The Problem with the Toronto Arts

A discussion with Aziza Mohammed

Written by: Sarah Johnson
Photography by: Mikie Jae

“If we are so readily willing to pay our lawyers and shopkeepers and politicians, why shouldn’t we pay our arts workers?”

Journey: Idea to Reality

As a multicultural city, Toronto completely lacks diversity in the arts. Realizing that something didn’t add up, Aziza Mohammed wondered why the creative expression of our city didn’t follow suit with its identity.

“Art needs to reflect and explore the population it seeks to represent.”

With a background in politics, Aziza set out to change how the Toronto Arts operated. Although unknown to her at the time, Aziza was about to do something that had never been done before: creating an open dialogue between members of the Toronto arts community.

After having a conversation with the Director of the Canadian Opera Company, Alexander Neef, on a dare, Aziza’s suspicions about representation in the Toronto Arts were confirmed. To her surprise, Neef not only shared her views, but was interested in her premonitions for the future.

Leaving the conversation with a new found motivation, Aziza created Salon West — an event connecting Toronto Arts executives, artists, and audience members by allowing a free, open dialogue. Fast forward to a few years down the road, Salon West has given a voice to young, diverse members of the Toronto Arts community. Voices who have never been heard before, promoting both inclusion and new ideas.

Challenges & Failures

Despite having built a solid foundation for Salon West, business isn’t easy. Aziza admits that in the beginning, she had no idea what she was doing. She had never run a business before, but hustled on, embracing every new challenge like a crash course. But after a few months of chaos, it was clear the Mohammed could not execute Salon West on her own. She needed to outsource the majority of her operations.

As a nonprofit, Salon West was initially supported by ticket sales, with a small amount of patron donations and a few corporate sponsors. These circumstances charged Mohammed with the belief that running lean is the most efficient way to foster growth.

Regardless of tickets remaining Salon West’s main revenue stream, Mohammed has constantly faced dispute over Salon West’s attendance fees. Her response is reflective of Salon West’s mission:

“If we are so readily willing to pay our lawyers and shopkeepers and politicians, why shouldn’t we pay our arts workers?”

Aziza’s unchanging view has caught the eye of several respected executives in the Toronto Arts. Salon West has been featured on Global TV, with members of the Toronto Arts Council, Toronto Symphony, and Canadian Opera Company backing the events.

While sitting down with Origins Magazine, we asked Aziza to tell us more about the many challenges she faced as a first-time entrepreneur. Her answers?

1. Fear of failure. For the first time in your life you are in charge and sometimes the choices you make are crippling, which can paralyze you. But if you don’t make any choices, you get nothing done. 
2. Time management. Although I enjoyed it, there was a time when I was a total workaholic. I had meetings all day and I’d work on the social media and website at night. It’s definitely a right of passage, but you have to get over that eventually. 
3. Delegating. Especially in the creative industries, it’s so personal. Since you have a strong curatorial vision, sometimes it’s hard to delegate to other people 
4. Working with friends. I actually wouldn’t suggest working with friends. I had one and I had to fire him. It took me six months. He would always sweet talk me into keeping him. At the end of the day, his work wasn’t good enough and he was unreliable. He had to go.

Definition of Success

Courage. Especially as a woman. When I went to open a bank account for Salon West, the banker couldn’t believe that it was my business even though I had all of the required paperwork and registrations in hand. He asked me multiple times what my business was, who I was, and even doubled checked on the website to see that I was listed as the Director. It was awful.

Advice for aspiring arts-based entrepreneurs?

1. Be precise. Pick something to do and be good at it. I suffered from this in my first few months of founding Salon West. I was not very defined in what I was trying to do. I wanted to do everything and that is not possible. The lack of focus also hindered my ability to communicate about the project effectively.

2. Assess your strengths. See what resources you have in order to make a change. I have extensive knowledge of public policy and a very wide political network. Every person has their own special resources and value-added that they bring to the table.

3. Believe in what you are doing. Especially if it is something new. You need to believe in what you are doing and keep doing it, no matter what people say. Make a certain commitment, know how much risk and loss you are able to bear to fulfill that commitment, and just try. 
4. Relationships are a priority. Mohammed’s ability to build strategic partnership proves that relationships garner tangible results. Stay on good terms with people and keep relationships open for opportunities.

Want more? Access full interview with Aziza Mohammed, founder of Salon West, at https://www.originsmag.com/interviews/problems-with-the-toronto-arts.

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