Last week the CBC and the radio program Q ran a most interesting story about the importance of space for the artist.
In the UK, an arts collective known as The Oubliette are “advocating turning unused commercial and industrial property over to arts groups as a way of advancing the arts economy.” They have been drawing public attention to the artist’s need for space and the hundreds of spaces left vacant in London –some lying unused for 10-20 years. The group acts as a “middle-man” and argues “the lending of empty space can be seen as an alternative way to fund the arts, without either private or public financing.”
Now, back to this Nation’s Capital . . . just think of all of the vacant spaces in Ottawa.
A few weeks ago, Spacing Ottawa posted a piece about the Ogilvy Building, abandoned 17 years and counting. I bet you can think of at least one vacant space in your neighbourhood right now. Maybe it’s a warehouse or a church or an office space. For me, I shake my head every time I walk by the void that was Goldstein’s Grocery on Elgin Street, nearly 4 years vacant, and sigh over the lost potential.
Good affordable space is at a premium for artists in this city, especially for emerging or amateur groups that cannot afford the costly professional facilities already backlogged with rental requests. The Oubliette is on to something.
Let me be clear. I am not advocating the radical takeover or bureaucratic brokering of public space. Nor am I saying that empty urban space in Ottawa should be used for artistic productions. (While this is something The Oubliette does in London, having worked in the arts for many years, I know how complicated production issues can get –especially with wary property owners and a particularly prickly City Council in the mix.)
What I am throwing out there is the grassroots idea that Ottawa property owners should consider temporarily lending vacant space to artists for what I will call “gentle use” (readings, practices, rehearsals, group meetings, talks, lectures, etc.).
It should be an attractive swap for owners. They loan something useful to the local arts community, like space, and rather than worrying about vandalism, fire hazards, and property upkeep notices from the city, they get gentle-use “tenants” who showcase the potential of the property while creating art — and community goodwill toward the owner.
So how can property owners collaborate with artists?
1. Community outreach. Space can be advertised through community groups, listservs, websites . . . all for free.
2. Facilitate a key exchange and review security rules and insurance liability.
3. Ask for a reasonable damage deposit. (Cause damage, forfeit the deposit.) Otherwise, rent is free.
Ottawa’s creative culture is suffering because studio and practice space is out of reach for so many working artists. Yet the arts are a big part of what makes some cities more attractive than others for newcomers and major employers. A community that can find ways to invest in its artists is investing in itself.
Photo credit: Jeremie Deschenes