Distillery District

Loss of space at Distillery District a real blow to Toronto arts community

As if artists haven’t suffered enough through the COVID-19 pandemic, now, the powers that be behind the Historic Distillery District, are reportedly closing down artist studio spaces — for many, one of the defining features of the area.

The casualties are many and include two of the city’s venerable performing arts companies: Nightwood Theatre and Tapestry Opera.

“Without the unique presence of artists, the Distillery will become all sheen, no substance,” said Andrea Donaldson, Nightwood Theatre’s Artistic Director, in a press release. “While we are powerless in this situation, we hope that this gross example of cultural extraction offers a cautionary tale and that Torontonians will begin to assert their will against the decimation of cultural presence, rendering the city we love inhospitable. A change in city policy may be the only thing that can truly address the challenges for a sustainable arts scene in Toronto.”

Both companies will not have their office leases renewed nor the lease on the Ernest Balmer Studio, according to a Tapestry Opera press release, after operating out of the spaces for almost 20 years.

The artistic spaces in the Distillery are run by Artscape, which has been finding and managing space for artists in the city for more than 30 years, and opened in May, 2003 in the former sites of The Case Goods Warehouse (built 1928) and the Cannery Building. There are 10 retail studios, 20 office spaces, three rehearsal/performance spaces, and 27 artist work studios (60 overall), according to information on the Artscape website.

According to Artscape’s chief operating officer, Kelly Rintoul, the lease with the Distillery for the two buildings has always been for 20 years and has always been non-renewable. So, although she said it is “very sad to say goodbye to this arts community,” it is not a surprise.

What is new is that the lease for the Case Goods Warehouse space was advanced five months ahead of schedule, although that too was communicated to the tenants this past spring.

“The property owners signalled an interest in advancing some of their development plans for the site and we engaged in a conversation with them,” Rintoul says. “And we agreed to terminate the Case Goods lease five months early and the Cannery would stay until the end of August 2022 as planned.”

Rintoul went on to explain that Artscape has worked on behalf of the tenants to find alternate space either within the Distillery (although market rent would likely be well beyond what most artists could afford) or even trying to find a new head lease at another location or within the greater Artscape portfolio of properties.

But, the past two years have been very hard on artists, and those at the Distillery were already dropping in numbers.

“COVID really hit hard on the arts community, and there have been a lot of vacancies in Case Goods,” Rintoul says. “It is almost a third vacant at the moment. They’ve known it is coming to an end, and have been making plans for themselves.”

Tapestry Opera and Nightwood Theatre are founding tenants of Artscape in the Distillery, along with Dancemakers.

Groups such as these, and the small artists’ community in the studio spaces, are part of what made the Distillery District such a draw when it sprung to life out of the old Gooderham and Worts Distillery, which is now a designed National Historic Site of Canada.

“We had faith, given the vital impact we have on the culture of the Distillery District, that the arts would continue to have a home here,” Michael Mori, Tapestry Opera’s Artistic and General Director, said. “In addressing this reality, we are faced with finding a new venue in a city that has already seen numerous small venues and venue operators closed down, threatening the survival of independent dance, theatre, music, and opera. We’re heartbroken that the loss of yet another art space in Toronto will impact the many artists and arts organizations who rely on our affordable space to create. We’re also distressed at having to interrupt our organizations’ seasons at this key time of returning to live productions after almost two years of COVID-19.”

In a press release, Tapestry Opera and Nightwood Theatre requested for “Toronto residents to consider contacting their city councillors to help address the ongoing venue crisis in Toronto.”

The idea of that facet of the site being removed has caught the attention of local city councillors including Kristyn Wong-Tam in whose ward the Distillery is located.

“Artists in Toronto provide an invaluable contribution to the cultural fabric of our city,” Wong-Tam wrote on Twitter. “As a former gallerist and a founding board member of the Toronto Biennial of Art, I am deeply concerned to learn of the earlier than expected end of leases for partners in the Distillery.”

Rintoul says, the interest from city council is appreciated and more about the greater loss of affordable commercial artist space throughout the city, which has only been exacerbated of late with the runaway real estate market and the need for more and more condominiums.

For instance, a space for commercial artists at 888 Dupont St. was recently closed to make way for a condominium, the latest in a long line of such closures.

“In many ways, that’s the reason why Artscape exists,” she says, adding that the Artscape model has evolved since negotiating the Distillery lease, and leans more towards an ownership structure, which will give artists the long-term security they need.

“This is a conversation that has been happening for a while,” Rintoul says.