With the closing of the Seafood Market artist studios in the East Village this past July, dozens of Calgary artists who had enjoyed the building’s facilities were left to find a new workspace in the city. As a pilot project supported by the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), Calgary Arts Development (CADA) and its subsidiary devoted to promoting artistic space, cSPACE, the Seafood Market always had an expiry date on it, and its closing didn’t surprise anyone.
All the same, some artists weren’t pleased with how the situation was handled.
“I think what I was disappointed about was that cSPACE was meant to be finding us a space,” says Yvonne Mullock, a professional visual artist who practiced at the Market. “We had been meeting with them and basically they just said they’d not found anything suitable, so you’re going to have to sort yourselves out.
“It’s such a shame because there’s a real energy here right now in the arts, and people are staying, [but] you can only work in your bedroom so long before it isn’t acceptable,” she continues. “Maybe there aren’t the spaces, but to me, 50 artists leaving... would be pretty urgent.”
There are some exciting projects on the horizon to help provide affordable, stable studio space for artists, with the shining example being the mixed-use King Edward School Arts Hub and Incubator. But that project won’t come to fruition for years, and in the meantime, artists are still struggling to find space.
Reid Henry, President and CEO of cSPACE, was part of the discussions with the artists as the Seafood Market project was winding down, and he acknowledges the straits that this city’s creators find themselves in. “I sat in that room with 30 artists looking at me with a sense that temporary space is not the answer,” he says. “Temporary space is still temporary space. It doesn’t support the longevity and stability that we feel is important to the development of this sector.”
He explains that several months before the Seafood Market closed, cSPACE had another 30,000 square foot building on its radar that would have been an ideal transition space for the artists — except that it turned out to be packed with asbestos.
“I don’t want to bring a community of artists into a building that’s unhealthy. They may be used to doing that, but it’s not something I want to propagate,” he says. “So while the Seafood guys’ perspective might be that we didn’t have a plan in place, we actually had a plan in place, and it fell through.”
Henry notes that CADA and cSPACE have made huge strides in terms of public policy — albeit not in an attention-grabbing way like, say, announcing another refurbished arts hub and incubutor. These include promoting a new zoning scheme — “cultural zoning” — that would be more amenable to studios and galleries.
“While those aren’t the sexiest things to talk about, they set the platform for easier delivery of artist studios and workspaces,” he says.
In response to some of the reaction from Seafood Market artists, Henry says, “My question back to them would be, are they concerned about the plan for the artists from Seafood Market, or are they talking about what’s the plan for the broader community? Because we’re tackling the plan for the broader community in a huge way.”
Still, although CADA and cSPACE may understand the challenges facing artists and have an action plan for the future, that doesn’t mean that the current situation is any less, well, challenging. “I think what will happen is if people don’t have a space to work then they’ll just leave — they’ll go to Toronto [or] Vancouver,” says Mullock.
But, she says, “I don’t want to dwell on the negative side of it, because it’s made me realize that there’s this attitude of ‘let’s do it ourselves.’ I think that’s why there’s such an interesting creative energy in Calgary right now — it’s the history of people doing stuff themselves, making it happen themselves rather than being handed it on a plate.”