A few bricks short of a cultural renaissance

First of all, why didn’t I think of that title?

Christopher Hume, in the above article earlier this month in the Toronto Star, makes a strong argument that Toronto’s “cultural renaissance” – fuelled by the SuperBuild infrastructure program of the early 2000’s – changed the face of the city. The expansion and renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Royal Ontario Museum, National Ballet School, Opera House – and let’s add OCAD and the Young Centre and the Royal Conservatory of Music/Koerner Hall to that list – successfully ingrained architecture and culture into our urban fabric.

He goes on to say, and this is where my heart sank, that the likelihood of projects like these continuing in future is slim. He believe that Toronto in the last decade began to embrace the notion of itself as a city; this motivated an overwhelmingly generous response from the many private sector donors who made these projects possible. But, according to Hume, “One can’t help but wonder whether that willingness to give to the city, that same level of civic commitment, will survive at a time when the city is viewed strictly as a problem in need of a solution, not as something worth celebrating.”

We’ve got to hope he’s wrong because we are, indeed, a few bricks (or more) short of a real cultural renaissance. Creative Trust has been making the case that the next stage in this renaissance belongs to those mid-size arts organizations that not only house, but are also the creative engines, of the arts in Toronto.

Creative Trust companies and their many supporters, including the Toronto Arts Council, have been loud and clear about the need to repair, renovate or expand their inadequate, uncomfortable and, in some cases, unsafe performing arts facilities. We’ve hit the proverbial brick wall in terms of our existing spaces. The declining state of these facilities is a major problem, not only for the companies, but, I would argue, for the city.

Toronto has the largest concentration of performing arts companies, performing artists and productions in Canada, and many are housed in “heritage” facilities – former churches, industrial or municipal buildings that have been reborn for public use by arts organizations. These older buildings have special needs for upkeep; most were first renovated for arts use between 20 and 30 years ago. The deteriorating state of these facilities is not surprising

Our established nonprofit arts organizations need affordable, accessible and safe facilities and performance venues in order to thrive. We must also acknowledge that audience expectations have changed. Not only aging audiences but also the next generation of younger theatre-goers are looking for comfort and accessibility.

Early in 2009, we convened Creative Trust’s Facilities Roundtable, a network of 15 (now 20) performing arts organizations with plans for a range of capital projects. We are sharing information and resources, exploring alternative financing, learning how to plan a successful capital fundraising campaign – and speaking out.

Last year at about this time we asked Toronto’s city councilors to champion the cultural facilities needs of its major creative companies, in the way that the cities of Montreal and Vancouver and New York do. There was acknowledgment of the problem and some movement forward, for which we are grateful.

We’re going to continue to ask our new civic leaders to do their part in helping kick-start the next stage of Toronto’s Cultural Renaissance. And, Mr. Hume, we’re bound, determined and optimistic that the people of Toronto will be with us on this!

Jini Stolk

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