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Empowering Creativity: Peer Support Networks in Canada

Empowering Creativity: Peer Support Networks in Canada

By Alexandra Hong

Students in a woodshop

Peer support in the arts sector is under-recognized and under-valued. As a model, peer support is far more understood in the social services and healthcare sectors, even though peer support in those same sectors is chronically underfunded. Collectively, the under-recognized, under-valued and under-funded conditions of peer support work needs a policy response.

This blog post aims to articulate the importance of peer support networks for emerging creatives. This blog post also calls for improved awareness and policy action to increase funding for and evaluation of peer support networks so the sector can continue to better remedy the multiple adverse barriers of artist precarity.

What is a Peer Support Network?

Peer support networks encompass the formal and informal connections between individuals wherein they exchange support, knowledge and resources. Peer support primarily refers to a process whereby individuals with lived experience of a particular phenomenon provide support to others by explicitly drawing on their personal experience.

Peer support has been adopted in a variety of service contexts including homelessness, substance use, chronic health, mental and physical health.[1] Primarily recognized by mental health policymakers,[2] peer support networks show the remarkable improvements in people’s lives that can occur even with relatively small investments.[3] Peer support networks oftentimes run on volunteer labour, leading to unsustainable program delivery and sector impact. Many beneficiaries of peer support networks in healthcare agree that peer support needs to continue to develop both inside and outside the mainstream mental health system.[4] Yet, peer-run initiatives, like peer support networks, require policy, administrative and funding support to build and maintain strong and sustainable peer capacity and infrastructures.[5]

How do peer networks support artists?

Peer support networks play an underrecognized role in arts and culture sectors around the world, particularly as it relates to career and professional development. International case studies of Status of the Artist legislation highlight a commitment to providing social safety nets for artists.[6] Without such legislative investments, different actors in the arts and culture sector develop service models that may not be fully funded, creating capacity strain and sector unsustainability.

Artquest in the UK highlighted the following benefits of peer support networks for artists and designers.[7]  

  1. Reciprocal learning: Peer support networks offer a secure environment for artists and designers to share work, receive feedback and learn from each other. This in turn helps them identify areas for improvement and may cultivate creative and technical skills. 
  2. Network opportunities: Networking can support the professional advancement of artists, leading to new collaborations, commissions, exhibitions and other opportunities. Networks can also help combat isolation, and instead, provide an essential sense of belonging for many emerging artists and designers. 
  3. Emotional support, motivation and confidence: Research shows that peer learning and support enable individuals to retain knowledge, build deeper relationships, while also strengthening resilience and self-esteem.[8] Peer support networks provide emotional support, motivation and confidence building, alleviating feelings of isolation and self-doubt among emerging creatives. They also foster motivation and determination by providing inspiration and accountability. Peers offer valuable feedback, critique and guidance, fostering a supportive environment for emerging artists to stay focused on their goals and commitments.

Being part of such a supportive community is invaluable for those in the creative industry.

Such benefits may improve an emerging artist or designer’s wellbeing by offering:

  1. Validation and a sense of belonging: Being part of a peer support network assures emerging artists that they are not alone in their experiences and challenges. This validation is critical, as it helps emerging artists tackle the issue of self-doubt by allowing them to gain more confidence and realize that their questions and concerns are shared by others. This helps to create a supportive environment where artists feel understood and connected.  
  2. Informed and intentional decision making: Engaging with peers in a supportive environment allows artists to reflect on their own values and priorities.[9] This is because artists can become more intentional about their artistic choices by learning from the experiences of others and considering different perspectives. This can help them identify what truly matters to them and make decisions aligned with their artistic vision and goals. Peer networks are nimble and responsive to the ever-changing needs of creatives. This can provide them with real-time and relevant feedback from practitioners on the ground.     
  3. Exposure to diverse approaches: Through interaction with peers, artists are exposed to a variety of perspectives and approaches to their creative practices. Peer support networks can expand creative career horizons allowing them to explore new avenues, think creatively and experiment with techniques. Empowerment is essential for experimentation and new ideas.

In Canada, peer networking is often initiated and supported by individual artists, collectives, and arts organizations. These sector actors and mobilizers fill the gap, often with insufficient funding, labour, peer capacity and other essential infrastructure. Peer networks in the arts and culture sector may also look like mentorship programs, critique or grant writing circles and artist residencies. Such networks advance artists and creatives’ careers and opportunities.

Peer networks are acutely useful to emerging artists but are also important to artists re-entering the sector after time away, including those returning from parental leave and artists requiring emergency supports or health barriers. Other peer support networks are organized more informally among artists themselves.

Granting agencies—and organizations who report to those agencies on funding for peer support adjacent activities—actively contribute to the program evaluation data and potential for program development of peer support networks. For example, the Canada Council for the Art's 2021-26 Strategic Plan and Engagement Report highlights that they are committed to supporting infrastructure and connections, emphasizing their dedication to fostering peer networks.[10] Yet, hard data on the impact of peer support networks is difficult to locate beyond the individual stories, testimonials and resilience of artists.

Key Takeaways 

Peer support networks can improve a sense of belonging and increase creative and career confidence, especially among emerging and precarious artists. While peer support networks already exist across Canada’s arts and culture sector, their funding is unknown and may be non-existent. Furthermore, because peer networks are chronically under-funded—or not funded at all—across multiple sectors, program data to inform policymaking is limited. Funders and policymakers alike need to evaluate the impact of these networks as a measure to improve artist precarity. To ensure and bolster these critical care networks for artists, policymakers should consider including key indicators and evaluation metrics in forthcoming grant program design that helps mitigate and track precarity in the sector.

By recognizing the value of peer support networks and taking proactive program design and development measures, policymakers can foster a supportive ecosystem that empowers emerging artists, enabling their growth, creativity, resiliency and success.

This article was peer reviewed and edited by the Cultural Policy Hub administrative team at OCAD University.

Fineline is a project of OCAD University with support from Future Skills Centre to incubate the marketplace and a co-operative that helps artists and designers grow their business online, while developing cultural entrepreneurship skills.

Reference List


  1. Miler, J. A., Carver, H., Foster, R., & Parkes, T. (2020). Provision of peer support at the intersection of homelessness and problem substance use services: a systematic ‘state of the art’review. BMC Public Health20(1), 1-18.
  2. Cyr, C., Mckee, H., O’Hagan, M., & Priest, R. (2016). Making the case for peer support. Mental Health Commission of Canada2007.
  3. Cyr, C., Mckee, H., O’Hagan, M., & Priest, R. (2016). Making the case for peer support. Mental Health Commission of Canada2007; pp. 5
  4. Cyr, C., Mckee, H., O’Hagan, M., & Priest, R. (2016). Making the case for peer support. Mental Health Commission of Canada2007; pp. 6
  5. Cyr, C., Mckee, H., O’Hagan, M., & Priest, R. (2016). Making the case for peer support. Mental Health Commission of Canada2007; pp. 6
  8. Johnson, David W., and Roger T. Johnson. “Making Cooperative Learning Work.” Theory Into Practice, vol. 38, no. 2, 1999, pp. 67–73. JSTOR, Accessed 19 July 2023.