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Photo credit: Richard Rhyme.

Thirty+ Years of Creative Placemaking

Artscape was founded in 1986 in response to an affordability crisis that threatened to price artists out of Toronto. Over 30+ years, the central challenge Artscape was created to address has not changed, but the approach, partners and impact of our work has evolved significantly. In the Fall of 2017, Artscape 5.0 was published, setting forth the organization’s strategic plan through 2022.

Phases of Our Evolution

Artscape was founded in 1986 at a time when Toronto’s real estate market was booming and the City was cracking down on illegal artist live/work spaces in warehouse buildings citing health and safety concerns. Toronto had a history of developing artist communities in Gerrard Village in the 1950s and Yorkville in the 1970s, which had by the 1980s lost much of their bohemian character through a process of gentrification and displacement. At the time of Artscape’s creation, this was happening again on Queen Street West. Artists in New York and London were also being displaced from the neighbourhoods they had helped to enliven. This global city phenomenon known as the “SoHo effect” heightened concerns that artists would be priced out of Toronto. Artscape was born out of the need to address this challenge.

Incubated in its early years by the Toronto Arts Council, Artscape focused its efforts initially on conducting research and building a relationship with the City of Toronto. Key accomplishments during this period included the publication of No Vacancy, a report that chronicled the space-related challenges facing Toronto artists and art organizations. The success of Artscape’s early advocacy was marked by a commitment of operational funding by the City of Toronto and a collaboration with Toronto Economic Development Corporation to create an artist studio project at 60 Atlantic Avenue in Liberty Village.

Dating back to the 1960s, non-profit artist studio providers in various European and American cities came into being to address the real estate challenges faced by individual artists and small arts organizations. With significant capital investment and incentives from governments and foundations, these artist studio providers were pioneers in social enterprise offering below-market rents that generated enough income for the projects to be sustainable. Artscape followed this model in its early years aspiring “to create safe, affordable and secure space for the arts.”

In the early 1990s, the first significant drop in Toronto’s commercial realty market in decades created an opportunity for Artscape to become active in developing and managing its first properties. Artscape opened its first artist studio projects at 60 Atlantic and 96 Spadina as well as a new home for the Music Gallery at 179 Richmond Street in 1991. Artscape West Queen West (1995), Parkdale Arts and Cultural Centre (1998) and Artscape Gibraltar Point (1999) projects helped build a new understanding of the catalytic impact these cultural projects were having—and would have—on the revitalization of their neighbourhoods.

At the beginning of the new millennium, Artscape played a leadership role in bringing new theories to the relationship between creativity, the economy and cities to the fore as the host of a number of Creative Places + Spaces conferences. Toronto’s real estate market was once again booming, heightening the scale and urgency of artist space challenges. Competition for resources within and outside the arts community made it extremely difficult for Artscape to attract the interest and investment to make new projects happen. The closing of three of Artscape’s early projects housed in leased premises during this period was a humbling experience that prompted Artscape to explore new ways to secure long-term sustainability and to deliver projects that served broader public interests. Projects such as 401 Richmond by Urbanspace Properties also provided inspiration for building a thriving community within a multi-tenant centre.

Artscape’s involvement as an anchor tenant of Toronto’s Historic Distillery District revitalization (2003) was a game-changer that helped it understand how clustering creative people in real estate projects could generate significant value in urban and community development. Artscape coined the term “creative placemaking” in 2004 to describe the practice of intentionally leveraging art to act as a catalyst for community growth and change. It then began applying some of the lessons learned in the Distillery project to initiatives such as the Artscape Wychwood Barns (2008), achieving positive cultural, economic, social and environmental outcomes.

During the third phase of its existence, Artscape evolved from an artist studio provider to an organization with a mission to “make space for creativity and transform communities.” The scope of its support to artists shifted from being a landlord providing cheap space with a good lock on the door to a community developer striving to provide a broader set of enabling conditions including a platform for collaboration, proximity to services and amenities, connection to local communities and access to markets among other services and amenities.

Artscape’s early work in creative placemaking helped it to re-frame the artist space challenge that led to its creation. Rather than seeing artists as hapless victims of urban development, Artscape projects positioned them as powerful agents of change who could help build vibrant and dynamic communities. Rather than serving a single constituency, Artscape began working at the intersection of arts/culture, community activism, philanthropy, urban development and public policy. Artscape’s methodology was to build projects “from the ground up” with the support of local communities, thereby reflecting the shared interests of multiple stakeholders and generating value for all. The impact and profile of Artscape’s work began to grow and attract international attention and awards.

This increase in profile set the stage for a period of explosive growth from 2010 through 2017 when a number of significant innovations in creative placemaking and creative placekeeping were achieved. New community cultural hubs Daniels Spectrum (2012) and Artscape Youngplace (2013) helped to dramatically expand Artscape’s community impact. Artscape Triangle Lofts (2011) was a pioneering new model mixing affordable ownership and rental housing for artist-led families that would be replicated in The Artscape Lofts at 210 Simcoe and PACE. Artscape’s Creative Placemaking Lab helped build and share knowledge with practitioners from around the world and advance innovations in social purpose real estate, community design, community stewardship, project financing and social procurement. During this period, Artscape launched its first independent affiliate based in Vancouver: BC Artscape. By its 30th year, Artscape had built a significant portfolio of high-impact projects; helped foster creative placemaking as a global community of practice; developed a strong organizational base; and generated a wealth of growth opportunities. In project after project, Artscape consistently demonstrated how leveraging the power of the arts in urban development helps artists and builds communities.

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