Winnipeg is known across Canada as being an ideal place for artists to hone their practice.
Although there are many reasons for artists to thrive in the city, the reality is that artists need to pay for adequate space to live and make their work.
Paying rent for two spaces is actually possible in Winnipeg. According to data collected by rentseeker.ca in 2019, the city doesn’t even crack the top 10 Canadian cities where it’s most expensive to rent.
Photographic artist Diana Thorneycroft creates much of her work in her astonishingly large downtown studio. She’s been renting her space for 26 years, and the rent has increased at regular inflation rates. Thorneycroft is painfully aware that her situation, even for Winnipeg standards, is unique.
“I am so lucky. People from out of town come here and see this space, and they can’t believe it,” she says. “I had a friend who lived in New York and had a studio, but he had to work three part-time jobs so he could afford it. But because he had to work three jobs, he couldn’t even get to his studio to make work.
“Many artists pay as much as I do and have to share their production space, and sharing can be tough. If you don't have clear boundaries, it can be really messy.”
In spite of the advantages Winnipeg boasts over other large Canadian cities, resources to assist visual artists in finding personal space to create work oper- ate at a somewhat limited capacity.
Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC) is a non-profit organization with a man- date “to promote the visual arts in Can- ada, to promote a socio-economic cli- mate that is conducive to the production of visual arts in Canada and to conduct research and engage in public education for these purposes.”
CARFAC Manitoba operates for eight hours weekly, with not enough time or resources to assist the long list of artists in need of help finding space. Administra- tive co-ordinator Genevieve Farrell hopes that, in the future, this will change.
“We want to create a stronger presence,” she says. “Looking forward, we’re interested in offering legal workshops, as well as partnering with other arts orga- nizations to build awareness of CARFAC in Manitoba.”
The Manitoba chapter manages 11 studio spaces on the sixth floor of the Artspace building in the Exchange Dis- trict, which is home to 22 of the city’s arts organizations.
The building is one of the few physi- cally accessible art spaces in the city, and the rent for the spaces themselves come at an attractive price: $1 per square foot.
“We charge enough to cover our rent in the building, and artists are encour- aged to pay more if they can, but it’s not mandatory,” Farrell says.
“We get people emailing us regularly, asking where to find affordable studio space in the city, especially if they’re from outside of the city. We have a wait- ing list of people trying to get in here.”
The CARFAC studios are at capacity, with every suite occupied. There are cur- rently two people on the waiting list for CARFAC spaces.
“It seems that (in Winnipeg) you really need to know people to find space to make art,” Farrell says.
Farrell is astute in her observation. The reality for many artists looking for space in Winnipeg is that people get grandfa- thered into their respective buildings.
Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji.ca might be the local go-to buy-and-sell platforms for residential and commercial real estate, but at press time for this arti- cle, search results for artist studios turn up only three listings.
Painter Laura Darnbrough doubles down on this sentiment.
“It really is all word of mouth. You have to have connections. When I first started looking for a place to work, (a friend of mine) was luckily looking for a fifth studio mate to join their space,” Darnbrough says.
“I’ve had a couple of people ask me: ‘How did you get this space?’ (and) ‘How do I get into a place like this?’ There’s no advertising. There’s nothing. It sucks.”
In light of the CARFAC studio’s limited physical capacity, Farrell has made attempts to touch base with other studio building landlords in the Exchange District, without much avail.
“I’ve been given their contact infor- mation to make connections with those buildings, but no one answers my emails or calls.”
Artist Elise Dawson was on the CARFAC waiting list for three months before she got the call that a space had been made available for her. She had previ- ously been renting a studio in the Frame Arts Warehouse on Ross Avenue, before she and dozens of other artists were renovicted.
Frame has since been demolished and turned into condos, speaking to another aspect to consider in the race to find stu- dio space: gentrification.
“I didn’t have a space for a couple of years after that. (Before Frame) and during art school, I had a space in the Exchange that I split between four other people, and it cost us $50 each to rent the space. By the time I made my exit from that space, rent had increased to $200 each,” Dawson says.
Locking down a physical location for artists to create work is one thing, but physical accessibility is another factor to consider.
Artists with physical disabilities face a particular challenge when accessing space: stairs. With so many of Win- nipeg’s studios being within heritage buildings, very few of them have the advantage of a working elevator or ramps for street-level access.
