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THE SCOOP | Lease Non-Renewal Displaces More Than 70 Toronto Artists & Arts Organizations

By Anya Wassenberg on December 6, 2021

Photo courtesy of Tapestry Opera
Photo courtesy of Tapestry Opera

Artists and artisans have been at the heart of the Distillery District since it opened in its refurbished form in 2003. That seems likely to change in the coming year, after a notice was sent to more than 70 artists and organizations that their lease would not be renewed in 2022.

According to a media release by Tapestry Opera, Tapestry, along with groundbreaking Nightwood Theatre, Dancemakers, and more than 70 other artists and organizations received notice that their premises at the building known as Artscape in the Distillery (15 Case Goods Lane) would have to be vacated, many by March 2022, five months earlier than the final date of the lease (August 2022).

The loss of another arts space

As the release notes, a 2018 letter from Artscape had confirmed a five-year tenancy, which enabled organizations to proceed with studio and other upgrades via grant funding.

Tapestry, Nightwood, and Dancemakers are founding tenants of Artscape in the Distillery, and the site has incubated work that has toured the country, won Juno nominations, and supported many independent projects along the way.

Michael Mori, Tapestry Opera’s Artistic and General Director, is quoted in the release. “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. 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 artistic 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.”

Andrea Donaldson, Nightwood Theatre’s Artistic Director, also commented. “Without the unique presence of artists, the Distillery will become all sheen, no substance. 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.”

The facts

The building itself is privately owned, but was operated by Artscape under a 20-year lease. Artscape is a non-profit organization. According to their mandate, “The core of our work focuses on developing real estate projects, programs and services to empower artists and connect them to communities.”

  • Artscape Distillery District opened on May 8, 2003
  • Area: 50,000 square feet
  • Includes: 10 retail studios, 20 office spaces, 3 rehearsal/performance spaces and 27 artist work studios

While tenants knew the 20-year lease would not be renewed, the contract does not expire until August 2022. The timing is crucial, given the busy summer tourist season. Hoi-An Tang, owner of Mehoi talked to blogTO. “We really were counting on the retail aspect, […] essentially the income from 2022 to help facilitate all of our moves,” she said.

Annie Arnone, manager of communications for Artscape, told blogTO via a statement that the lease termination was already a done deal. “The property owners signalled interest in ending this lease a few months earlier to advance plans for a French language school on site.”

During the COVID lockdown, Artscape received assistance for rent abatement under the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program, of which the organization had to kick in $62,750.

Artscape is said to have researched other options for the artist-tenants, but couldn’t accommodate them at the Distillery District. They are currently in negotiations for other options.

Tapestry Opera and Nightwood Theatre, among the other soon to be displaced arts tenants, are forging ahead with plans for the season and beyond.

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