Better living through ownership?

Artists engage in community outreach to solve the space crisis

Lately artists have been protesting the effect of Calgary’s real estate boom on its underfunded arts organizations with artist-run centres losing their residences and being forced to look for affordable space elsewhere. It’s a problem that plagues many communities with cycles of gentrification leading to displacement of artists and other community residents. Unless artists can take control of their spaces through ownership it’s likely to continue to be a problem. Taking up in more affordable communities artists often approach necessity as the mother of reinvention by using the move to engage in community outreach.

In a recent Stirring Culture lecture aimed at obtaining support from the arts through funding bodies arts director Peter Sellars addressed the benefits of community outreach. Sellars suggested diversifying the location of art as a strategy for demonstrating social relevance to governments. He illustrated the suggestion by referring to the Los Angeles Festival organized in South Central L.A. after the 1992 riots. “It took an arts festival to shift the perceptions of the city and the residents about this part of their own city” he said and to “get that neighbourhood to become a priority of the city fathers.” Artists he believes can benefit from relocation by producing art “where people live and where people are… as something that’s inseparable from their own identity.” Although not solving the negative aspects of gentrification these benefits are positive side effects to the necessity of relocating.

How then is community outreach by artists and organizations really working? I spoke to three Prairie arts organizations that share the honour of producing where people live.


AKA Gallery is an artist-run centre dedicated to the display of contemporary art in all media and Paved is a production centre for photography audio video electronic and digital art. For years they inhabited an upper floor in the Saskatoon Warehouse Artspace a 90-year-old brick building located in Saskatoon’s central business district. Shows such as Robyn Moody’s Public Opinion engaged the population on the streets while installations like Doug Melnyk’s Adam and Steve occupied the gallery space.

In 2005 the building was sold and its resident arts groups were forced to look for new digs. AKA and Paved took the “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” approach and formed 20 Above Holdings Inc. They bought an old storefront used for decades by Toon’s Kitchen in Riversdale. Riversdale has been one of the most economically and socially depressed communities in Saskatoon but its proximity to the river and downtown has made it comparable to Inglewood in its potential for renewal. The groups have been involved in renovating the building for the past year thanks to over $1 million in grants from the province and federal government.

“Vulnerability motivated us to take the plunge to ownership” says AKA’s administrative co-ordinator Troy Gronsdahl. The choice of Riversdale for relocation was partly made in response to low property values and tax incentives that made taking on a mortgage for ownership a possibility. The two centres were fully aware of their role within the business improvement district’s strategy of gentrification. However the response from the community has been a positive one generating increased audience exposure among long-term residents. AKA and Paved have been active in addressing their role in urban renewal through their programming as well as through partnerships with other neighbourhood groups.

Randy Pshebylo of the Riversdale Business Improvement District (BID) saw the move to Riversdale (“a place where no one wanted to go”) as validating the direction already being undertaken by the efforts of the Saskatchewan government in providing incentives for businesses to relocate. He says that the demographic of the community has been shifting as overall property values in Saskatoon have increased causing potential homeowners to take another look at the underrated neighbourhood. The presence of a number of arts groups that have moved to the area has begun to draw a younger demographic than previously anticipated in the BID’s marketing plan. As a 14-year member of the Riversdale BID Pshebylo is reluctant to lay the blame for all of the area’s new-found prosperity on the doorstep of recently relocated arts groups. He cites the enforcement of bylaws upon slum landlords and the closure of the Barry Hotel as encouraging foot traffic through enhancing a sense of pedestrian security. The Barry located two blocks off AKA’s new space has a longstanding reputation as housing one of the cheapest and rowdiest bars in Saskatoon.

Gronsdahl sees the move to Riversdale as providing stability for the future of AKA Gallery and Paved Arts. Through ownership the groups have limited their vulnerability to the “whims of landlords.” Gronsdahl takes a long-term view of the benefits of ownership planning for programming increases once the facility is paid off.


Lindsay Dann is the executive producer of GlobalFest and the Calgary International Fireworks Competition which has taken place in the Forest Lawn community for the past five years. Forest Lawn has been Calgary’s neighbourhood of choice to warn new Calgarians away from. Issues of crime and poverty tend to be the usual bogeymen. However Forest Lawn boasts many of the amenities newer areas lack such as established schools libraries and recreation centres affordable housing generous lot sizes and efficient access to the rest of the city. Forest Lawn also has a thriving commercial aspect boasting a wide range of shops serving the ethnically diverse community. Accordingly the area has re-branded 17th Ave. S.E. as International Avenue.

Over the course of the festival’s development Dann has enjoyed facilitating the community’s ethnically diverse constituents in presenting their cultural customs and concerns within the festival format. She has watched GlobalFest evolve from a celebration of Calgary’s diversity to a festival that also fosters critical dialogue about human rights issues.

The festival and fireworks competition has seen “the community step up year after year to make it happen” as well as received widespread support from businesses and Calgarians. Dann cites a Cameron Strategy survey finding that over half of festival attendants were middle-income earners from outside Calgary East indicating a shifting perception of 17th Ave. East as a leisure destination.

Although the festival and competition have enjoyed support from provincial and federal governments there has been relative indifference on the civic level. Dann has experienced difficulties obtaining co-operation from city transit in facilitating public access. Unfortunately reputations seem to linger in City Hall. In terms of sheer numbers police presence at last year’s fireworks competition verged on being oppressive. Considering crime in the area has historically declined during the festival Dann believes the strong police presence is unnecessary.


Calgary’s Arbour Lake Sghool has operated in the middle-class suburban community of Arbour Lake since 2003. The collective of artists living and working out of the residence have done a number of projects on site such as wartime re-enactments pie shell experiments and cardboard sculpture. Rather than being billed as an asset to the community they remain unacknowledged in Arbour Lake’s promotional material. Arbour Lake has yet to see a need for the bohemian flavour artists are purported to carry with them.

Sellars endorses taking art to the people talking to them where they live so how has this worked for the Arbour Lake Sghool? John Frosst co-owner of the group’s residence calls the transition from an artist’s residence to an arts facility an “organic progression.” Group members did not initially intend on engaging the community but found that frictions naturally arose between what their neighbours felt were acceptable behaviours and what they were doing. Today Frosst says that the majority of their neighbours embrace their activities even attending the group’s annual Stampede breakfasts.

However the struggle over esthetic control of the suburban landscape continues with the group’s work continuing to register dissatisfaction with the city’s bylaw services. The city had to “redefine what a garden was or wasn’t to disallow” one of the group’s projects Harvest (2007) in which they planted their property to barley.

As far as engaging the community through accepted channels such as the community association Frosst says “we have not been invited to their board meetings and do not expect to be in the near future.” The group would be reluctant to attend such meetings as Frosst does not believe in the effectiveness of community associations in general. A representative of the Arbour Lake community association was unavailable for comment.


Each arts group has found the focus of its programming shift in response to changes in geographic location. It is not only the community but the organization that undergoes a renewal through the relocation of arts bodies. Through ownership of their location the Arbour Lake Sghool AKA and Paved can’t be shifted involuntarily if or when their presence becomes an inconvenience. However in terms of using art to get neighbourhoods “to become a priority of the city fathers” even arts organizations find that civic ears can be selective in what they hear.