Darnbrough photographs the people who appear in her paintings in her downtown studio. Her space is at the top of seven long flights of stairs, which limits her subjects to able-bodied people who can make the trek.
“We do have an elevator here in the building ... but it’s not operating,” she says.
When Darnbrough’s studio was built in 1883, the building’s electricity was running on a direct current. When the rest of the structure’s electricity was con- verted to run on a modern alternating current system in later years, the elevator was left unchanged.
Multidisciplinary artist melannie monoceros moved to Winnipeg from Toronto in 2018 and has since set up workspaces throughout their Elmwood home. monoceros is chronically ill and disabled, and working from home allows them the freedom to develop their art practice in a way that works for them.
“It feels pretty essential for me to be able to work from home,” they say.
“I was renting a studio for about a year in Toronto. Accessible studio spaces didn’t really seem to exist ... Sometimes our freight elevator worked, but for months at a time, it wouldn’t, and so I’d still have to navigate stairs to bring work up to my space.”
They recall that being an artist while living in Toronto meant taking matters into their own hands.
“I found it really hard to have to leave my house to do the work I needed to do,” monoceros says. “My last year in Toronto, I actually built a shed on my deck and made it into a little studio. It was super small, maybe (seven feet by seven feet), but I made it work.”
Finding a two-in-one deal in Winnipeg, where they could both live and work was possible, but not without a dreaded set of stairs.
“It’s hard to find a place without them. I still have to do more stairs than I want to, but I can navigate it a lot easier because it’s in my own house,” they say.
A major benefit of having immediate access to their workspace is that monoc- eros is able to make their work sched- ule up according to their capacity and energy levels on any given day.
“If I’m up at two in the morning, which is a thing that happens sometimes, I'm like ‘oh, I have an hour of capacity, so I’m going to work on something.’ I can thread my loom or whatever. Being able to do that without having to put on shoes or go outside is a big help.”
Dawson shares her CARFAC-managed studio space with friend and painter Kieran Valde.
“Being here, I can play and experiment with painting, and it allows me space to get perspective on the work by standing back, away from the work,” Dawson says. “It’s important to have a physical space for me to move around.”
“It’s also important that we’re in a building with so many other artists and arts organizations. It’s really cool to just have that, to see everyone face to face. (Being here) really helps cement those relationships within the community.”
“I’ve had times in my life where I haven’t been able to have space. Either I couldn’t afford it or had been in a life period where I just couldn’t have it. I’m not as productive then. You don’t have ‘a room of one's own.’ It’s so important to have a space even just to think and reflect and carve out into your schedule.”
Valde works primarily with oil paint, a medium known for both its fluidity and toxicity.
“I used to sleep next to my paintings. I got very sick once, actually,” Valde says. “Having a space that’s safe to paint in is very important for my health, so I’m able to keep making oil paintings. Having that space away from home and being able to leave the work and keep it separate ... the time away is really important.”
Like Valde, Darnbrough works with oil paint and cops to the dangers of work- ing with oil in an enclosed space.
“Honestly, I should have some sort of ventilation in here. When I paint, I put a fan by our window, but some- times I get headaches. It’s part of being a painter. It kind of sucks.”
Thorneycroft says of her production space that, “because (in my photo- graphic work) I work in total darkness, this room is light-tight.”
Thorneycroft says the size of space is very conducive to making work. “As you can see, I have to have things out. If I pack things away, I forget that I have them ... It’s because the space is big enough, and everything is visually accessible. I just get into a frenzy.”
“When I was working on my new short film, (my director of photography) would ask if I had a certain kind of glue or tool, and the space was really func- tioning like a production warehouse. I could find everything.”
Amid the struggle to find the right environment to create their art, art- ists in Winnipeg are doing an incred- ible thing: making it work. The city’s art scene is renowned for many rea- sons, but the supportive strength and vibrancy of the community is what makes this humble prairie hub particularly special.
“A couple of years ago, I was apply- ing for some kind of competition, and I thought about an artist friend in New York whose work would be appropriate for the same call for submission, so I told her about it,” Thorneycroft says.
“Her response was pretty interesting. She said that in New York, it’s so com- petitive that no one shares that kind of information.
“Overall, I believe Winnipeg art- ists are both supportive and generous towards each other.”
Published in Volume 74, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 12, 2020)