Interview with Pru Robey, Director of Artscape’s Creative Placemaking Lab

I wanted, five years after the opening of Wychwod Artscape Barns, to ask why this project is important in the history of Artscape’s creative place-making.

I think the Barns has come to mean a lot to the city of Toronto. Wherever I go to talk to people about our work, so many people know the Barns, love it, have been to visit, and frankly want one in their neighbourhood. And of course, the really interesting thing is that they can’t have one because the barns is unique and the Barns was built by that community and it grew out of that community and could only be what it is in that community. And that is exactly at the heart of what we would describe as our practice in creative place-making.

When we talk about creative place-making we talk about leveraging the cultural assets in a particular community so that community can build a bigger cultural agenda that drives transformation. What we do is cluster creative people and organizations to catalyze neighbourhood change.

Artscape started in 1986 as an advocacy project of the Toronto Arts Council to tackle the lack of downtown affordable space for artists during the property boom. The artists’ community was being squeezed out of Queen Street West and had already been squeezed out of Yorkville. The opportunity for Artscape to “put its money where its mouth is” came with the early 90’s slump in the property market. Its first project was 96 Spadina providing cheap studio and arts organization spaces. In 1998 we opened Parkdale Arts and Cultural centre.  That was our first mixed use project that included a gallery, live-work space for artists and rental spaces for community organizations. It was the first time that we brought in other kinds of non-profits. It also involved the adaptive re-use of a historical building—a former police station.

Then in 2001 we opened Artscape Distillery Studios. That project offered a mix of rehearsal and performance spaces, artist studios and artist retail studios. For the first time we had been approached by the developer who understood that we could activate revitalization. Many things had been tried since the distilleries had closed down, they had all failed; taxi drivers still wouldn’t take you there after dark. Dramatic change quickly happened after the opening of our project.

So, by the late 1990s Artscape had explored different mixes and different scales of activity and started to understand that there was a way of thinking about what we do in the bigger context of city building. The barns is really important in that narrative because of its mix: artist studios, enormous event space, a community galvanized, 11 organizational tenants including, The Stop, and we have a narrative that emerged of course with the work that you and Cookie Roscoe and everybody else who worked to make it a reality.  The strength of the project vision came out of the community organizing to demand that the barns remain. It led to a conversation about community, culture, place-making and the environment that was brought together all in one place. The project established the importance of working from the ground up in a local community, engaging over a serious period of time in a conversation about what the opportunities are and what the real vision for a project might be.

The intensity of community engagement and the complexity of the conversation was, in part, what  attracted the interest, investment and support of an incredible diversity of funders and supporters.  It’s a real lesson in what it takes to build something together. I often talk about the importance of working iteratively to develop a shared vision.

What do you mean by iteratively?

It’s a kind of revisiting and rebuilding on and rethinking our understanding. We know that you have to keep sort of pushing away at it until you can find a place where you can hold people around something that everyone can sign up for.

The emphasis of creative place-making seems to be about the start-up process. How do you keep the vision conversation, that “iterative” process alive? Or is it not necessary to do so?

This is not an entirely blue-sky process. We are not talking about wouldn’t it be nice if we did this for a few months this summer. We’re talking about how about we spend the next fifty years. How about we spend 30 million dollars and the next fifty years making it work in the community. It’s a huge amount of risk, it’s a huge amount of responsibility and it is complex process. What we do in creative place-making, locating physical infrastructure, demands parameters. If we can get as much capital development paid for as we do the capital project then we can carry as little as possible into the project’s operation. We’re aiming for affordability as well as for the project to pay for itself without reliance on subsidies.  Our projects pay for themselves that’s very very unusual in the cultural sector. Less than five percent of our turn-over comes from operational funding.

I hear such a sense of wonder when people talk about “culture hubs” and, before getting to know the Barns, I envisioned this wonderful synergistic place where people sort of drop-in on each other and cultural production is generated not just in isolation but also out of spontaneous collaborations that also in some way involve the public…but when I go into the barns in the winter I look and see the Artscape event and venue administration office, the The Stop offices, and then there’s the artists who are cloistered in their studios and then people sort of walk through.  It’s a very porous space but there’s nothing that catches and holds me or implicates me in any way. Nothing that describes the creative life of the place and the opportunities it may hold for me.

I think that we would be the first to acknowledge that there are times when you go out there and it feels sort of quiet so I mean the narrative and the idea lives in a sense in the way the space looks and feels when one is in it.

