Set in Stone: the back story on cultural facilities

by Jini Stolk

Some of the more explosive hazards and tensions that can surround a major building project have been brought to the fore by Factory Theatre’s situation.

But there are perils in any proposed capital project in the arts. The special challenges facing small and mid-sized companies were pointed out in Kate Taylor’s thoughtful piece in The Globe and Mail.

My old alma mater, the University of Chicago, has just released a fascinating study of common problems among arts renovation projects in theU.S.

It found that in many cases, the actual need for a new facility had not been convincingly demonstrated; the connection between a new facility and delivering more effectively on mission was in many instances murky; and realism about how a new facility could be sustained once built – both in terms of the financial resources and staff needed to successfully run the new space – was frequently missing.

Toronto has been remarkably lucky with its recent wave of new arts builds – surely a precedent-setting achievement. The ROM, National Ballet School, Gardiner Museum, OCAD, Four Seasons Centre, AGO, The Royal Conservatory of  Music, Young Centre, TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Artscape Wychwood Barns – what a breathtaking list – all seem to be going strong.

Yet increased operating costs – from heating and cooling, to security, maintenance, front of house, and much more – have undoubtedly led to behind the scenes budget strains.

The creatively based small and mid-size venues that are part of Toronto’s second wave cultural renaissance – including Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie’s The Citadel, The Theatre Centre, Toronto Dance Theatre/STDT’s 80 Winchester Street Theatre, the multi-disciplinary media-arts facility planned for West Queen West, the Theatre Museum’s new space, planned projects for Factory, Tarragon and others – will have to be intently involved in detailed planning for rising post-project operating costs. They will also have to be committed to building audiences (and income) at the same time as building their buildings.

(How to do that? A recent post in Mission Paradox blog recommends, somewhat like Arts Action Research does, thinking in layers: one layer will be people who are fans of the institution itself; another may be interested in the subject matter of a show; another are people who live in the local neighborhood; another may be people who want to see whatever’s featured in this week’s media; etc.)

A risky leap into the future can pay off. But first and foremost, to quote Tim Jones, a successful cultural building project has to come from “an idea rooted in the community.”

Ken Gass’s visionary renovation plan would profoundly change an organization like Factory, bringing more complexity to its operations, and making tough demands on its organizational capacity. But who’s to say that that might not be enormously reinvigorating, moving the company into another era at the centre of theatre development inToronto?

As long as it’s carefully planned.

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