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Report | Cultural Spaces in Practice: Re-thinking Policy & Imagining Future Uses

Report | Cultural Spaces in Practice: Re-thinking Policy & Imagining Future Uses

Prepared by the Cultural Policy Hub at OCAD University

A person in a cultural costume

On March 5, 2024, the Cultural Policy Hub at OCAD University hosted a virtual roundtable, Cultural Spaces in Practice: Re-thinking Policy & Imagining Future Uses where cultural sector leaders came together to share insights around the current challenges and future possibilities for cultural spaces in their specific context. The panelists were: Terri-Lynn Brennan of Inclusive Voices (Ottawa), JP Longboat of Circadia Indigena (Algonquin territory), Julie Whitenect of ArtsLinkNB (New Brunswick), Mélanie Courtois and Julie Favreau ofLaboratoire dinnovation pour les espaces de création(Montréal), and Brian McBay of 221A (Vancouver). Here you can find the event details and the recording. The scene setter that framed our discussions is also available as an introductory piece on cultural spaces in policy and practice.

In this report, we explore how the Hub and its partners can pursue areas of further exploration that meaningfully shift how we designate, envision, and sustain cultural spaces in the face of major precarity challenges putting the cultural landscape at risk.


The Challenge at Hand

Cultural spaces are often seen as physical places where people gather to present and experience cultural activities, such as music, dance and visual arts. They serve as places of joy, belonging, collaboration and cross-cultural exchange, bringing together people from different backgrounds, experiences and identities. Art galleries, studios, community centres, music venues, cinemas and other culturally significant places exist throughout rural, suburban and urban communities across Canada. As sites where culture is shared, these places often act as "third” spaces for people to gather outside of the home (“first” space) and workplace (“second space). But over the past four years, and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lines between traditional and less formally recognized spaces have been blurred, leading to the disappearance of many third spaces despite their social, economic and cultural importance.

Recent examples of precarity and loss of cultural spaces in Canada include:

  • In 2021, around 50 artists were evicted from their studio spaces at 888 Dupont—a century-old landmark building in Toronto with exceptionally affordable rent—to make way for a condo;
  • In 2023, the Network of Independent Canadian Exhibitors (NICE) called for emergency support to preserve many beloved independent cinemas across Canada;
  • In early 2024, Artscape, Canada’s largest non-profit artist space provider, fell into receivership after over 30 years due to “unsustainable” Partners across the cultural sector had to come together to find solutions, providing fundraising and operational restructuring support for 10 of Artscape’s 14 cultural hubs;
  • In March of 2024, Hills Strategies released key findings from a survey on cultural venues in New Brunswick, which highlighted the lack of sustainable funding and revenue as an area of major concern;
  • Also in March of 2024, the Canadian Live Music Association released an urgent call to action for federal budget support for endangered music venues and festivals. The 2024 Budget included $31 million over two years to support festivals and performing arts presenters through the Canada Arts Presentation Fund and confirmed the continuation of support to the Canada Music Fund. However, other funds that support cultural spaces like the Canada Cultural Investment Fund and the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund will be reduced over the next few years.

In addition to precarity and loss of cultural spaces, the arts and creative industries across Canada are experiencing pressures that are not unique to the sector: the climate crisis and the need to rethink how the built environment must change; decreases in audiences at arts and cultural events in many communities; and closures, rising costs and affordability pressures around the renovation and construction of spaces. These pressures impact the affordability, availability and condition of cultural spaces and demand an immediate policy response.

Additionally, in the Canadian cultural policy context, Western-based cultural professional practices—and the specialized spaces in which they take place—have been the main focus of government support, which has led to the exclusion and under-representation of many diverse cultural practices and spaces. The definitions of “cultural space” and “cultural heritage” in Canadian policy, particularly at the federal level, tend to reflect colonial structures and traditions. Cultural policy frameworks and cultural spaces grant programs often fail to recognize artistic and cultural practices outside of a Western European professional tradition. In response, artists and cultural workers are sounding the alarm, calling for more investment in (and access to) spaces that reflect an array of needs and diverse artistic and cultural expressions. This includes calling for support for spaces where community members from various Indigenous and ethno-culturally diverse communities gather to present and experience both tangible and intangible cultural practices.

