Why Artists Make Better Landlords: An Interview with Akin Collective’s Oliver Pauk and Michael Vickers

by Rea McNamara on June 20, 2016 Interview + Toronto

From left, artists Michael Vickers and Oliver Pauk, pictured in Akin Collective's Lansdowne Studios. (Credit: Akin Collective)

From left, artists Michael Vickers and Oliver Pauk, pictured in Akin Collective’s Lansdowne Studios. (Credit: Akin Collective)

The belief that artists are too independent or focused on their career to self-organize needs to die. Artists have the capacity to be both generous and great.

Take, for example, the affordable housing movement, and the artists dispelling the traditional artist-as-gentrifier-enabler role. Theaster Gates transformed vacant and abandoned buildings in his neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side by establishing a foundation, and then partnering with the city and developers to rehab a public housing complex into mixed-income housing. In Houston, Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses covers six blocks in the Third Ward, providing affordable housing for low-income tenants. Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice not only brings contemporary art programming to Los Angeles’s Leimert Park, but also provides social services for youth in the city’s foster care system. Artists have the potential to readdress urban displacement and ensure affordable space still exists for art by pulling up their sleeves and playing a bigger entrepreneurial role in real estate development.

In Toronto, emerging artists Oliver Pauk and Michael Vickers have managed to pursue commercial gallery careers, while at the same time running Akin Collective, one of the largest providers of affordable art studio space in Toronto’s west end. Co-founded eight years ago by Pauk and custom furniture designer Michael Dellios, the organization runs 20,000 square feet of studio space in Parkdale, Bloordale and the Lower Junction. All three of these neighborhoods have been marked as “up-and-coming” in part due to the presence of artists and arts spaces, which is both good and bad. Even though the Lower Junction is the city’s newest gallery district, the former Queen’s Hotel, a long-term low-income rooming house in Parkdale, was recently rebranded as the Roncey Hotel, an artist studio and events space. Turns out residents were forcibly evicted by the developer in order to make room for “art-making”.

“[It’s] terrible, and a perfect example of going about things the wrong way, which unfortunately so often seems to be the case in Toronto,” says Pauk and Vickers via email. Undeniably, there is a pattern of gentrification — artists get studios in an undesirable part of the city, they start living there, then the area becomes attractive, the area becomes too attractive, and then the artists have to leave. We’re constantly aware of how fast things change, and how we might help in pricing ourselves out of an area.

For many years, the city’s main provider of affordable workspaces for artists was Artscape.  Launched in 1986, the non-profit has steadily transformed old, abandoned buildings in the city — like Wychwood Barns or Youngplace — into “cultural hubs” that offer affordable live/work spaces to artists and community-engaged arts organizations. But if you’re an emerging artist or arts organization, good luck becoming a tenant. Waiting lists are long, and it’s generally viewed in the community that priority is given to mid-career and established artists. Further, the organization recently came under fire for Wychwood Barns’ rising rents, excessive noise and even public-health problems.

Akin Collective's Lansdowne Studio, located in Toronto's Bloordale neighborhood. (Credit: Akin Collective)

Akin Collective’s Lansdowne Studio, located in Toronto’s Bloordale neighborhood. (Credit: Akin Collective)

“We are now the largest provider of art studio space in Toronto other than Artscape,” confirms the duo. “Our demographic is quite different from theirs, however, as we cater mainly to emerging artists and focus on keeping things accessible to everyone.” Spaces start for as low as $60 a month, and of the over 160 artists they serve, membership ranges from 20-something artists straight out of art school to even 70 year olds. “Some members practice art as a hobby, but more and more we’re seeing our members getting to the point where they fully support themselves financially from the work that they do at Akin’s studios.”

And the spaces are well-maintained, which is a big deal for artists who have contended with their share of absent-minded landlords who take eons to fix a leaking roof. I personally know a number of artists who are Akin tenants, and when I’ve visited the Dufferin or even Lansdowne studios, I’m struck by how clean the common areas are. (Vickers, in fact, first became involved with Akin by helping out with the studio maintenance in exchange for studio space.) All the studios meet Toronto commercial building code standards, and even had the help of a certified interior designer to ensure their spaces function.

But most exciting about Akin is the professional and creative development opportunities it provides through its programming, which has cultivated a strong sense of community among its tenants. This is in large part due to Pauk and Vickers taking professional opportunities thrown their way and involving Akin’s tenants. When I worked as an assistant curator at the Drake Hotel, for instance, I ran a street-side storefront residency program in one of their nearby commercial spaces, and invited the artists to take over the space for two weeks. In turn, they invited twelve of their past and present Akin Collective members to create a site-specific work. Each day, a different artist came in to contribute, and actively demonstrated what it means to have a shared working space. It was one of my favourite projects, and I went on to curate some of the artists I met through that residency, like Melissa Fisher and Diana Lynn VanderMeulen.

Originally just monthly art crits and open studios, Akin now organizes widely-attended special collection tours, gallery hops and even workshops on artist taxes or screenprinting. “All of our programming is free or low cost and open to anybody,” says the artists. “We’ll often get 150 people out for a grant writing workshop we put on at City Hall — [there’s] nothing else offered like that in the city.” On top of that, Akin pay Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC) fees, a minimum fee schedule for visual artists that are typically only met by institutions.

Documentation from Akin Collective's recent gallery hop of the Lower Junction's gallery district, which visited galleries like Cooper Cole. (Credit: Akin Collective)

Documentation from Akin Collective’s recent gallery hop of the Lower Junction’s gallery district, which visited galleries like Cooper Cole. (Credit: Akin Collective)

The programming has reached such a scale that in 2015, Akin launched Akin Projects, a registered non-profit now overseeing its community programming which served over 3,000 individuals that year. This programming is increasingly happening in collaboration with other organizations, including workshops with patients at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), a residency at Soho House, and an art auction with Ronald McDonald House.

“The Artist Health Alliance (at Toronto Western Hospital) offers significantly reduced-cost medical services for artists, but that doesn’t matter unless artists know about it — so we can help with that,” says Pauk and Vickers. “MoCCA is moving into a new neighbourhood and would like to visit the new galleries in the area with its staff and supporters — we can help with that too.”

Akin doesn’t own the buildings it runs, so the organization itself has to stay ahead of the gentrification process. Currently, the building where their Dufferin studios are located is owned by a developer with plans to build three condo towers on the site.

“We realize that at any point we could receive our six-month notice of eviction,” says Pauk and Vickers. “As a result, we are constantly on the lookout for other buildings and areas that we could relocate to when the time comes.” In the past ten years, many galleries have moved from Queen West to Dundas West and now to Dupont Street between Dufferin and Symington (the Lower Junction) due to displacement. As a result, some gallerists, like Erin Stump, have purchased property. Pauk and Vickers sees this as an encouraging sign.

“This is certainly a fortunate situation and a strategy that can be used for other types of arts organizations to secure their homes in Toronto,” they say. “It can only be achieved though when artists have the [financial and advocacy] support of their local government and surrounding community. We need more of that.”

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