Every battling couple covered in drywall dust can empathize with Toronto’s Factory Theatre: The company’s board broke up with long-time artistic director Ken Gass this summer because the two sides couldn’t agree how their renovation should proceed.
Gass went public, defending his ambitious scheme to redo the theatre’s 19th-century building, and the arts community has rallied around him, launching a boycott of the theatre. The board, which confirmed yesterday that it has agreed to mediation in the dispute, released an open letter in which it explains that it is committed to renovations that will improve access but that it could not immediately back the artistic director’s scheme because it would require raising nearly 40 times more private money that it does in a normal year.
Disputes this bitter and this public are rare, but Factory’s situation is actually typical of medium-sized performing-arts groups across Canada. Big projects such as the new Maison symphonique on Montreal’s Place des Arts or the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, which opened in 2006, can attract corporate partners or negotiate directly with governments for infrastructure grants. Smaller groups, however, are often unable to get the public money that will trigger donations – and even when they do get grants, they lack the high-level contacts to effectively raise large sums from the private sector.
“Bricks and mortar – the ball has been dropped across the country, there’s no doubt,” said Bradley Moss, artistic director at Edmonton’s Theatre Network, a company that was forced by rising construction estimates, changes in its board membership and the recession to shelve plans for a major expansion of its building, a 1938 movie house.
“[The venues] are all tired and waiting to be renovated – or torn down.”
Founded in a surge of national cultural enthusiasm that began in the 1950s and 1960s and peaked in the 1970s, Canadian performance groups are often housed in heritage buildings that were repurposed for their use in the 1970s and 1980s. Apart from new roofs, wheelchair ramps and the occasional redo of a lobby or washroom, many of those buildings have not been significantly updated since. A 2009 Ontario survey of 100 medium and small arts groups who owned or leased their buildings found almost three-quarters lacked the space they needed, and more than half were housed in buildings at least 70 years old.
“We have a lovely heritage building but we are the plays we put onstage,” said Charles Childs, managing director of Montreal’s English-language Centaur Theatre. “We want to spend it all on the stage.”
The Centaur is in the midst of an environmental assessment for a proposed renovation to its turn-of-the-century home in the former stock-exchange building in Old Montreal, a scheme that would cost $7-million to $10-million. The plan involves building a fly tower; reconstructing the roof; and digging out the basement, which floods several times a year – improvements not covered by a $2-million reno in 1995.
In Toronto, the Tarragon Theatre would like to spend as much as $23-million to completely redo its backstage and performance spaces so that it can transfer shows between its larger and smaller stages, but artistic director Richard Rose said it will be a decade before there’s even a shovel in the ground. Tafelmusik has ruled out buying the 19th-century Bloor Street church in which it performs to establish a period-music centre, and has decided instead to raise $1.5-million to make acoustic improvements, erect a permanent stage and buy new seats in 2013.
At its historic home in the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre needs as much as $6-million to improve wheelchair access, the lobby, the public washrooms and the artists’ dressing rooms, and to create a studio and rehearsal space that can still be used when a show is running in the main theatre.
“It’s sexier to build new than to maintain or renovate,” said Donna Spencer, artistic producer at the Firehall, where one consultant told her it would be cheaper to build a new building than do all the renos she needs. “I am a fan of repurposed buildings, but the ability to develop them for the arts is often limited by the expense.”