Many policymakers and funders have acknowledged these challenges and the need to address this foundational question around the colonial origins and definitions used in cultural spaces policy, which require both innovative approaches and robust policy support at all levels of government. Policy frameworks such as Canadian Heritage’s Creative Canada and the City of Calgary’s Cultural Plan outline the need for investment in the next generation of cultural spaces and resources. Given this, the cultural sector needs new approaches to ensure funding systems, private sector incentives and other policy mechanisms are responsive to the current moment and the urgent challenges it poses.


(Re)thinking Cultural Spaces

How can cultural policy best support cultural spaces? What tools and changes are needed for cultural spaces to be defined, designed, designated and safeguarded in ways that are reflective of and responsive to the needs of creators and communities?

During the recent Cultural Spaces in Practice roundtable hosted by the Hub, the panelists explored these questions. They emphasized that many places are overlooked as cultural spaces despite being sites of celebration, artistic expression, cultural exchange and tradition. These forms of intangible culture can be found in multipurpose buildings like community centers or libraries, which bring significant cultural value to communities. The same can be said about culturally significant districts like Chinatowns or Little Indias. Banquet halls, places commonly used for cultural ceremonies and celebrations like weddings in many newcomer and immigrant communities, are another example of cultural spaces in practice that warrant better recognition and protection through planning, policy and zoning. These spaces have intrinsic value as places where people find a sense of cultural connectedness and belonging.

The Hub’s roundtable featured two Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) cultural practitioners from the Indigenous Creative Spaces Project and creators of the Paddling Upstream report, Dr. Terri-Lynn Brennan and JP Longboat. In the report, which emerged from a years-long partnership with ArtsBuild Ontario, they highlight the challenge at hand: Without multiple safe, brave, and welcoming spaces, tied to a sense of being on the land, Indigenous artists and external communities are at risk of never feeling a sense of place in any colonially designed venue.”[i] In the report, the authors explore the many facets of Indigenous creative spaces. These spaces are physical structures or spiritual spaces without physical form that demonstrate cultural understanding, pride in cultural identity or tell stories with cultural markers.

The report further emphasizes the necessity for western policymakers to evolve systems to accept and embrace Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, particularly over Indigenous cultural spaces. For policymakers, this includes respecting Indigenous knowledge systems, self-determined processes, cultural expression and landscape, as well as actively repairing relationships with Indigenous peoples.[ii] If governments seek to advance the goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s and build reciprocal relationships with Indigenous peoples, policymakers need to embrace Indigenous ways of knowing and convening and be willing to be led and guided by them.

According to Brennan and Longboat, the first step is acknowledging the truth of Indigenous histories, as truth is especially critical to support pathways towards reconciliation and Indigenous Self-Determination. Non-Indigenous peoples must foster reciprocal relationships with Indigenous peoples alongside relationships with our surrounding environments to inform a renewed, healthy and collaborative cultural ecology. Additionally, governments need to accept Indigenous communities’ cultural heritage and identifications of cultural spaces. As stated in the report, to advance Indigenous self-determination, “all organizations based on Western knowledge systems must evolve to honour the equal legitimacy of Indigenous thinking, planning, and doing while accepting Indigenous leadership in all matters involving Indigenous initiatives.”[iii]


Intangible Cultural Spaces in Policy

Many cultural spaces, including those significant to Indigenous and diverse communities, fall outside conventional policy frameworks. These spaces are often ineligible for accompanying protections, funding opportunities, benefits, tax advantages and other incentives. While some policy tools across municipal, provincial and federal frameworks support traditional spaces, they don't fully encapsulate the breadth of spaces where people engage with their culture. The roundtable underscored that the existing system is too rigid and does not align with communities’ experiences of culture. Overall, the dialogue pointed to the need to develop definitions that more clearly reflect diverse artistic and cultural practices.

