Heritage preservation and the arts

by Jini Stolk

Matera is a beautiful city in southern Italy, whose Romanesque cathedral overlooks a deep ravine lined with ancient cave dwellings, which may have been human settlements from as long ago as 7,000 B.C. These sassi were inhabited until the 1960’s when their unhealthy living conditions and poverty became known as “the shame of Italy” and their inhabitants were forcefully relocated. Officials planned to destroy the sassi but recently artists, artisans, internet start-ups and a few restaurants and boutique hotels began reviving these stunning and remarkable neighbourhoods. Matera was recently declared the European Capital of Culture for 2019.


Craco is another smaller town in the southern Italian region of Basilicata. Like Matera it’s built on a steep summit, in cascading levels joined by narrow and precipitous stairways. Unlike Matera, its ancient storefronts, houses and palaces have settled into decay following disastrous landslides in the mid-1900s. Complicated ownership issues make the repairs and upkeep that could have saved the town impossible. Craco is, heartbreakingly, returning to rubble.

I mention these things because Toronto still hasn’t recognized in any meaningful way that Toronto’s cultural organizations are its most important heritage caretakers. Toronto has no policy of support for renovating or upgrading even City-owned heritage cultural spaces even though the City’s balance sheet benefits from any increase to these buildings’ value. This shows a lack of appreciation as well as a lack of imagination about the advantages of filling Toronto with lively arts centres in beautifully restored heritage buildings.

Tafelmusik, Young People’s Theatre, Factory Theatre, Toronto Dance Theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille and the Theatre Centre, among many others, have renovated and revived former churches, industrial or municipal buildings – which have been reborn for public use thanks to arts companies. Through their hard work and the work of their volunteer boards and capital campaign committees, arts organizations have brought significant government and private funds into saving neighbourhood heritage spaces, and into the improvement of City-owned heritage assets (saving the City millions in long-term maintenance and capital improvement costs, by the way.)

Partners for Sacred Places in the States, notes that “Across America, many places of worship suffer from declining attendance…and the burdens of aging, under-maintained, and over-scaled places of worship.” The solution, increasingly, is to open the doors of older churches and invite artists and nonprofit arts organizations—many of whom have neither the need nor the resources to own real estate—to share these “hallowed spaces, breaking down barriers with neighbors and paying the heating bills.”

I recently spoke with Alex Corey, a Canadian graduate student pursuing a Master’s degree in historic preservation at Columbia University. His thesis was about the lack of tools and support to non-profit organizations in Canada – as compared to those available in the US and UK – to acquire surplus federal heritage buildings. Alex has proposed that transferring underused heritage buildings to nonprofit organizations should be a recognized heritage conservation activity, which would likely result in the buildings being better preserved than if they were sold to a private individual or organization. Brian Anthony, former ED of the Heritage Canada Foundation, wrote in a recent Letter to the Editor in the Globe and Mail: “Canada does not have an enviable track record of preserving its built heritage…The federal government’s best architectural gift to us all for Canada 150 would be the tax incentives and regulatory safeguards to preserve our built heritage for future organizations.”

The Ontario Nonprofit Network’s submission to the Province’s Advisory Group on Community Hubs (which have great potential to provide space for groups of cultural/non-profit organizations), contained many excellent recommendations including that each hub’s purpose and design should emerge from the needs and priorities of local communities; that a hubs framework should address the need for predictable and sustainable capital investment; that the Province should expand the surplus public lands registry (operated by ONN for nonprofits) to include surplus lands from the broader public sector, including school boards; that the province should support school boards, municipalities, and the nonprofit sector to work together on long-term planning for the use of school space; and that the province should institute a program to transfer heritage properties to community nonprofits. These would all be wonderful initiatives. Here’s hoping.

In the meantime:

Toronto arts groups seeking to renovate or repair their heritage spaces now have access to the well-used and invaluable Culture Build Investment Program, which granted around $330,000 in 2015 to help bring cultural facilities closer to a state of good repair. Toronto Heritage Grants offer small grants to help preserve heritage buildings.

The Toronto Arts Council’s Animating Historic Sites and Museums Program, now in its second year, provides wonderful opportunities for artists to animate five Toronto heritage sites and the Royal Ontario Museum, bringing together art, history and historic built form.

ArtsBuild’s Bricks&Mortar database houses the profiles, needs and plans of arts organizations and their facilities across the province.

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