Did we invest in that project in putting in facilitators to create that collaboration between the tenants and the community?  That wasn’t done.  I think it was probably envisaged that the Wychwood Barns Community Association do some of that and indeed they do some of that. But maybe it needed more. Did we understand at the outset the complexity of that mix of uses in that big old building of course, clearly we didn’t. We have had to re-mediate, issues about sanitation etc. So you also learn as you go on about how you can realize that vision in reality, what does that look like in reality.  We never say “OK that’s it, that’s the project for the next fifty years.” We know what the underlying story of this project is and we think we understand what the community really wanted to get out of this but we also understand that community is going to change and the project will continue to evolve.

But bricks and mortars don’t change so how do you retrofit something as the idea of what is needed from a hub evolves?

You don’t have to change the physical structure. You can think about the ways you can facilitate or encourage our tenants to facilitate different kinds of collaboration and activity. I think that’s an evolving process. I feel that our work is about change. And places change and people change, cities change. Just as each project is a work in process we would also expect to see that in the way we operate and program our spaces. One of the things we’ve committed to in our new strategic plan is to get ourselves as an organization into cycles of revisiting our projects every five years or so.

So we’re due for inspection?

As a process we have started to do that. That starts with having the visioning conversation: Is this still it? What’s missing? What’s changed? What are we getting right? What are we getting wrong? What do we need to do more of? How can we make that happen together?

In a way the formality of the finished barns, in its beautifully designed and professionally occupied quality is the opposite of the time-of-possibility that was so creative and ultimately became the barn’s foundation story. I’m wondering about the possible role of the tenant artists in this bringing back some of this energy, does Artscape favour the applications of artists who are interested in engaging the surrounding community  by promoting that kind of open-ness, participation and inquiry through their art?

 We have moved quite dramatically, you see it online actually, with these kinds of projects. When we get to the point of going out to do a call for tenants not just saying we have this space and it will cost you this much, if you’re interested respond. But actually being very clear of what the vision for this project, the specific project is and asking tenants what they can bring to that.

This idea  of “added value” that you get when you cluster different people and organizations with different practices and space uses in a single place, that extra energy that comes from that— I think that that’s one of the things that people, on a good day really feel at the Barns. So that clustering dynamic is a really important one. But so is the diversity component of that mix. The question of collaboration between tenants and between tenants and the community tenants and how that’s facilitated, for our projects going forward—we have a big team at Regent Park, a team at Artscape Youngplace, we have a team at Gibraltar Point, we have a small team currently (but we started with nothing) at the Barns. The process of how they bring artist tenants who want to deliver on that promise is a terribly important one.

Because proximity doesn’t equal synergy, in fact “the mix “can be a source of mutual irritation between the tenants and other users?

Quite, it can. And I think that old style of artist studio is very important and there’s the type of artist that wants to come in and shut the door and get on with their work and that’s just what they’re looking for so absolutely. The hub type projects are not what anybody might be looking for and each one has a different flavour and different kinds of energies about them. It’s very very hard however right now in the environment we’re working in politically and financially to make the traditional artist studio model work. The model for projects like the Barns or Youngplace or Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park involves bringing together a diverse range of stakeholders in the community along with other investors, funders and supporters to create a vision not limited to cheap space to artists. There’s nothing wrong with cheap space for artists. But in our practice the basics: affordable, safe, stable, suitable working space for artists and arts organizations has to be the foundation for a bigger narrative.

I’m interested in how Artscape uses the heritage of a site to shape its project identity.  I see this in the design of Youngplace in the play with the “school days” theme in programming and design of this former school. And in a different way it’s happening at the barns. With Peter MacKendrick’s death there’s been a memorializing of his contribution as a community leader. His commitment to the vision of the new kind of park that included the barns was recognized through renaming the community gallery in his honour. In a larger civic context, through the volunteer-led Barns’ centennial celebration, the building has become a marker of the streetcar’s importance to urban development, a story now energized with the subway vs. LRT debate.

Although we also do new build, clearly the barns and Youngplace are exceptional buildings; they have in their very different ways their own DNA. They carry memory and history, for good and for bad. Everybody has been in school, a school is part of the community it’s a public space and everyone has memories about it but they’re not all good. Similarly with the barns you were facing the reality that people were unbelievably fed up with the fact that this eyesore had been left in the middle of their community for thirty years. Many people just did not want a single brick of that space.

But the other element was that there was an extraordinary desire for what people saw in their minds as a neighbourhood park, many didn’t see how abandoned industrial buildings could also be part of a public park.

That’s where Joe (Councillor Joe Mihevc) came in—he helped people see that you could have park translated into the re-use of that building if you start to find the beauty in it.

