Dark night for Abell artists
FACING WRECKER: Nuit Blanche underscores an irony for arts district
Sabrina Saccoccio was in a meeting for Nuit Blanche, tonight’s much-hyped, dusk-tilldawn city-sponsored arts extravaganza, when she heard the news: City council had voted against preserving the studio building she and dozens of other artists call home.
“I’m doing a project for them, and they’re allowing my building to be torn down. It’s strange to be part of something that doesn’t support you in any way,” Saccoccio said.
The irony here, dead-centre in the city-designated “Art + Design District,” is thick indeed: Just days before the city prepares for perhaps the grandest, most broad-ranging and ambitious celebration of arts and culture in its history, it made a decision that cut dozens of artists — many of whom helped create the district the city now embraces as a creative hub — adrift. When Nuit Blanche begins tonight, its activities will be in full view of the building, a rough, sturdy brick warehouse at 48 Abell St., one block south and west of Queen and Dovercourt, in the heart of the city’s most vibrant and active art gallery and nightlife zone. The building was refused historic designation at city council on Thursday, effectively neutering the effort to save it from demolition and replacement by a condominium tower. Jessica Rose, an artist and curator who is among the organizers of Nuit Blanche, has lived in the building since she was a teenager. She called it a “celebration of a new beginning, and a really sad ending.”
Nuit Blanche “brings contemporary art to a whole new level, but it’s bittersweet as it comes at the death of my building — the place I make my art.”
The building, brick encased in flat grey stucco, is a throwback to the area’s industrial past, and the catalyst of its suddenly-rosy present as the city’s premier cultural destination.
With rough old wood floors and 16-foot ceilings, 48 Abell has been a home to artists, and the nucleus of the area’s creative activity, for decades. The Hollander family, which owns the building, started renting spaces to artists in the ’70s, when Aristocrat Lighting, their principal business, started to slow. Over time, 85 studios — none zoned residential — evolved into unofficial live/work spaces, and a collaborative community of artists took root.
“It’s not just a physical anchor, it’s a spiritual anchor for the whole area,” said Margie Zeidler, who was involved in restoring the nearby Gladstone Hotel.
Zeidler works with Active18, a group of community activists in the group committed to sensitive development of the area. They’ve been fighting to save the building as affordable housing for artists. The loss of 48 Abell is a black eye for Mayor David Miller’s administration, which has gone to great lengths to cast itself as a friend to the city’s cultural communities.
“The city has a vision of this area as a creative hub. This is an opportunity to show leadership — say for everyone to hear, ‘This is what it’s all about,’ ” Zeidler said. “If the city has such a strong vision for the area, they should be standing with us. But they’re not.” Change has been sudden, and rapid. Completion of the Drake Hotel in early 2004 sent development into overdrive, causing a spike in property values.
It made buildings like 48 Abell ripe to be demolished and replaced by profit-generating towers, many of which trade on the art-driven identity 48 Abell helped create. One, in the old Gibson Textiles building on Queen St., is called The Bohemian Embassy, promising “a condominium so stylish and cool, it promises to redefine the way this city’s hipsters live.”
Terry Nicholson, the city’s manager of cultural affairs, can appreciate the paradox. “In the process of redeveloping a neighbourhood, you shouldn’t be destroying the very thing that created it in the first place,” he said. Through its arm’s-length agency Artspace, the city maintains a handful of nonprofit artist live/work spaces around the city. 48 Abell, which is privately owned, is a symbol of a problem with which the city has grappled for years. “We need to find a way to create space in the city that is affordable and sustainable, so that the creative community doesn’t keep getting moved. So far, we haven’t been able to figure that out,” Nicholson said. “If we’re going to succeed in this sector, it can’t just be market forces.”
But for 48 Abell, and the entire Art + Design district itself, time is running out. A handful of other potentially historic properties nearby are slated for redevelopment as well. “Pretty soon, you’ll have an Art + Design district with no artists,” Saccoccio said. “It’ll end up being an outof-date historical reference, or a marketing term — if it isn’t already.”