Artists in Toronto’s Distillery District lose studio space earlier than expected

Click to play video: 'Artists in Toronto’s Distillery District face displacement from studios'
Artists in Toronto’s Distillery District face displacement from studios
WATCH ABOVE: The Distillery District is a popular place to visit over the holidays and a good destination to shop for a unique selection of handmade items. But this holiday season will be the last for many of the artists who call the neighbourhood home. Caryn Lieberman explains – Dec 20, 2021

More than 60 artists who call the Artscape Distillery District Studios home will be looking for a new place to set up shop as soon as this spring.

“Our lease is up the end of the summer of next year, but they really want us out by March, and we were told this basically two weeks ago in the middle of the craziest rush and Christmas markets … all of our busiest season of the year,” said Jenny Greco, jewellery designer.

Greco has rented space in the Case Goods Warehouse for the last 12 years.

“This is the sad story of artists not having a place where we can do our work in the city where there’s affordable rent and just a place for us to grow our businesses. And that’s what we’ve done here,” said Greco. “We’ve brought culture, beauty and craftsmanship to this area and now we’re being told that we can no longer stay. And so it’s really sad.

Story continues below advertisement

Since the Distillery District opened in 2003, artists have been at the heart of it, creating, showcasing and selling their work.

Artscape was among the first to join the Distillery District as an anchor tenant with a 20-year lease, due to end in 2022.

Tenants tell Global News there was hope of an extension and there appeared to be negotiations to that effect.

“We were all trying to advocate for ourselves to stay in this building. We were trying to advocate with Artscape,” said jewellery designer Michelle Ross.

“It felt like a really big blow to learn that not only was the lease not going to be renewed, but that they wanted us out early,” she added.

While Ross has found a new space to lease, said she is sad to be leaving “a true artist community.”

“It has meant so much to meet other artists, be a part of like a like-minded community, I’ve made great friends here,” she said.

Story continues below advertisement

Hoi-An Tang, owner of Mehoi, said after all the struggles of the COVID-19 pandemic, the timing of an early relocation could not be worse for small business owners.

“I am happy to see people again. I’m happy to see a lot of old clients. Some new clients come and just kind of experience the whole building and experience the Christmas market at the same time.”

Click to play video: 'Can more restrictions can be enacted as Omicron spreads?'
Can more restrictions can be enacted as Omicron spreads?

While spring is still months away, she says being told they’d have to vacate early has been hard to take.

“It really divides your attention. It adds an immense amount of stress,” she said.

While Artscape has offered tenants two months free rent – for February and March – Tang says it is little comfort for those who planned around the summer deadline.

Story continues below advertisement

“I’ve emailed Artscape specifically just about what I think would be a fair compensation, especially just for a business like this having to move. I’ll have to move twice now because I’ll have to move in March and then again closer to August,” she added.

In a joint statement sent to Global News, the Distillery District and Artscape pointed to “the pressures the pandemic has put on tenants financially resulting in many vacancies.”

The statement also noted Artscape and the Distillery “agreed to end the Case Goods Warehouse head lease early, in March 2022. In addition, the Distillery has tried to make this transition easier by providing rent reductions.”

In the artists’ place, French-language College Borel will be moving in, in September 2023.

Next door to Case Goods Warehouse, the Cannery Building head lease will remain in place until the end of the original term.

“All of the artists here in the Distillery have been so instrumental in creating the environment, the community, that has really put the Distillery on the map as a place that people want to come,” said Stephanie Applin, interim executive director of Tapestry Opera, located in the Cannery Building.

Story continues below advertisement

She said she has no idea where Tapestry Opera will be relocating because finding an appropriate space is “tricky.”

“To find a studio space that would be the equivalent of this size where we can fit a piano in, to be able to work and rehearse is really tricky, and we are still looking,” she said.

Applin said many artists were just getting used to being back in person, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions it placed on studios.

“We are getting back to rehearsals for productions that will be in 2022 … so it’s bittersweet to be back in the space that we love that we’re so comfortable with and so familiar with, and that has really been synonymous with Tapestry over the past 20 years and to know that we only have a few months left,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Ontario caps capacity for several indoor settings amid spread of Omicron'
Ontario caps capacity for several indoor settings amid spread of Omicron

Artist Lori Klassen who has spent 12 years in the Distillery District is also unsure where she will go.

Story continues below advertisement

“We’ve all sort of been expecting the end date to be August and so there was some planning from most of us that we were going to look for other spaces at the end of the summer … and to find out that we’re going to be evicted early is just really sad, especially (with) COVID,” she said, adding “we were kind of hoping to have at least next summer to recoup some of the losses.”

Nancy Mac, owner of Freon Collective, had hoped to expand her business next year but an early, unexpected move may impact those plans.

“I’m still not 100 per cent sure what we’re going to doI wanted to use the summer revenue here to help us get some funds so that we can open another retail store or something in September of 2022. We don’t have that now,” she said.

Mac is frustrated she will only be getting two months’ worth of rent relief.

“I’ve asked Artscape for compensation. What they’ve offered is two months of free rent, which would be in February and March. But that’s not even from Artscape, that’s actually from the Distillery. That’s what the Distillery is offering Artscape … But you know, Artscape is my landlord,” she said.


Sponsored content