One definition in policy, Article 2(1) of the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, has explored this breadth by associating cultural spaces with the components of intangible cultural heritage— essentially, as any space where “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills... that communities, groups, and, in some cases, individuals recognize [as] part of their cultural heritage.”[iv] In this vein, roundtable panelists shared the sentiment that definitions and policy adjustments around cultural heritage should be decided “by and for” communities. They pointed to the need for policymakers to consider redefining what is recognized as a cultural space in a Canadian context to include cultural heritage assets identified by the communities who create, maintain and transmit culture.

UNESCO states that cultural heritage does not stop at monuments and collection of objects, but rather includes “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and transmitted to our descendants.”[v] This scope recognizes intangible cultural heritage, including Indigenous cultural practices and knowledge systems that are passed down, as something to be safeguarded within cultural policy. As pointed out during the roundtable, prioritizing a responsive, relationships-centered approach in cultural policy decision-making would demonstrate the immense value that intangible cultural heritage and cultural spaces bring to communities.

Re-thinking policy to align with community relationships and place-based understandings of culture could better represent and safeguard the intangible cultural heritage and associated spaces of different communities across Canada. This approach would benefit from policy tools and solutions that ensure the viability, continuity and transmission of intangible cultural heritage from generation to generation. In practice, this might start with funding programs like Canadian Heritage’s Canada Cultural Spaces Fund widening their cultural space definition, expressing flexibility within application requirements while indicating openness to funding pilots or experiments for using space in innovative ways and offering incentives for alternative ownership or usage agreements.


Space Stewardship Models & Cross-Sectoral Collaboration

The roundtable emphasized the importance of building reciprocal relations and acknowledging the interconnectedness of non-profit (typically community-driven) and for-profit (capital-driven) models. The discussion turned to utilizing innovative community-led models like community land trusts, stressing the need for community capacity building and additional funding for essential community-led work.

Community members across the country have been working on constructive solutions, such as Community Land Trusts (CLTs), to protect the cultural and economic diversity of their respective neighborhoods. CLTs are typically community-led non-profit corporations that acquire, steward and hold land on which housing, cultural space or other assets are built. Their ultimate goals are perpetual affordability and community benefit. In 2017, the Kensington Market Community Land Trust (KMCLT) emerged as a community response to several residents and ‘ma and pa’ shops being gradually displaced from Toronto’s culturally-significant Kensington Market neighborhood. In December 2022, 221A published a case for support for regenerative investment in Vancouver’s cultural sector, noting that over 400 artist production spaces, art galleries, and music and performance arts venues had been closing rapidly. In their case for support, 221A proposed the creation of a cultural land trust in response to the pressing needs as a collective model for artists—especially low income, disabled, LGBTQ2IA+ and BIPOC—to open pathways to sustainable stewardship of cultural spaces, rent stability and community wealth.” [vi]

The panelists highlighted that community voices are too often excluded from the policy-making forums that shape their living, working and gathering spaces. Last year, Toronto-based community-led non-profit Community and Cultural Space Trust (CCST) emerged to manage and hold $2 million in trust for the dedication of community and cultural space. The CCST was only made possible because of grassroots organizing efforts by the Build a Better Bloor Dufferin Initiative (BBBD) as part of a negotiation with the City and developers for the sale and redevelopment of a former school on 7.3 acres of public land. BBBD also saw the dedication of funds to a $15-million affordable housing land trust, a 59-unit affordable housing building, a public park, as well as an over 35,000 sq ft community hub to be conveyed to the City.

While this agreement for community benefits was seen as a major community success, the developers of the site recently proposed an over 2,800 sq ft ‘minor variance’ reduction of community hub space—the size of a 200-seat auditorium—which would be a significant loss to the community. For policymakers to fulfill their due diligence and ensure better practice, they must recruit a diverse array of community members to participate in the decision-making processes. The inclusion of multiple seats at the table for community members ensures policy responses are informed by the genuine needs and experiences of those affected.

Additionally, the dialogue pointed to the need to borrow policy approaches from other sectors and jurisdictions that have been effective in bringing about change. For example, policies in the City of Vancouver’s Community Benefits from Development Plan outline programs paid for by property developers in Vancouver to fund benefits like social housing units, childcare spaces, parks and park amenities and could be used to fund cultural spaces. Policy program approaches such as this community benefits framework could be adapted to a specific regional program to meet community needs for cultural spaces across Canada.

