There’s a mutual understanding between the 50 artists working out of 7 Labatt Ave. and their landlords.
For a discounted rate, the artists can pay to rent studio space at the former office building on a month-to-month basis. But at some point in the relatively near future — and there’s no telling exactly when — everyone inside will be evicted and the building will be demolished.
“That’s the deal, and it’s ultimately one we accept in order to afford studio space in Toronto,” says Nancy Bennett, a professional painter working in the city for the past 15 years. She’s been working out of a space on the building’s second floor since November 2017.
As the price of long-term studio space rapidly exceeds the budgets of artists, temporary space in soon-to-be demolished buildings, such as the one at 7 Labatt Ave., has become a common alternative.
The building is located just south of Regent Park near the Don River. Two floors are divided into 44 private and semi-private rooms, many of which are shared by two or three artists. In general, the spaces tend to range between $300 and $600, depending on the size.
On the second floor, sunlight floods into the wood-panelled rooms through a glass ceiling, illuminating the artwork that lines the walls. The rooms are primarily used as studios, but artists often also use the communal spaces for art showings and mini-galleries.
“I absolutely love the place,” says Bennett, who creates large-scale oil paintings of Canadian landscapes with vibrant colours in the corner of her studio, a space she shares with two others. “Truth be told, I wish I could stay here forever.”
The artists started moving into the building late in 2017 after the space was purchased by local real estate developer TAS Build and Design, along with Tricon Capital Group Inc. The buyers plan to redevelop the property into a mixed-use space with 600 residential units and two levels of commercial space.
The developers say construction should begin in mid-2020, but a specific time has yet to be determined and can be subject to change, leaving the tenants’ eviction date up in the air.
Bennett says the studio is the third she’s occupied in the past three years.
In 2015, she was forced to move from a 14-foot-by-14-foot room she shared with three other artists in a building in Leslieville that hosted the Artists’ Network, a non-profit arts organization. The tenants, including the Artists’ Network, left after it was slated to be demolished and redeveloped. She then moved into a studio on the edge of Scarborough, but left after the Artists’ Network, which had since relocated, alerted her to lower rent options at 7 Labatt Ave. in 2017.
Bennett considered seeking long-term studio space before moving to 7 Labatt Ave., but exorbitant costs and wait times pushed her to seek temporary alternatives instead.
In a building that hosts long-term studio space, such as 401 Richmond St., a visual artists would likely have to wait two or three years on a waiting list before getting a spot.
“Every artist I know who doesn’t have a well-employed spouse is struggling to find affordable studio space,” she said. “But having studio space is essential to working as an artist. It elevates your professionalism, and working out of your bed doesn’t.”
The annual earnings of professional artists are among the lowest of any profession in Canada. According to a 2016 report by Hill Strategies, the average artist has an annual income of $23,100 — 45 per cent lower than the average worker — while visual artists specifically have an average income of $19,300.
Antonio Pendones, who started renting a shared space at 7 Labatt Ave. in May for $400 per month, says temporary space is the most accessible option for artists without the financial means to find something long-term.
On average, he estimates he moves studios once a year, and while the spaces are relatively affordable, Pendones said the constant transition can have its downsides.
“Moving can be very disruptive for me, because it takes time to get used to a particular space,” he said. “Having to move every year or so means you have to constantly reset. Sometimes you get a better space, sometimes you get a worse space, and you have to adjust either way.”
Pendones says he typically needs three months to settle into a space and start creating art. “I’m happy with this place,” he said. “But it’s hard to feel comfortable knowing you have to leave in a few months.”
Pendones rents space through the Akin Collective, a non-profit organization that helps artists find affordable studio space. The collective occupies the majority of spaces at 7 Labatt Ave. and rents them to artists, with priority going to members of the collective that have left an Akin-occupied building due to renovation or demolition.
“The way we’re able to find space for artists in Toronto is by working with places like these to find pockets of space that would otherwise be vacant, with the understanding that we’ll have to leave eventually,” said Michael Vickers, co-founder of the collective.
For others, such as Tiffany Uher, an artist who makes ponchos for children out of 7 Labatt Ave., lots of money and effort can go into moving.
“I have a lot of stuff to move around — fabrics, mannequins and all kinds of equipment. So my items usually take multiple trips in a van rental before I get settled into a new place,” she said.
Uher pays $428 per month for her studio space.
“I love the space,” she says. “These buildings are great for hosting artists, and they may as well be put to good use, since they’re sitting empty otherwise.”
The building at 7 Labatt Ave. is one of three in Toronto offered by TAS as temporary space before development begins.
“Wherever possible, TAS incorporates affordable workspaces that support creativity and culture,” said Mazyar Mortazavi, the company’s CEO, in an email to The Star. “We do this because finding space to live and work has become a critical issue. Cities are facing massive growth; we’re not prepared to address the influx of people and infrastructure demands.”
Mortazavi said the leases all include clauses that allow for termination once the redevelopment process is underway. He says the company will work with artists to support their transition to new spaces.
Alex Cooney, who started renting space in the building in 2018, said she thought she’d be evicted in six months, but the date kept being extended.
“That can make you a bit anxious,” she said. “It can be a rumour mill here about when we’ll have to leave. I just try to put it out of my mind because it can get stressful to think about.”
When the artists eventually have to leave, Akin said they’ll help find them new space.
“Moving is always going to be challenging for artists,” Vickers said. “But if you can at least map out your next few years, then it can make a lot of difference.”
Jacob Lorinc is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @jacoblorinc