Today, I’m speaking to Toronto. It’s important, but I’ll try to keep it short.
There’s a community consultation tonight at 6:30pm at the Parkdale Library (1303 Queen St. West) to come up with a strategy to find an operator for a new arts venue at 36 Lisgar Street, which is strange because there’s already an operator ready and waiting to take over the space. The site was designed specifically for the Toronto Media Arts Centre (TMAC), a collective of arts organizations that includes Charles Street Video, CFMDC, Bento Miso, and Dames Making Games.
That last point can’t be overemphasized. The entire site was designed with input from TMAC and is tailored to the needs of the organization. TMAC was selected after a public consultation process that determined that TMAC would fulfill a significant need for the Queen West community. The search was part of a Section 37 agreement that allowed Urbancorp, the developer of the Lisgar site, to construct a building that does not comply with zoning regulations provided that it offers some kind of community benefit. The original letter of intent was signed in 2011, while the Section 37 was signed in 2012. TMAC was supposed to take over by May 3, but Urbancorp defaulted on its commitment. The city – and specifically Ward 18 Councilor Ana Bailao – opted not to extend the contract, and is yet to offer a reason for doing so.
There’s obviously a bit more to it than that (this is a good summary, as is this open letter), but the takeaway is that an arts organization that fulfilled its contract and operated in good faith is about to lose four years of work and funding based solely on the whims of one city councilor and a developer operating in bad faith. If TMAC does not take over the site, it will represent millions of dollars in sunk costs and years of wasted energy. The contracts that were signed in 2011 were designed to protect TMAC from just such a contingency, so the fact that this is all happening now is a damning indicator about the way the city of Toronto apparently does business.
That should give observers cause for concern. The groups in TMAC are non-profit arts organizations that receive much of their funding from public sources. That means taxpayers will be left holding the bill. If city councilors are willing to flagrantly waste public funds without considering pre-existing contracts, there is nothing to protect similar organizations during future negotiations with the city.
It should go without saying that that’s a problem, and it seems particularly ill advised given the importance of the arts in Toronto. Interactive media is a rapidly growing economic sector that Ontario has actively cultivated in recent years, whether through grants to independent game developers or tax incentives for larger companies like Ubisoft. The move to deny TMAC is a huge step backwards, undoing the work that has been done to make Toronto a burgeoning hub for digital media.
Arts organizations like Dames Making Games are an essential part of the intellectual culture that places Toronto at the forefront of creative industries. The presence of arts groups improves the quality of life for residents and professionals, adding to the vibrancy of the city and fostering a discourse that attracts other creative individuals. That leads to even more projects and ideas, which in turn boosts the economy in both tangible and intangible ways. If TMAC loses the Lisgar site it sets a bad precedent and sends the message that Toronto is not as friendly to artists as many people would like to believe, discouraging further cultural growth in the city.
That’s why it’s so important to show up to support TMAC. It’s an opportunity to let the city know that the citizens of Toronto will not tolerate duplicity from its government, and to send a message about the inherent value of the arts. If you believe that artistic communities are an essential part of a diverse cultural and economic landscape, this is your chance to make that position known.
So please show up tonight, or send a letter to let the city know that such behavior is unacceptable. The public consultation process has already played out. The people selected TMAC, and the organization is still ready to fulfill its end of the agreement. It’s a good organization with good people that deserve your support, and I know they’ll be able to use the proposed space to the fullest.