Toronto Art Collectives Take Shelter at the Gladstone Hotel

Image: Gladstone Hotel

Can you afford where you live? 

Me neither. Well, barely.
You don’t have to look far in Toronto to find the need for a dialogue around affordable housing. All over the city formerly working class neighbourhoods no longer house lower income citizens. In his book, Some Great IdeaToronto journalist Edward Keenan explains that the overwhelmingly middle to low-income downtown of the 1970s had become almost exclusively a high or very high-income zone by 2000.  
There’s an example of this from my own family history. My grandparents settled in Little Italy and Cabbagetown when they first moved to Canada in the 50s. Today, on my street in Cabbagetown a 2-bedroom, semi-detached house will fetch 1.5 Million dollars. That’s 750K per bedroom! For Torontonians ekeing out an existence on meagre internships and cafe jobs, the idea of an ample, affordable space to rent—or even (*gasp*) own—seems like a privelege we traded in long ago in exchange for the perks of living downtown. 
The same holds true for artists, but for them, the lack of affordable space poses an existential threat. Imagine it: you’re an emerging artist whose work often requires big, affordable spaces with no strings attached. Those spaces have become rare dowtown. Your options:

  1. Move out into the inner suburbs where spaces aren’t much cheaper and you will lose immediate contact with the communities you rely on. 
  2. Move to Hamilton and hope your friends follow. 
  3. Hustle, work extra jobs, and keep holding out downtown.  
What can you do?
Organizers at the Gladstone Hotel posed this question to three art collectives during Tuesday’s event, Collectively Speaking: Take Shelter. The event played out like a hybrid design competition and public forum with a guiding question: “What can be done to ease the burden of living in a major metropolitan area?”
Of the three collectives, 185 Augusta‘s explanation of their Artists’ Renaissance Kensington (ARK) initiative struck a chord with me. Rather than waiting for big, artist-friendly policies to float down from City Hall, they explained that they keep their interventions small. They hope to take Kensington one building at a time by sharing skills with like minded people and bringing an entrepreneurial attitude to their challenges. Case and point: one member of the collective, Moses Kofi, explained that their stoop on Augusta Avenue has become a primary resource in their ongoing work to make Kensington a neighbourhood where artists can thrive. The visibility it creates and the conversations it prompts have become a powerful tool for fostering community.
The other two presentations were slightly less realistic. The Hashtag Gallery presented fantastical subway networks that looked like something Robert Moses might draw up if he were on LSD and really liked subways instead of expressways. Their logic: if transit made more pockets of the city accessible, artists wouldn’t be forced to endure the high rents downtown. Project Gallery pitched “inflatable domociles”—basically giant, blow-up igloos where people could live, make art, and enjoy affordable gallery space.  
As is so often the case with events like these, the discussion about the art was the most valuable part of the evening. Stories of off-site Nuit Blanche events and using inflatable tents to squeeze into alleyways made brutally clear how few affordances Toronto makes for its emerging artistic communities. As the teams began to throw around words like “infiltrate” and “occupy” one point became clear: 

In Toronto, some creatives must invade their own city. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Keep an eye out for more Collectively Speaking events at the Gladstone Hotel.

Written by Justin Scherer

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