A space of one’s own

by Jini Stolk

Art needs space and space needs art.

Duncan Webb, ex-Torontonian, threw down the gauntlet a few years back in a blog post titled Message to Cultural Groups: Rent, Don’t Buy!  His arguments were as expected, and they’re not wrong: real estate is not a liquid asset; arts groups have trouble servicing debt; upkeep, renovations and increased operating costs are hard to afford. Buying a property is complex financially and in terms of time; staff burnout follows; boards can’t keep up with new demands. All are often true.

Duncan recommends an Artscape-like solution like the Playhouse Square Foundation, currently operating 10 performance space in downtown Cleveland.

While arts organizations in the States seem to have been particularly vulnerable to overextension and misplaced optimism in their pre-recession building plans, Canada is still seeing a steady roll out of carefully planned and comparatively modest building and renovation projects. Recently:

  • Crow’s Theatre is set to launch its 200-seat theatre in Leslieville – an $11-million facility at the base of a condo tower on Carlaw at Dundas – early next year
  • Studio upgrades are underway at Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company
  • Toronto Dance Theatre/School of Toronto Dance Theatre are proceeding with their phased renovations to Winchester Street Theatre in Cabbagetown
  • Soulpepper is planning to add a building to its physical footprint, and is looking at several sites near its current home in the Distillery District. Like the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, this will be a multipartner project with shared costs.
  • Young People’s Theatre is on the verge of an exciting solution to its years-long lack of sufficient space for eager audiences, students, and productions

Luminato’s all-out effort to transform the Hearn Generating Station into a multi-show centre for its 2016 Festival stands out as being especially bold and risky. The Hearn is not easy to get to (except for one of my dear friends who travels daily to a garden plot at the Leslie Street Spit), and getting it ready for this year’s Festival was a huge undertaking – which could indeed become the foundational project from which the transformation of this part of the port lands proceeds. I sincerely hope that the temporary project’s large $2.5 million cost forms the basis of a continuing, permanent commitment to this space. There’s not enough public funding or philanthropy available in Canada for one-time solutions.

Arts organizations are drawn like flies to underused heritage properties, such as this project that transformed an abandoned church in Detroit to an art gallery. Artists tend to be thrilled by the potential and challenge of abandoned grand public spaces, and are usually excellent and devoted stewards of built history.

But wouldn’t it be ideal if the relationship between heritage preservation and cultural uses were acknowledged with more than the occasional admiring article. These things cost money.

More cultural spaces in the news:

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