Art of survival increasingly difficult for Vancouver’s creative community

Rising rents, high property taxes, lack of space among challenges for local arts businesses

After almost 15 years in the same location, Lee Sanger is starting all over again.

Jude Kusnierz, meanwhile, is fighting to ensure she doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Rob Stewart finds himself on the exact opposite side of the spectrum and is killing it in a business that’s killed so many others.

They’re among many Vancouverites who find themselves fighting to operate arts-focused businesses in a city dogged by high rents and property taxes, dwindling land and an exodus of creative types to more affordable locales.

Sanger’s Arts Off Main moved from its location on Main Street and 28th Avenue in early March. The arts collective and consignment shop had about 400 square feet of space, and more than 13 years of stable rent at about $600 a month. A new landlord came in last summer, and that number jumped to $1,050.

That sticker shock was nowhere near as eye opening as when members of the collective surveyed the market for a new space.

“It was jaw dropping,” Sanger said. “We knew that rents were considerably higher than what we were paying, but we had no idea how big the gap was.”
Art Off Main has since moved to Charles Street, near Commercial Drive. About a dozen members of the art collective now occupy 500 square feet, and their rent has skyrocketed to $2,300.

“Members will pay a higher rent for sure,” Sanger said. “We’re hoping that in a new area we can attract fresh clientele. Some of us might be increasing prices nominally.”

Sanger’s group divides the rent equally and prides itself on being wholly independent — they don’t rely on outside financing, grant money or government subsidies. They keep all proceeds from the sale of their art and help pay the rent by selling other artists’ work through consignment.

Moving from an affordable and recognizable location off Main Street is a gamble, given the brand loyalty the collective had gained over 14 years.

“Our demographic was the neighbourhood,” Sanger said. “We’ve had people coming in and commiserating, telling us how much they’ll miss us being here, and that we’re a part of the community. They will try and make it over to the new location, we’re hoping. It is a big hope.”


Property tax woes

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A similar plight is playing out just down the street in Mount Pleasant, where Jude Kusnierz works as the executive director of the Beaumont Studios Artist Society.

About 80 artists lease space at the two Beaumont Studio locations on Yukon Street and Fifth Avenue (across from the Courier’s office). Kusnierz’s property taxes have jumped $30,000 in two years, while the assessed land value rose $2.9 million this year alone. Those costs are inevitably passed down to artists and rents are raised.

“We’re paying tomorrow’s prices today on our property taxes,” Kusnierz said. “We are opposed to the fact that we’re being taxed on the potential for our spaces and not what we’re actually using the spaces for. We’re not going to see that value, because we’re not going to be in business to see that value. By the time we could actually get to reap the benefits, we won’t be open anymore. It will be highrises.”

Beaumont encompasses two buildings. The first one was built in 2003, and a second building was added in 2015. The two buildings cover 18,000 square feet and have 43 artist rooms.

A 110-square-foot space at Beaumont that went for about $500 half a decade ago now rents for $700.

“There was a time when I didn’t pass along the increase from the city to the tenants,” she said.

Kusnierz says she’s been lobbying the city for change for at least five years. She’s recently double downed those efforts and aligned herself with other arts groups in the city. The big push is for a property tax exemption for those in the arts sector.

Creative strategy  

The city has heard those calls more and more in recent months. The Red Gate Arts Society loses its current location on East Hastings in May due to redevelopment pressures and society members are asking for the same thing.

Municipal staff are now looking at best practices in other cities across the globe: establishing legacy business distinctions to protect bars, restaurants and venues when new development moves into a nieghbourhood; hybrid models that combine non- and for-profit models to allow more flexibility for venues to receive outside funding and protections; and requiring developers to cover soundproofing costs, rather than venue owners.

While still in its infancy, the Creative City Strategy is an overarching look into the plight of the city’s arts and culture scene. The process wraps up with policy decisions next year.

“At this point in the Creative City Strategy it’s still very early in the engagement process but of course we are aware, and have been hearing through this early engagement, that artists are feeling the effects of affordability,” city spokesperson Lauren Stasila told the Courier via email.

New realities

Suna Studios is the outlier in Vancouver’s music scene. Far from suffering or facing closure, owner Rob Stewart is in the process of expanding his business across Vancouver and into New Westminster. Next month he’ll open the largest dedicated rehearsal space west of Toronto.

Located near Clark Drive and William Street, the Jamnasium will accommodate dozens of musicians and artists within 13,000 square feet. All in, Stewart will have four rehearsal studios between Vancouver and the Royal City that will house more than 1,000 musicians from across Metro Vancouver.

“In four years we’ve opened 84 rooms and we’ve just gone crazy trying to meet the demand,” he said. “If you look at it purely from a business perspective, the growth is great. But from the personal perspective of someone who enjoys the arts and the community that we have, it’s awful because the community is getting shattered apart with a hammer.”

A large part of Stewart’s current success comes from a past life. He worked in high-end commercial insurance in the years before entering the rehearsal space world and stayed in touch with those same contacts that help him today: developers, lawyers, architects, realtors and labourers.

He’s able to get in on the front end of real estate deals and secure long-term leases on industrial buildings nearing the end of their useful life. Stewart’s next deal sees Suna partnering with Port Living in a deal that will see about 20,000 square fee of dedicated artist space in an industrial tower to be built near the PNE.

Those are the new realities Stewart sees becoming the norm, as older industrial buildings typically used for arts and music spaces are becoming too costly.

“We have reached a turning point where the Jamnasium will most likely be the last of the relatively inexpensive real estate that we’re going to acquire in terms of warehouse buildings,” Stewart said. “There’s just nothing left that’s reasonable. It’s pretty much done and I don’t think the trend will ever be reversed.”

@JohnKurucz

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