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Vancouver plans to create affordable studio space for artists

Artist Eri Ishii with a piece of her art at the artist co-op in Vancouver, BC, June 4, 2010. Vancouver artists who lost their studio space to rising rents and redevelopment formed a co-op and have leased new studio space.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

In an attempt to support an arts community that is struggling with some of the highest rents in the country, Vancouver plans to convert two industrial warehouses into affordable studio space.

As part of a new strategy presented to council Tuesday, the city's managing director of cultural services said that by renovating two city-owned warehouses in East Vancouver, more than 26,000 square feet of low-rent studio space could be opened up.

Rich Newirth told council the buildings would need "basic life upgrades" to make the space safe for use, but any improvements beyond that would be up to the tenants.

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The plan is to lease out the space for three to five years, as a pilot project to show private developers that creating studio space for artists can be economically viable.

"This is really a great opportunity [to help artists]," said Mr. Newirth.

Many artists in Vancouver have been displaced in recent years as a development boom has increased rents in Gastown, Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside.

Councillor Geoff Meggs, who in February put forward a motion directing city staff to look for ways to provide new space for artists, called Mr. Newirth's proposal "a very exciting and comprehensive program."

He said the city needed to take the initiative because the artistic community in Vancouver has been struggling with high rental costs.

"It's been clear for several years the arts are getting squeezed for space in Vancouver," he said.

In addition to revamping the two warehouses, one on Industrial Avenue and the other on Kaslo Street, the city will provide six park board field houses as studios to artists rent free. Council has also instructed staff to search for underutilized school space that might be available.

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The initiative comes in the wake of reports that artists have been leaving the city because it has become an unaffordable place to live and work.

Mr. Newirth said some artists have left Vancouver, but he said the city still has the highest concentration of artists per capita in Canada. According to 2006 data, there are about 8,200 artists in the city, and they have an average income of $27,000.

Rob Gloor, executive director of the Alliance for Arts and Culture, praised the city for moving to secure studio space.

"I think that is a pretty substantial commitment … it is a significant net gain," he said of the promise to turn the two warehouses into studio space.

Mark Atomos Pilon, a painter, illustrator and designer, said a development boom in the lead up to the Vancouver Olympics, increased rents and forced many artists to move out of studios in Gastown and Strathcona. He said the same thing is happening now in the Downtown Eastside.

Mr. Pilon used to have a 1,500-square-foot studio and gallery – but high rents forced him out and he now works at home.

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"I basically moved my operation into the closet," he said, where he has about 50 square feet to work in.

Mr. Pilon wasn't aware of the city's new plan, when contacted Tuesday, but said it became clear several years ago that something needed to be done if Vancouver was going to hang on to its vibrant arts community.

"I know a lot of people who have abandoned their studios [because of increased rents]," he said, adding that some have left the city, moving to Toronto.

Mr. Pilon said he didn't think the city plan would put an end to the problem of developers moving in to areas that have been made attractive by artists, then pushing them out by increasing rents.

"The only thing I can think of is for the city to put its foot down and say this is an artist-designated area – so that we have a protected area for artists," said Mr. Pilon.

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