Well, I finally went and did it. I have officially caved in and did the one thing I never thought I would. I commissioned a piece of art in honour of my basset hounds. I know it’s a bit silly but among my growing collection of contemporary art there is not one single basset. A true tragedy, I know.
This commission recently led me to a studio visit with a young up-and-coming Calgary-based artist named Samantha Walrod. Sam, a recent graduate of the Alberta College of Art and Design, is part of a studio group located in a newly converted Calgary bottle depot and the painter of my basset portrait.
After a preview of my still-in-progress basset mini masterpiece, Sam and I got chatting about her experience in her new studio space. The conversion of the depot into artist studios had made the news as an example of how one community dealt with the issues of drugs and prostitution – two things that were linked to the former bottle depot. Once a potential catalyst for crime, the depot was transformed into a potential hub of creative energy.
The link of creative spaces to community development has been a hot topic lately and was the focus of a recent conference hosted in Calgary by the Calgary Arts Development. This conference focused on the activities of Tim Jones, the CEO of Artscape in Toronto. “Artists are powerful agents of change,” Jones stated as part of his keynote speech. “The challenge, I find, is to reverse stigmas around the arts and to use them to purposefully regenerate areas. I sincerely believe in city building through the arts.”
At one point in my career, I was the manager of a studio group and gallery in Belfast, N. Ireland. Not only was the Queen Street Studios (QSS) the oldest studio group in N. Ireland, it was the largest and heavily riddled with physical and administrative challenges. My recent chat with Sam and the Creative Spaces conference got me thinking about my old QSS days.
Here are 3 important lessons – both big and small - I have learnt about artist studio spaces:
1) Sustainability: We all know the story about the crummy, yet affordable neighbourhood that is rejuvenated by the artist types only to be gentrified and made into a high-end, unaffordable condo-ville. This story exists, of course, because it is true. As Tim Jones of Artscape pointed out, however, this story can be reversed by purposefully using the arts as the centerpieces for new development and renovations.
So what does sustainability mean for someone like Sam who’s rightfully concerned that her depot turned studio will be transitioned right out from underneath her? The answer is an active and engaged connection to the community surrounding the studios. This can come in the form of a community champion, much like her Community Association who pushed for the studio in the first place. This particular community association saw that the arts could be used by business as social leverage. Studies show that arts and leisure activities are what attract people to a community. They are, in fact, prime economic development and relocation magnets. Hello artist studio, goodbye crime, hello continuing community improvement.
2) Community integration: So you have managed to develop your studio or creative space, now what? The key to success with something like an artist co-op in any neighbourhood is to eliminate the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Think of it as a 2-way, symbiotic relationship between the studio and the community. The more that a studio opens itself up to their community, the more they create synergy. This can be done by studio-hosted ‘Open Days’ and workshops, for example, which would give community members opportunities to learn new creative skills while generating income for the artists.
The interesting thing is that artists are often looking for a similar connection to their neighbourhood. It is a common reality that artists, while being in a co-operative space like a studio, often work in isolation (due to the varying schedules of artists who often have multiple jobs and varying deadlines). The most useful thing any artist studio can have, in terms of location, is a neighbourhood coffee shop or café. It’s in these third places and bumping grounds that the most fertile community and arts development happens. If you don’t have a neighbouring café, think of starting one like The Carrot, a Community Arts Coffeehouse in Edmonton (http://artsontheave.org/thecarrot/).
3) Sense of pride and place: If there is one thing I have learned, it is that environment affects self-worth. When it comes down to it on its most fundamental level, a studio group starts with a building – and, more often than not, this building is old and tired. The challenge is not to let this state of disrepair affect the self-worth of its inhabitants. Just like how we might define ourselves – for good or for bad – by the attractiveness and safe-state of our own neighbourhoods. The most successful artist studios that I have seen are the ones whose common areas are clean and bright with areas where people want to linger. Think of this in terms of how the best communities also reflect this philosophy.
I am always interested in hearing your creative space stories, challenges, and successes. So send them on because there is always someone who can benefit from our collective wisdom! Email me at: email@example.com or post below.
-A current exhibition of Samantha Walrod’s paintings can be seen at: www.newzones.com/dynamic/artist.asp?ArtistID=148
-For an example of Artscape’s latest project see: www.torontoartscape.on.ca/places-spaces/artscape-wychwood-barns
-More info on the Queen Street Studios in Belfast: www.queenstreetstudios.net
-See the Carrot, a Community Arts Coffeehouse: http://artsontheave.org/thecarrot/