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Artist’s rendering of proposed expansion of Factory Theatre as envisioned by Ken Gass
Artist’s rendering of proposed expansion of Factory Theatre as envisioned by Ken Gass

CULTURE

Now playing at smaller theatres: the handyman special Add to ...

The national wish list ranges from crucial fixes on roofs and in basements to renovations to improve rehearsal halls, green rooms, lobbies and washrooms: At Factory, you have to climb 29 steps to see a show on the main stage. Both Gass’s $14-million scheme and the more modest $1.5-million renovation the board is now planning for next summer include an elevator.

Getting much of this work done is going to be hard, because the capital required is often out of reach of medium-sized groups overseen by boards of middle-class professionals rather than the bank vice-presidents or millionaire investors who lead the fundraising campaigns for ballet companies and symphony orchestras.

Although everyone has blue-sky plans and long wish lists, boards are reluctant to launch capital campaigns that may saddle the directors with overly ambitious fundraising targets, and artistic leaders say they have to respect their boards’ caution.

“At Factory, I understand where Ken is coming from … I am attached to my plans,” said Moss, about the abandoned expansion of Edmonton’s Theatre Network. “My board has moved on. Who am I to tell them they should or shouldn’t do it? ... I almost quit because of it; I almost got fired because of it. But it’s not what I am supposed to be doing: I am supposed to be running a venue.”

Several administrators point to the plight of Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company as a cautionary tale: That company was left with a $1.6-million debt when steel prices rose rapidly during construction of the new Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre in 2007. “It just strangled us,” said board vice-chair Brian Toller, adding that the company, which couldn’t easily fundraise during the recession, has recently paid off half the debt and expects to retire it next year.

Paradoxically, the situation is particularly acute in Toronto, where large institutions enjoyed the so-called cultural renaissance initiated by the Ontario government in the 2000s but medium-sized groups are worse off than in some cities because neither the city nor the province has funds allocated for arts groups’ capital needs.

In Montreal, both the city and the province have ensured a constant stream of smaller renovations, including a complete rebuild of the Théâtre de Quat’Sous in 2008-09.

Previously, Vancouver’s city government has had a lot of success negotiating with developers to fold arts facilities into new developments in exchange for added density, a scheme that has helped build new facilities such as the Vancouver International Film Centre and the Vancouver Contemporary Art Gallery, but doesn’t get existing facilities renovated.

There are success stories in Toronto, too: The Theatre Centre, a venue for small and experimental performances, is just beginning a $5-million renovation on the Carnegie Library on Queen Street West. In 2006, Soulpepper Theatre built a $14-million home in old buildings in the Distillery District.

Arts managers say that project is revealing for a couple of reasons. They attribute its success to Soulpepper’s classical mandate, which makes it a less risky proposition than a company devoted to new and unproven work; to the company’s long-time corporate connections; and to an unexpected $3-million gift from philanthropist David Young. Most important of all, the Young Centre is shared by George Brown College and its theatre program, a partnership that gave Soulpepper access to government money it would not have found for a solo project.

That kind of perfect storm is rare, but arts managers say that all groups need to seek out partnerships with like-minded organizations or, better yet, look to community requirements.

“Sometimes the vision is not compelling enough to get off the ground,” said Tim Jones, CEO of Artscape, the Toronto non-profit arts real-estate developer behind the Regent Park Arts & Cultural Centre that is part of the redevelopment of that city-owned housing project. “Established mid-sized groups have to rethink: There has to be a reason for governments and the private sector to step up. If it’s just about the needs of the artistic community, it’s not going to happen. It’s not easy … but people are finding innovative ways to make projects happen.”

Factory board and artistic director Gass start to talk

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