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FORUM (FALL 2017): Toronto — an artistic city

October 12th, 2017 · No Comments

Home to nearly 25,000 working artists

By Joe Cressy

Cities are more than bricks and mortar and places where people live. Great cities are vibrant and dynamic. And, great cities contribute to this by investing in arts and culture, not because they are a nice to have but because they make our cities livable.

Toronto, and downtown in particular, has a long and proud history as a cultural hub. The old cafés of Yorkville, the independent theatre movement, the musical corridor stretching down Spadina, film festivals large and small, and a literary sector that has woven tales of Toronto into our collective history. This proud history lives on.

Today 174,000 Torontonians work in the culture sector, including nearly 25,000 working artists who call Toronto home. As a side note, Ward 20 has the largest number of resident artists of any municipal ward in all of Canada. It’s a fact to be proud of. These artists build skills for the new economy, and bring tourists to our neighbourhoods and our local businesses. They give us joy, and they challenge us to think differently. To put it simply, arts and culture matter.

However, while Toronto may be a cultural city, as we continue to grow, the artistic sector is facing challenges. On the funding side the City of Toronto has made a commitment to fund arts and culture at a rate of $25 per capita. It’s a figure that looks good on paper, until you realize that in Montreal it is $55, in Vancouver $47, and in Calgary $42. If we aspire to continue as a world-class cultural city, we need to step up.

Like other successful North American cities, many of our downtown cultural organizations are also struggling under the weight of rising property values and the corresponding tax assessments. Bookstores just can’t compete on Bloor Street where rents as high as $20,000 per month make it easier to sell pints than novels. Music venues like the Silver Dollar on Spadina can’t compete when owners would make more selling to a condo developer than leasing to a historic venue. And everyone knows the example of 401 Richmond, arguably Toronto’s leading arts and cultural hub, which cannot afford to continue providing low market rents when the Province of Ontario assesses its tax rate on the basis of highest and best use — as a Gap and Starbucks — rather than its current use as a creative and community hub.

While I don’t think anyone could argue that you can take the arts out of Torontonians, if we don’t do more, we risk taking much of the arts out of the city. In our community we’ve been working hard with many leading art and cultural institutions to counteract these trends.

On Spadina Avenue, we’ve partnered with the soon-to-reopen El Mocambo on the Spadina Rock Walk, a new series of public art installations that will celebrate Spadina’s incredible musical history. From the Silver Dollar to the El Mo to Grossman’s, Spadina has long been home to a burgeoning music scene. We want to commemorate that history.

On Bloor Street, we’re working with the Bloor Street Cultural Corridor to promote this uniquely Toronto cultural district. With 19 partner organizations including French, Jewish, Italian, Estonian, Japanese, and Aboriginal arts and cultural institutions, this corridor reflects the diversity of city.

In King-Spadina we are working hard on a new policy to protect existing cultural organizations by mandating that any new development must incorporate existing cultural spaces into their projects. Our experience with the Silver Dollar, where we were able to mandate that the venue be fully rebuilt (including heritage attributes like the sign, stage, and bar) into the new development, shows that this is possible when you fight for it.

Perhaps most importantly, we’re also working hard to get the Province of Ontario to establish a new property tax sub-class in Toronto specifically for community and cultural hubs to ensure that we incentivize these organizations by taxing them based on their current use.

Taken together, these new measures will help to commemorate, support, and protect arts and culture in our city. Are they enough? Absolutely not.

At the end of the day investing in arts and culture builds a stronger economy and more livable city, and that requires the city to step up its funding.

But, it’s clear that culture lives in Toronto and, with a bit more work, will continue to thrive.

Joe Cressy is the councillor for Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina.



FORUM: Address affordable housing (June 2017)

FORUM: Build a neighbourhood (March 2017)

FORUM: Conserving past to enrich future (January 2017)

FORUM: Our dynamic Kensington Market (November 2016)

FORUM: A new central park for Toronto (September 2016)


Tags: Annex · Opinion