Making space for Saskatoon artists: artSpace eyes the bus barns

Sunday, November 15, 2015

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Saskatoon has a thriving, vibrant arts community, but it's missing purpose-built, dedicated makerspace, and artSpace aims to change that.



Allen McWilliams

Ashleigh Mattern is a Saskatoon-based writer, editor, and entrepreneur. She has been working as a freelance journalist, copy writer, and copy editor since 2007, specializing in arts and culture features. She regularly contributes to the CARFAC Saskatchewan Newsletter, and often writes about arts-related stories in many local publications, including the StarPhoenix and the University of Saskatchewan's Arts & Science magazine. An aspiring fiction writer, she is a member of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild and the Saskatoon Writers Collective, and is constantly working to improve her fiction skills. In 2015, she and her husband Jordan Mears launched a web design company, Vireo Productions, where she continues to champion the arts through clients like the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre.


The idea for artSpace first began to form six years ago, when blacksmith M. Craig Campbell began looking for a like-minded community. He envisioned a space where artists and makers could work side-by-side, instead of isolated in backyard or basement studios.

In those early days, he floated the idea of re-purposing the City of Saskatoon's transit facility in Caswell Hill, also known as the bus barns. When the city formally announced they would be vacating the Caswell property two years ago, artSpace organized, registering as a non-profit and pulling together a team of dedicated board members, business advisers, staff, and volunteers.

Despite their recent focus on the bus barns, Campbell, who is vice-president and founder of artSpace, stresses that the organization is a concept searching for a home.

"Initially we focused on the barns because we knew they would eventually become available," says Campbell. "It happened that it was the right time, and very much the right location for such a concept, in these civic bus barns."

The organization has since expanded its location choices to include the City Yards in north downtown, which runs from 25th Street North to King Street, with the downtown CPR and CNR tracks serving as it west and east boundaries. This property has more buildings over a greater area than the Caswell Hill transit facility.

"We learned from Gathercole Initiative Group who fought to save the Gathercole Building on the river bank (Property Y)," says Campbell. "When the wrecking ball swung, the group died, hence our separate organizational and location structure."

He also notes that many of the Gathercole group's dreams may eventually see light in an artSpace development.

Taking cues from creative centres like it all over the world, artSpace would be a centre for creating art, providing permanent, affordable studio space, makerspace, and commercial space. From art classes to galleries to gift shops to performance space, the extent of what could be offered in such a space would only be limited by the enthusiasm and imagination of its resident artists and organizations.

A space like this is desperately needed in Saskatoon. The dramatic rise in land value and rent has pushed many organizations and artists out of the market and strained the ones who still remain. And the group's market analysis showed artists and arts groups in Saskatoon are experiencing high facility cost rates for inadequate space.

According to an artSpace survey of 195 individual artists: 

  • 32.5% of artists said they are being prevented from producing art due to a lack of access to dedicated adequate space or equipment
  • 63.4% rated access to workspace near other artists as helpful or very helpful
  • 64.1% rated access to collaborative maker space, studio space, or initiatives as helpful or very helpful
  • 80% said adequate or purpose built maker space is important
  • 60% said they are hoping to relocate in the next five years

Additionally, 33 per cent of the 26 arts organizations surveyed said their current facilities were not technically sufficient for the majority of operations conducted.

Even more worrisome, this lack of proper space for artists may be having an impact on the industry: From 1989 to 2013, Saskatchewan saw an overall increase of 17 per cent in the labour force, but a one per cent decline in artists -- the only province in Canada with a decline in artists during that time period.

"If you step back and take a look at the bigger picture, the culture sector has been suffering," says artSpace's executive director Chad Leier-Berg. "In order to reverse this trend, artSpace looked at what other communities did to protect this sector. One effective tool was the creation of a cultural hub that is free from the threat of redevelopment."

Leier-Berg also reviewed the City of Saskatoon's Culture Plan to see how it lined up with artSpace's plans, and found it ties in nicely with the plan's guiding principles and many of the key directions. Both the Culture Plan and artSpace seek to:

  • focus on building long-term stability with the cultural sector
  • cultivate conditions for youth and young professionals to thrive
  • value and celebrate diversity
  • strengthen opportunities for cultural interaction
  • support and enable cultural development at the neighbourhood level, and
  • support collaborative efforts that enhance tourism destinations, products, and experiences.

"In a nutshell, artSpace fits well within the culture plan because it would be an effective way for the city to achieve many of the goals within the plan," says Leier-Berg.

The artSpace report presents the unambiguous lack of purpose-built makerspace existing in Saskatoon; the South Caswell Concept Plan indicate the need to redevelop these properties; and artSpace matches many of the city's goals under its Culture Plan. All of which makes artSpace seems like the perfect fit.

The only question now is whether the city will support artSpace. Konrad André, senior planner with the City of Saskatoon, will oversee the redevelopment of the bus barn property. Before the end of the year, he plans to invite potential developers to respond to an Expression of Interest. The city plans to offer all the land and buildings as a single package, and no suitable ideas come forward, the city may offer the property in smaller blocks to multiple developers.

In this early stage, artSpace thinks there is enough interest from the arts and culture community to easily occupy 30,000 square feet with demand growing possibly as high as 100,000 square feet within five to 10 years.

Along with interesting park space, public sculptures,  outdoor theatre, restaurants, coffee shops, and a residential component, a critical mass will be attained that will create community and generate significant activity beyond the arts. It will become a destination for both locals and visitors to take a class, attend the theatre, dine, view and purchase art, and to simply spend time thanks to the attractive, welcoming atmosphere.

The bus barns are the first core neighbourhood property artSpace is interested in, but if those plans don't come to fruition, artSpace is already looking forward to the next space that might work.

"Our path is simple; we have built artSpace the organization separate from any specific site."

To follow artSpace's continuing story, visit their website at artspacesaskatoon.ca, follow them on Twitter at @artSpaceStoon, and like their page on Facebook at facebook.com/artspacesaskatoon.

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