I guess it is now treated as a pavilion—an amenity of the park rather than the other way around.

We know that these kind of spaces need to have open-ness and space for creative things to happen and how you facilitate that and whether it is just the physical environment or whether it is the physical environment plus a more facilitated environment I think it’s different for different places.

There’s a reality that this is expensive, difficult, and time-consuming and having an organization or individuals with the capacity to take that on is a really big component for Artscape as an entity.

The enormous success of Artscape lies in the fact that they do these things. I think the shortcoming for the general public is that there isn’t more transparency for the creativity that happens in the cultural hubs.

What do you mean?

The beauty of the little fires going on within each of those studio silos are not exposed or in some way used to inspire.

I’m just trying to hear what you’re saying do you mean that the work that is being made by the organizations and the individuals who are in some of those spaces is not accessible?

It’s not grouped in one easy to get-to place like a website so that people can see the spectrum of activity.  Without information people can’t see and say “Oh this person is doing this…  and this other organization or collective is doing that…”

Have you been to Young Place and Daniel’s Spectrum?

Young Place has a more synchronized feel and this is immediately apparent at a physical level. At the entrance you are presented with essential information—this is what’s going on in this place, this is the historical narrative, this is the plan. Also, the stairwells and the corridors are used for art exhibitions and there’s the Koffler Gallery. All of these things help a visitor like me to understand and participate in the style of thinking being used in the studios and offices on the other side of the walls. The café at the centre and the lounge with the free Wifi—all invite me to linger and to participate albeit in a transient and momentary way in the creative atmosphere.

There was a huge passion for Young Place in that community.  Regent Park community was also absolutely committed and passionate about wanting an arts and culture centre to be at the heart of that very complex revitalization project. But at the barns what you guys did and the scale of that allowed everything that followed to happen is really the exception.

But now the committees have been struck and the memorializing and the historical narratives are being put to work. And in looking around for what’s missing—the people we thought would come to play with us—I guess I should speak for myself only—the spectrum of people I see on St. Clair is not reflected in the park, in the market, in the barns. Everybody on my own residential side street is there but that’s not what I envision as my community. Let me give you an example, a Cuban moved in and opened a bookstore, it’s called Accents, he moved from Eglinton and Dufferin because of the disruption of the LRT construction. Everyone was excited about the presence of a bookstore, especially one that was so intimate and was offering poetry readings, book launches, film screenings… I mean this wasn’t just a bookstore it was offering highly informed cultural programming. He was inviting us to meet Caribbean and African Diaspora writers and to get to know their work. This bookstore was transplanted from a neighbourhood that few people living around the barns would ever visit despite its proximity.   Unfortunately, a month into his residency he was told that he would not be allowed to sell from the studio because this contravened a municipal bylaw. He would have to strip his shelves bare. He has since adapted his “pop-up” so that it is not a commercial venture.  The retail identity of this project was, I think, a red herring in terms of how it should be understood and valued as cultural project.  In short, I’m keen to see Artscape Wychwood Barns admit many other different forms of projects that are distinguished by the type of capacity that Accents represents. This story has a happy ending—subsequently Artscape staff came to an agreement that the studio would operate strictly on  non-commercial basis—it’s now a “local literary salon”. The books are only sold from a table in front of the studio during Saturday morning farmers market.

What role specifically do you play? Are you a member of the resident’s association? Are you involved in programming the space? I’m just trying to understand the position you’re coming from.

I’m a person who lives in the neighbourhood, I’m doing a personal project called market square at the market. The “square” is not a physical space, it’s the domain of this project that investigates the social and cultural energy created by the farmers’ market. I’m a presence at the market every Saturday.  I strike up conversations around a visual project designed in collaboration with another neighbour, including artist tenants, or just my own interest.  I have a blog that documents these and some of the interactions that they spark. It is my own investigation that comes from a desire to keep the exploratory dialogue process—the sorting out of the definitions of park, heritage, network, recreation, community, culture, etc—so critical to the barns’ start-up, an ongoing thing. I hope that what I’m doing is also testing the farmers’ market as platform for other spontaneous projects.  I’m motivated by my neighbourly curiosity, desire to have fun and to contribute to the narrative. 

I think the important thing is to understand that we are working with a business model but that creative place-making is an evolutionary process. We know that and I think it’s kind of evident from the changes in the barns in the last two or three years. There isn’t a “stop” moment. The challenge is how do you evolve so you stay true to the values and traditions that were there at the outset.

See Artscape’s Five Year Vision