboration between educators and artists, it proposes to all of Canada a community of learning and practice dedicated to continuous innovation in education.

Granting Total

Phase I 1996-1999 $2,700,000
Phase II 2000-2003 $3,420,000
Phase III 2003-2008 $3,600,000
Phase IV 2008-2010 $1,000,000
Total granted:   $10,720,000

Program History

In 1996, the Foundation convened a roundtable to consider the role of arts education in preparing young people for life in a post industrial economy. The meeting took place at a time of increased emphasis on ‘education for competitiveness’ and a decline in public support for arts education. The participants proposed a new arts-in-education model, made up of a community development approach linking schools and communities, coupled with a teacher development model supporting teacher-artist partnerships.

In 1998, ArtsSmarts was launched with seven partners1 and the Canadian Conference of the Arts as secretariat. By the end of three years, some 58,000 students had had an ArtsSmarts experience, and funding was provided for a second phase. Three new partners joined ArtsSmarts2 at this time, bringing the total to ten.

Over the next decade, ArtsSmarts would repeatedly demonstrate its positive impact on student engagement and teacher practice in participating schools. This drove home the need to start influencing the larger education system.

A number of developments helped establish ArtsSmarts’ credibility in this domain. First, work at Caslan School and other locations demonstrated ArtsSmarts’ value in creating successful educational outcomes for Indigenous learners. Second, the Canadian Council on Learning appointed a researcher-in-residence to study ArtsSmarts’ impact on student engagement and third, after a year-long review, the 19 partners3 and the Foundation agreed that ArtsSmarts should become an independent charitable organization with its own Board of Directors and a Partner Council.

The Foundation provided a grant to ArtsSmarts to support this process, and has representation on the Board. ArtsSmarts became a stand-alone charitable organization in 2009.

Nearly 500,000 students have taken part in ArtsSmarts since it began in 1998.. Last year alone, the network undertook 281 unique ArtsSmarts projects impacting 27,236 children and youth.

Key Lessons

  • ArtsSmarts has a catalystic effect on student engagement, and has beneficial impacts on academic performance and school completion.
  • ArtsSmarts enables students of varying ability levels to learn together at the same time – an important contribution to teaching strategies in today’s diverse classrooms .
  • Unlike ‘pre-packaged’ programs with pre-determined content, ArtsSmarts’ projects are co-created among teachers, artists and students, and often include unique local content. This responsive, flexible approach has ignited enduring interest among local program partners, who often become passionate advocates for the program.
  • ArtsSmarts projects are determined in part by students and often document personal perspectives on environmental and other issues. This may be an area for further research in line with efforts to shape our understanding of who we are in relation to the world.
  • ArtsSmarts offers insights into how a concept became a set of demonstration projects and eventually, a national program operating at local and regional levels. Interestingly, it has attracted over 450 funders and sponsors at the local and regional levels. Finding national partners has proven more difficult.
  • ArtsSmarts also holds lessons for us around working with intermediaries to manage programs and build networks. While each of two intermediaries made valuable contributions to the program, it became clear to the partners that in order to work in its best interests, ArtsSmarts needed to become a separate organization.
  • A paradoxical outcome occurred in the early stages of a project in a Métis school in Northern Alberta: initially, academic results declined considerably, even as anecdotal evidence indicated that the program was having a profoundly beneficial impact on student self esteem, and school and community culture. A lesson for us was that change sometimes creates ‘noise’ at one level that can obscure deeper shifts in a system. Eventually, local practice was refined and improved, and the school became the most improved in the District, and a model for Indigenous schools across Canada.
  • Educators in Saskatchewan have adapted the ArtsSmarts approach to create ‘TreatySmarts’, an inclusive exploration of the treaty process in Canada, using experiential learning and artistic co-creation as core elements in the program.
  • When the Canadian Council on Learning awarded ArtsSmarts a Researcher in Residence position, it enabled the program to structure itself as a community of inquiry and carry out groundbreaking research on student engagement. This holds implications for knowledge management in other domains, such as community service learning.

See Deconstructing Engagement: A First Generation Report on the ArtsSmarts Student Engagement Questionnaire. ArtsSmarts, 2007 and Engaged in Learning: The ArtsSmarts Model.

  1. Art Starts in Schools (BC); Calgary Arts Partners in Education Society; Community Foundation of Ottawa-Carleton; Newfoundland & Labrador Arts Council; Nova Scotia Arts Council; Portage and District Community Foundation (MAN); Saskatoon Foundation.
  2. Districts Scolaires # 1 et #11, Nouveau Brunswick; Fondation du Grand Quebec; Riverside School Board, Montreal
  3. See for a current listing.
The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation 1002 Sherbrooke W., Suite 1800, Montreal, Québec H3A 3L6