This regular online series will feature interviews with fascinating and influential urban thinkers, with a focus on discussing how Toronto can become a more engaged, accessible, sustainable city.
Artscape is a not for profit developer that creates live and work spaces exclusively for artists. Its Toronto-based projects include the Artscape Triangle Lofts, Wychwood Barns, and Artscape Distillery Studios. Two additional projects are presently in development: The Shaw Street School and Regent Park Arts and Culture Centre. Spacing sat down with Tim Jones, President and CEO of Artscape, to discuss these projects and the role that artists play in city life.
Spacing: Is artist live-work space still threatened in Toronto?
Jones: Artscape was born in the mid-1980s during both a housing boom and crack down on illegal artist live-work spaces. We’re experiencing a similar boom today, in that warehouse buildings, which would have previously provided fantastic live-work spaces for artists, are being converted to lofts or offices instead. Artscape works with artists to give them greater control over their situation. We’re all familiar with the so-called “Soho Effect:” Artists move into a neighbourhood, make it trendy and are then priced out. The story is also told with the same sad lament of artists as victims of urban development. We’re trying to overturn the artists-as-victims motif. For the better part of a decade, artists in Toronto have been declaring, “we are agents of change and we’re generating value.” We’ve been working with public and private entities in order to assert artist’s interests and find a place for them within communities. The best example is the redevelopment of Wychwood Barns where the living and work needs of artists have been accommodated: Artists are placed at the centre of community where they can thrive. The Barns has also proven that artists can generate value and make a tremendous community contribution.
Spacing: How is Artscape able to provide affordable accommodation for artists?
Jones: People in the property management business are shocked to hear that Artscape’s “vacancy loss” over the last 10 years equals less than half a percent. Property managers in the private sector, by contrast, might budget three percent a year to compensate for people abandoning their leases. The Artscape model is based on the micro-finance principle that if you lend money to poor people they’ll pay it back. Artists, in particular, appreciate the fact that you’re leasing them space while keeping it affordable and they recognize that the model only works when everyone pays the rent.
Our goal is to provide affordable housing without creating “bottom of the barrel” space. We’re trying to generate the conditions for creative people to thrive. For that reason, we maintain a spectrum of affordability with short-term rentals like Gibraltar Point, to new membership-based models where you only pay for the studio time that you’re using. It’s a range of below-market options recognizing the different financial capabilities within the arts community.
Spacing: What kinds of buildings does Artscape consider in terms of creating new live-work space for artists?
Jones: Old brick and beam buildings have great potential but there are fewer of them available and they’re hot commodities now. Increasingly, we’re looking at new construction, like the Regent Park Arts and Culture Centre. Another good example is the City’s plan for a cultural-creative hub in Weston Mount Dennis. The City engaged us last year to do a study on creative hubs in priority neighbourhoods, like Weston. They launched a design charette and a planning exercise in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. The site they selected is currently a Green P parking lot. Before construction starts, we’ll first consider the best composition for the new space by engaging both interested artists and the community.
Spacing: Can you tell us more about the Regent Park Arts and Culture Centre?
Jones: Regent Park represents a failed model of social and urban planning. Nonetheless, when government decided to demolish it and start anew there were still some overriding concerns, for instance, how to integrate arts and culture. The Centre will attempt to tap into the power of the arts to drive an agenda for growth and change in Regent Park, but will do so in a way that also aligns it with the needs of the arts community. Artscape’s involvement is also meant to compliment public policy agendas in terms of building social infrastructure and creating better social cohesion. On the ground floor, the new centre will contain space residents can use to stage their own work including a 450-seat flexible performance event area. The centre will also contain offices for two community arts organizations: Native Earth Performing Arts and Collective of Black Artists. The second floor is designed to engage youth and provide them with arts training. We’re also accommodating groups that have been active in the community for years, like ArtHeart, the Regent Park School of Music, Cabbagetown and Regent Park Museum, and the Regent Park Film Festival.
Spacing: What can you tell us about the Shaw Street School?
Jones: At the moment were trying to discover the right mix of uses and figuring out how to repurpose an old building. With Shaw we set up a community advisory committee, as we always have, and put out a call for proposals for people who might be interested in leasing or owning space. It’s through that process that we discovered who is interested and what vision will apply. One of the biggest challenges with Shaw was its 14 ft. wide hallways that make up 40% of the building. It’s generally inefficient as work space. Eventually we realized that the hallways could actually be central to the plan. They can be alive as big living rooms or as galleries. There is that old Jane Jacobs adage about old spaces needing new ideas: That’s really the case with Shaw. Its about finding out what the ideas are and how they inform the structure.
Spacing: Why are artists so critical to the dynamic of cities?
Jones: Artists help us tell our stories and are the lifeblood of community. They bring cultural value to our communities. If you look at Queen West, much of whats unique about Toronto was pretty much born there ― music, fashion, design. Arts is also big business in Toronto. Presently, the arts and culture sector accounts for 6% of our workforce and over $9 billion in GDP. We’re just starting to really appreciate the size of this growing sector. We’ve always kind of took it for granted that we had a vibrant arts scene but now it’s important for our economic future.
Photo by False Positives