Unpacking Artist Spaces

Which candidates understand the need for affordable space for artists?

Creating Space
Creating Space
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An election issue that crops up time and again in conversations with artists is the ongoing struggle to find and retain affordable space to create their work.

With real estate prices rising steeply and an influx of Torontonians fleeing unsustainable housing costs, gentrification is well under way in our downtown, and the arts community feels it keenly.

They are not holding their breath for support from Premier Doug Ford, who famously wanted to eliminate CBC funding, apparently unaware that it is federally funded, and claimed not to know who Margaret Atwood was when she criticized his Toronto library cuts.

In Peterborough, City Council did not balk at a price tag of $54 million to replace the Northcrest Arena and spent $139,675 on a feasibility study for a new major sports and entertainment complex to replace the Memorial Centre. But they wring their hands at committing to investments in the arts community. They spend to attract business investment but not to build arts investment and audiences.

Let’s take a look at some of Peterborough’s many artist-run, non-commercial spaces and the effort it takes to keep them going.

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Evans Contemporary

Evans Contemporary

Over in the Commerce Building, Evans Contemporary has relinquished its space for a month-long residency entitled Quality of Life in August. The former Spill’s owner Dave Tobey lent sound equipment to augment the programming by local musician Karol Orzechowski. Despite the lack of seating, a culture-hungry public fills up the space several nights a week for a film series, workshops on DIY recording, and a host of all-ages alternative music events selected by guest curators.

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On King Street, before they head to their day jobs, a score of artists work at building walls and risers, and giving a fresh coat of black paint to a former photocopy shop, now the new home of The Theatre on King.

At least 500 actors, musicians, stage technicians, writers, and choreographers present work out of the tiny black box theatre each year.

A new sprung floor has been installed, inherited from Trent’s Nozhem Theatre, that will prevent dance and performance injuries. Used chairs were scored from a Jehovah’s Witness Hall via Kijiji.The new location has a storefront window, room for expanded seating, and no mid-stage pillar obstructing the view. It’s a big undertaking for the theatre, and a GoFundMe page has been launched to raise money for construction costs.

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To keep her space affordable, visual artist Laurel Paluck shares the third floor of the historic Roy Photography Studio on Hunter Street with animator Daniel Crawford, musician and visual artist Kathleen Adamson, and the Darkroom Project, Canada’s longest continuously operating darkroom. At any given time, Paluck may be rehearsing with a dozen performers for community arts events or building enormous puppets, like the twelve-and-a-half-foot whale made with recycled plastic for The Wailing, an upcoming Artsweek performance.

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Last winter, artist and performer Deb Reynolds manifested a downtown art hive (an inclusive drop-in art space with donated materials for making art). Operating in winter out of Peterborough Stand Up Paddle store and in summer out of an unused garage of the John Howard Society, the space requires work tables, running water, and permanent storage for crates of art supplies. Creating Space will continue if it raises enough funds on its GoFundMe page to cover next winter’s rent.

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With their fresh aesthetic and marketing savvy, Water Street retailers Watson & Lou recently rented the space above Evans Contemporary, with the goal of creating a textile print shop and studio spaces. An established outlet for the work of local artists and makers, they appreciate the struggle for affordable space. Co-owner Anna Eidt laments that the rent for the new space means “looking at this as a social enterprise rather than a business venture.”

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Sadleir House, various churches, as well as small coffee shops and bars like Dreams of Beans, Twisted Wheel, the Garnet, and Beard Free Brewing are active venues for local musicians, but the ambiance of recently closed Catalina’s and the nurturing spirit of the legendary Spill continue to be missed.

Studio in the Attic

Studio in the Attic

The Venue, Showplace, Market Hall, Gordon Best Theatre, and The Mount are beyond the means of most local musicians.

For visual artists and performers, the challenge is the need for affordable permanent space, sometimes quite a lot of it. There is always a waiting list for studios in the Commerce Building.

In the minds of those who hold the keys to large spaces or funding, the arts should fit into two categories: the ‘art-repreneurs’ who use a business framework to turn their work into profit, or the community arts, where charity is the name of the game.

But therein lies the problem.

Art does not speak the same language as business—and why should it? Profit is not a motivating goal for the average artist; enhancing quality of life is.

While arts grants may provide some funding, they are time-consuming, short-lived, restrictive, and unreliable sources of income. Despite the hours of volunteer labour, gratis mentorships, personal investments, and the enormous contribution that local artists make to the vitality of the city, they are rarely the primary beneficiaries of municipal arts incentives or business patronage.

Rumours periodically circulate that an incentivized arts hub would attract developers. Often the term arts hub refers to a one-size-fits-all model: a multi-tenant building like Toronto’s 401 Richmond Street, which subsidizes a few professional artist studios through rentals of compatible for-profit businesses like architects, designers, or commercial galleries; or creative space subsidized through charity to an under supported class such as youth, the elderly, or people living with poverty or mental illness.

However the viability of any art space should obviously hinge on whether or not the arts community was consulted about their needs—and they have not been consulted to date.

Undoubtedly artists will be closely watching the upcoming municipal election to see which Councillors are informed and ready to go to bat for Peterborough’s artists.

“Social capital is a funny thing,” says Paolo Fortin, director of Evans Contemporary and a driving force behind the successful First Friday Art Crawl. “People tell you how incredibly valuable your gallery space is, but it’s different when you ask them to open their wallets.”

Photos by Ann Jaeger

 

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Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger

troutinplaid.com
Troutinplaid

Ann Jaeger writes Trout in Plaid, a journal of arts and culture in the Peterborough area.