Artscape president and CEO Tim Jones spends his days finding and creating spaces around the city for artists. His big idea for Toronto would be to give artists the tools – under one roof – to develop the business side of their work.
Founded in 1986, Artscape grew out of the Toronto Arts Council's recognition that it needed to defend artists' live-work space. Since then, the not-for-profit has been working against the forces of gentrification to maintain affordable studio space.
Mr. Jones explained that this cycle of gentrification has become known as the SoHo Effect. "It's when artists move into a neighbourhood and they start to stage events and street performances. Before you know it they've enlivened neighbourhoods to the extent that property values rise and invariably, because they're renters rather than owners, they get priced out of the places that they've helped to create."
Artscape looks to halt, or at least slow down, this process. Part real-estate company, part artists collective, it has been buying up old properties and establishing affordable live-work spaces for artists with the support of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture and the City of Toronto, as well as contributors from the public and private sectors.
One of its latest projects, the Shaw Street Centre, slated to open in the spring of 2012, is positioned in the heart of West Queen West, close to the front line of Toronto's westward wave of gentrification. The Shaw Street Centre will also be the new home of Sketch, an arts drop-in centre for youth.
Mr. Jones, who moved from London, Ont., to Toronto in the early 1980s, took the helm of Artscape in 1998. The company has been devoted to making space affordable for artists. He spoke to The Globe on the need to address the other side of the equation: helping artists get to a place financially where they can afford good spaces.
What's your big idea?
Something we're working on at Artscape is the development of a new centre for creative-sector entrepreneurship. A lot of the work that we've been doing over our first 25 years has been looking at the affordability side for the arts community, and how to keep their expenses at a level that is sustainable and allows them to generate income.
It's really about trying to look at the challenges from a revenue side and figuring out how we can assist creative people and businesses in growing their revenue to be more sustainable for the future. We did a study in the past year that looked at entrepreneurship training and provision in the Greater Toronto Area and found that while there are over 90 different organizations that are providing some measure of support, not counting postsecondary institutions, there are still huge gaps. A lot of young people are graduating from applied arts programs not finding jobs and wanting to start businesses, but not having the wherewithal to do that.
So we've been working on the development of an entrepreneurship centre, 100,000 square feet to bring together a number of the organizations and entities that are currently providing some entrepreneurship support under one roof so that we can create a one-stop shopping window for artists to figure out how to get plugged into these services and programs across the city. It's not unlike what MaRS has done in the biotech world, what we're trying to do for the creative sector.
How would this benefit the city and the people in the city?
First of all, small business is the lifeblood of the economy. In the creative sector almost 90 per cent of businesses are 10 or fewer employees, and yet collectively the culture and creative sector in Toronto generates $9-billion in GDP and employs 130,000 people. So helping this sector thrive as entrepreneurs is something that is important to our city and our future.
In the arts community, for whatever reason, there's some kind of trepidation about the influence of business on art and a level of discomfort around entrepreneurship generally, so we'll be looking to the centre to break down those psychological barriers and find ways to help people grow their practice and their business so that they can thrive.
How do you see the relationship between business and art?
I think that they're really intertwined in many different ways. I think that whether you're an artist or a not-for-profit arts organization or whether you're a small creative business, you have to interact with the marketplace to survive. It's part of what we all do. So finding ways to do that more effectively is in everybody's interest.
One of the reasons that employers like to exist or locate their businesses in places like Toronto is because they're culturally interesting, vibrant, dynamic places, and that creates an environment that supports innovation outside of the arts and cultural world – it supports it in the business world as well.
What's the point of bringing everyone together in one building?
There will be an effort to have better co-ordination and collaboration between them and to have more meaningful programs. Our survey of what's been on offer across the spectrum of organizations suggests that while some of them are doing excellent work, a lot of the focus is on quick fixes and weekend workshops, more focused on survival than business growth. Just bringing people together to focus on these issues – allowing them to share some resources and creating this one place where people can come to and find out how to plug in to this, what otherwise is a tangle of resources that are out there, we think will be really important.
Is there any gauge on how long this project might take?
It's probably four years before we're opening the doors in a place like this.
This interview has been edited and condensed.