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What is likely to be Toronto’s most significant new performance space of this decade is only days away from opening at the Regent Park Arts & Cultural Centre.
The three-storey building, clad in white corrugated metal and dotted with stripey splashes of colour is unprepossessing among the new glass condo buildings sprouting up along Dundas St East, but the anonymous exterior belies the riches within.
Tim Jones, president and CEO of non-profit organization Artscape, led a small group of local media through the building earlier today, revealing the social and cultural hub of the 15-year revitalization of Regent Park to be a treasure chest of promise.
Artscape worked together with Regent Park’s official landlord, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, and real estate developer the Daniels Corporation to create a community-inspired place where art, culture and community can intersect.
The building, designed by Donald Schmitt of Diamond Schmitt Architects, is all air and light and communal space. The lobby is a glass-walled café that will include a stage that flows into a wide foyer that connects performance rooms of varying sizes as well as the home of the dance collective, COBA. Outside, behind the building, is an outdoor performance space, complete with cedar-planked stage.
The second floor is all about giving local young people access to learning and the arts, providing office, studio and meeting space for five organizations that have, so far, toiled in quarters barely adequate to serve the thousands of young people living in and around Regent Park.
(I have been teaching at the Regent Park School of Music since the beginning of the year, so I am one of the hundreds of people who will be using this new centre every week.)
The third floor has been turned over to the Centre for Social Innovation, an incubator and home for new social-minded businesses, entrepreneurs, associations and artists.
As wonderful as all of this is, the best thing about the building is its two-storey-high multipurpose theatre, fitted with retractable risers that can seat just over 300 people, while leaving room on the semi-sprung wooden floor for at least 100 more.
Although there was a full construction crew at work on finishing up the space, it was easy tell that it will have good natural acoustics as well as being fully equipped for all sorts of amplification.
The big performance space, which is awaiting its new name (I’m guessing in the form of a sponsor), has to guarantee 50 days and or nights a year to the building’s tenants, according to Jones. All of the booking and coordination is being done by Artscape staff, who have an office on the second floor, not far from the spacious green room and dressing rooms.
The plan, Jones says, is to have the arts centre pay its own way within 10 years, which by necessity will mean renting out the space to anyone in need of something large and flexible, from concerts to dance and theatre, to film, or even meetings.
The whole is a $34 million project that, if successful, could transform the look and feel of the performing arts at the community level in the same dramatic way as did the construction of Roy Thomson Hall 30 years ago, and the Four Seasons Centre 6 years ago.
This is part of Toronto’s cultural renaissance, as well, except that it’s happening on the street, in a neighbourhood twice written off (once in the 1940s, then again in the 1980s) as being beyond redemption.
The whole city is invited to come see the completed building in full bloom during the weekend of Sept. 22 and 23. Among the open-door attractions will be a series of performances and presentations organized by the new tenants, all of them long associated with innovative work in their respective fields.
Artscape and its partners have worked hard to prepare a comprehensive website on the project and its many purposes and aims. Check it out here.
As with so many big projects, the blessing comes in the form of a visible marker to any passerby that there might be something special going on inside. For the performing arts, this particular building and project are tangible proof that years of meetings and planning and raising support can, in fact, pay off in important ways.
So many of the artists housed in the new space have been toiling for years in the performer’s equivalent of slums, making do with small, drafty, not always clean warehouse spaces, noisy studios and the ever-present concern of eviction.
On the other hand, this grown-up, big city space brings with it the responsibility of keeping a lot of cash flowing in order to clean, maintain, heat and cool a big pile of real estate.
My fondest wish is that this place is such a success that it will inspire community groups and artists in other Toronto neighbourhoods with at-risk children to also dream big — and realise these dreams in an equally big way.