A Problem Shared…

Tools of the Trade

Arts organisations use all sorts of office settings, from small and casual bolt-holes to grand, more formal venues. Physical environment clearly influences productivity and mood of the team, so space and resources need to be adequate.

Unfortunately that’s easier said than done, with rent taking such a big chunk out of a company’s budget. But there’s another way to look at the question of space for arts organisations: rent could be a good investment in a mutually beneficial creative environment, so that a building becomes an active player in a particular city’s cultural ecology.

Co-working, shared workspaces and cultural hubs are on the rise because they solve problems. For example, a hot desk at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation (known locally as CSI) starts at CAD75 a month – and comes with a business address, mail delivery, 24/7 access and shared services such as free wifi, free coffee, cheap printing and meeting rooms. This can offer a low-cost, temporary solution for an organisation trying to bounce back after reductions in income.

The venue management publishes open source toolkits, incubates projects and operates a crowdfunding platform. They also fix the wifi if it goes wonky and remove those pesky paper jams.

And for added value, members get to be part of a thriving community of freelancers and entrepreneurs, both not-for-profit and for-profit, from a variety of sectors. An internal communications system, networking events of all types and sizes and a big communal kitchen allow members to constantly exchange services, contacts and ideas.

CSI started with 14 founding tenants in 2004 and now has three locations in Toronto and one in New York, so it’s clearly working. It’s a social enterprise that acts as a community enabler, not a commercial landlord draining away resources.

The management team publishes open source toolkits, incubates projects, runs a micro-loan fund and operates a crowdfunding platform. They also fix the wifi if it goes wonky and remove those pesky paper jams.

There are other models out there, other ways to turn office rent into community investment. Also in Toronto, 401 Richmond is a 200,000 sq ft historic warehouse renovated under the principles of eco-restoration and openly inspired by Jane Jacobs (‘Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings; new ideas must use old buildings’).

Current tenants include over 140 cultural producers and micro-enterprises: 12 galleries, artists, designers and architects, a music shop, a bookshop, many arts festivals and environmental and civic agencies.

The management company, Urbanspace, organises tenant-led Nuit Blanche events and open studio days, and services include an arts-based childcare centre, a friendly café and a luxuriant rooftop garden. Here too, the community is based on shared values, and tenants are selected – from a long waiting list – to contribute to the creative mix.

Still in Toronto, Artscape, a registered not-for-profit organisation founded in 1986, manages several buildings that offer affordable live/work studios for artists, offices for arts and civic organisations, and performance and exhibition spaces at a discounted rate for charities.

They have also developed models and tools for creative placemaking. The latest Artscape building, a 75,000 sq ft renovated primary school, hosts a wide range of tenants, including artists and musicians, a large multidisciplinary arts festival, a youth-focused grant-making organisation, a world music promoter and a few more in between. The hallways and stairwells – nearly 10,000 sq ft over three floors – are used as exhibition spaces, and an independent café has set up shop on the ground floor.

Open studios at Artscape Youngplace Opening  Photo- Garrison McArthur Photographers

These three examples in Toronto have strong links: one of the founders of CSI is the president of 401 Richmond, who was in turn inspired by Artscape. All took time to develop and mature, which is why they have deep roots in the local cultural ecology.

Creative placemaking, connected networks and sustainable platforms can enable artists and arts organisations to adapt to a changing environment.

If you’re thinking of pooling resources to save money and find creative synergies, existing models are there to provide ideas and inspiration, and they tend to share openly their history and principles.

They’ve enabled and inspired countless projects on their home ground, and I’m hoping that these insights will be useful to cultural innovators in other cities and countries.

This article was originally published in International Arts Manager.