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Artscape's 25th Anniversary
"If you can't get creative here, quit"

All photos taken by Bianca Teixeira

Last Wednesday at Wychwood Barns, a historic and truly beautiful TTC streetcar repair space, Toronto artist and industry luminaries bid on paintings, chatted over cocktails, and enjoyed a multi-course sit down dinner to celebrate Artscape‘s 25th anniversary. During the dinner, fifteen artists — the night’s featured guests — participated in a speed-date-style discussion; one artist was seated at each table to talk about Toronto’s influence on their art and at the sound of a bell (conveniently between each course), would move on to a new audience.

The evening’s entertainment included Damian Abraham (hardcore art band Fucked Up vocalist), Matthew Blackett (publisher and creative director for Spacing), Andrea Carson Barker (writer, blogger and art critic) and David Liss (artistic director and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art). I had the opportunity to sit at a table and hear all about Phyllis Novak’s non-profit organization, Sketch, which gives at-risk youth space and materials to create art, attend workshops, and sell their pieces. 

The event’s most fascinating piece of art (to me, anyway) was an in-progress piece. During cocktails and dinner, artist John Coburn sat perched on a small stage, and while guests posed for him (including yours truly), he quickly painted them into a large canvas with a scenic background.

I chatted with Coburn, a regular location-painter for fashion weeks around the globe, and he had nothing but good things to say about Artscape. In addition to being the chief force behind the streetcar repair facility’s restoration, Artscape also remodeled a section of Wynchwood Barns into affordable housing and space for local artists and their families to reside. There are currently over 26 artist-led families living there. “I’m one of the artists that resides in the studio/residences in Wychwood. I live here because it’s a gorgeous building, a stunning piece of architecture, and the spaces are these beautiful giant 4000 sq ft rooms,” says Coburn.

Artscape was founded in 1986 in response to a space crisis brought on by the real estate market boom. City inspectors were closing down illegal art spaces frequented and lived in by local artists. When the market bottomed out in the early 1990′s, Artscape entered the property development business; its first generation of multi-tenant art complexes provided affordable artist studios, as well as rehearsal, performance, office, and storage facilities for non-profit arts organizations.

Today, Artscape has evolved its focus on poverty-relief into a creative urban development group that promotes wealth generation. Artscape’s projects are designed to generate positive cultural, economic, social, and environmental impacts. While Toronto remains the central focus of their work (they have numerous artist housing units across the city), Artscape devotes its time and experience to a wide range of communities across Ontario, Canada, and the world. 

Artscape Wychwood Barns is comprised of four components: the Studio Barn, the Covered Street Barn, the Community Barn, and The Stop Community Food Centre’s Green Barn. The Green Barn runs an offsite food bank and an urban agriculture project where they teach young people how to provide sustainable food endeavors. 

President and CEO of Artscape Tim Jones was on hand to celebrate the milestone anniversary and told me he hopes the event will become an annual one. “This project was born out of an intense dialogue with this community about how to repurpose this building and what creative uses we might find to reuse the place,” says Jones. “We’re trying to build a community and to expand beyond the walls of this building. We want to create a place that can be the social heart of this neighborhood.”

At the end of the night, Coburn’s painting was sold via live auction for $1000. When I asked what it’s like to produce art in an environment with a dog park and skating rink in the backyard, he smiled and said, “If you can’t get creative here, quit.”


Bianca Teixeira writes about style for the Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter at @BeeIsTheNewBlog.

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