How a Toronto non-profit became one of the art world’s biggest influencers
Sophie Brussaux and Mo Ghoneim on the extraordinary rise of Arts Help.
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Update, March 17: After sifting through hundreds of submissions on Instagram, Guinness confirmed Arts Help’s world record.
On Monday afternoon, Arts Help hosted a free art therapy session over Instagram Live.
Immediately after, Guinness observers were on hand for an attempted world record: the most drawing videos uploaded to Instagram in a single hour.
It’s an esoteric record for which there are no current title holders, and it came with weirdly specific rules: each video must be at least five seconds long; no abstract drawings (but a simple 🙂 or ❤️ will suffice); video must show the artist’s face and the artwork being hand-drawn; the final product must be displayed; and the video must be posted on a public Instagram account, using the hashtag #artshelp2021.
If they pull it off, Arts Help can add one more superlative to its impressive c.v.
In just two and half years, the Toronto-based non-profit has grown to become the “no. 1 arts publisher” and the “no. 1 network for artists, visual storytellers, and the new cultural economy.”
That might sound hyperbolic, until you do the math:
2.7 million Instagram followers;
another 1.3 million followers, and almost 10 million likes, on TikTok;
3.9 million uses of its hashtag #arts_help.
Add to this a website with an editorial team producing daily original content, a “proprietary network” of art curators who can be called on to share work with their own followers, and a private sector collaboration that provides access to a network of digital billboards around the world, from Toronto to Los Angeles to Lagos to Dubai, allowing Arts Help — in between ads for H&M or Uber Eats — to showcase artists’ creations to a global audience.
All told, says co-founder Mo Ghoneim (along with artist Sophie Brussaux), the organization reaches about 28 million people a month over its digital platforms.
On TikTok, “just in the last six months, we’ve grown from zero,” Ghoneim says, sounding amazed. “We actually have the screenshots.”
And what does Arts Help do to grow and feed this platform? It shares the work of artists they like from around the world.
During the pandemic, when major galleries are closed and exhibitions delayed, it’s no surprise this activity — and its popularity — has accelerated.
Every day thousands of painters, dancers, animators, sculptors and other artists post work on Instagram with that #arts_help hashtag, hoping they’ll be noticed by the organization’s editorial staff and reshared to their millions of followers.
You’ve probably never heard of most of these artists, and that’s the point.
“We try always to stay away from the big Banksy,” says Brussaux, Arts Help’s chief visionary officer. “Banksy is absolutely amazing. What he does, his work is amazing. But he already made it.”
So Arts Help uses its massive platform to amplify the work of those who haven’t quite made it to the Banksy level (yet), and could benefit greatly from a little push.
“You have no idea the impact sometimes that sharing their work will have on artists,” Ghoneim says. He points to a recent post by Toronto’s Katarina Mogus that earned nearly a million likes on Arts Help’s Instagram alone, “the most likes that we've ever generated.”
Lest you think Arts Help is the Beeple of non-profits, rest assured they’re not just in the business of accumulating likes and shares. Here are a few other things they do:
run free online classes (like Monday’s art therapy session) and quarterly master classes;
connect young artists with industry mentors;
spotlight quarterly “icons,” beginning last fall with Chicago painter Harmonia Rosales, giving them an extra profile boost on billboards including Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo;
create backpacks out of discarded vinyl billboards, which they give away to kids in local elementary schools where they lead workshops;
oh yeah, they also lead workshops in local elementary schools.
Currently, says Ghoneim, they are looking into ways to help artists navigate the exploding crypto art market (NFTs).
Arts Help was among the first to call attention to the work of Nadeen Ashraf, the catalyst behind Egypt’s #MeToo movement, who used an at-first anonymous Instagram account called Assault Police. When she revealed her identity last year, the organization helped connect her with human rights lawyers and other support, Ghoneim says. A painting of her by Brussaux was broadcast across the billboard network, further publicizing her crusade.
I must confess to being unaware of Arts Help’s digital dominance until I wrote a short story for the Star last month about its Black Artistry series. The organization seemed perfectly positioned — with its command of social media algorithms and its billboard network — to capitalize on a pandemic that left few real-world spaces, or even media outlets, for artists to bring their work to the world. So I set up a Zoom call with Brussaux and Ghoneim for a deeper dive.
The one thing I knew about Arts Help was the event that launched the organization into mainstream consciousness in 2019: a United Nations-endorsed showat Toronto’s Design Exchange that attracted a huge opening-night lineup.
The show, Icons with a Purpose, featured Brussaux’s bright pop art-styled portraits of 17 public figures — including Angelina Jolie, Priyanka Chopra and both Obamas — each representing one of the UN’s sustainable development goals for 2030, from climate action to gender equality.
Those goals continue to serve as a framework for the organization’s programming.
“There’s at least something within those 17 global goals that I truly believe everybody can relate to, or is passionate about,” says Ghoneim.
Last year, they launched an initiative called Artists for Social Change, inviting, for starters, 30 students from BIPOC communities to participate in workshops with leaders from the business community, including executives from Apple and Google, “talking about the intersectionality of art and their industry,” says Brussaux.
“We really want artists to shift their mindset … (to) own the fact that you're an artist, and that this is your job, and that you can make a sustainable living out of this, and that you really have valuable assets to bring to society.”
The program was expanded, and culminated last month in an event celebrating the Top 10 Canadian artists for social change, with a judging panel including Director X, Deborah Cox, Brussaux and Tegan Quin (of Tegan and Sara). R&B musician Meagan de Lima was named the social change artist for 2021.
“We have always believed that art is a vehicle for social change,” says Ghoneim, summing up the ethos that he and Brussaux bring to their organization. “Art is more than just a pretty painting on the wall.”
It’s also more than, presumably, a product hack video.
Arts Help has expansion plans in the works for 2021, beyond the ever-growing reach of its social networks. A world record, for starters.