The very organizations who work to steward and secure spaces for public good need sustained financial support from the private and public sectors, innovative approaches and relationship-centered partnerships. During the roundtable dialogue, it was noted that many community-led organizations and land trusts require operational and capacity-building funding to continue the work they do for communities and the cultural sector at large. Stress and burnout among artists and cultural workers have been reported as major obstacles that point to this need for capacity supports. As we see with the proposed reduction in community hub space, even formal agreements can be precarious and place capacity challenges onto community. The proposed amendment to the original settlement agreement for community benefits is evidence that, even within new developments, communities need government and robust policy support on their side to ensure the security of cultural spaces.

Making space for community-led decision making in policy development is key to fostering effective collaborations among government bodies, the private sector, Indigenous communities and equity-deserving communities. As 221A founder Brian McBay put it, “Can funders and policymakers [adopt the role of] the 'grandparent,' and support the sustainable purchase of lands, build in asset locks, so they are for the public good and support Indigenous sovereignty?”


Areas of Exploration

The following exploration areas draw from and expand on perspectives shared during the Hub’s roundtable. While specific priorities and policy mechanisms should be tailored to consider the scale, applications and impact of different legislative and organizational contexts, the following general areas of further exploration could contribute to shifts in the cultural sector:

  1. Rethinking Policy Frameworks to Embrace Indigenous Knowledge Systems: Current policy frameworks fail to reflect the experiences and needs of Indigenous communities. Policymakers must look beyond colonial policy mechanisms to genuinely engage with Indigenous peoples. As outlined in the Paddling Upstream report, this approach should accept a separate Indigenous self-determined system existing parallel to Western systems, respect Indigenous rights over cultural spaces and lands, acknowledge the intrinsic value of Indigenous knowledge systems and cultural practices and prioritize building reciprocal relationships.
  2. Expanding Definitions of and Supports for Cultural Spaces: Many of the current criteria for defining and designating cultural spaces are narrow, overlooking many spaces of significant cultural value. To ensure better alignment between community needs and government cultural objectives, policymakers need to broaden their understanding of what constitutes a cultural space to include community-identified and non-traditional places. This is particularly true in rural and remote regions where the costs and availability of spaces mean that cultural activity often takes place in a community centre, library or other space. support mechanisms and infrastructural funds at the municipal, provincial and federal levels to reflect a nuanced understanding of these spaces and the communities creating them is crucial for nurturing a diverse cultural ecology. It is worth considering taking inspiration from the global conversation on an integrated approach to safeguarding tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Many policymakers are taking this approach, such as the cultural plan like that of the City of Calgary, which outlines several adaptable frameworks and best practices. These include definitions of the many dimensions of culture, cultural mapping and creative industries assessments as well as benchmarking models and comparative case studies.
  3. Take a Systems View to Address Capacity and Precarity Challenges: The many pressures on cultural spaces, while not unique to the sector, require collaborative, systems-level change and policy tools. It also requires those who work in and benefit from cultural spaces to work with policymakers and organizations that set policy for large infrastructure tools and funds. For example, at the federal level, workers and policymakers in culture could build stronger relationships with Infrastructure Canada to influence the inclusion and eligibility of cultural infrastructure investment in federal infrastructure tools. The same is true in provinces in territories, where relationships can be further strengthened with departments and agencies responsible for setting priorities and allocating funding received from federal infrastructure funds. This is also true at the local level. Many municipalities are integrating their cultural spaces planning within the broader city planning process, with some promising results. Finally, the public and private sector should develop wraparound supports to bolster the operational capacities of cultural organizations, ensuring they can adapt to and meet the needs of the communities they serve. This includes securing dedicated funding and offering training and resources for resilience in the face of economic pressures.
  4. Explore Space Stewardship Models & Policy Tools for Cultural Spaces: Policymakers should explore innovative space stewardship models, such as cultural community land trusts and community benefit programs to work alongside one another. Community land trusts offer practical pathways for managing, preserving and sustaining cultural spaces in ways that reflect community needs and resist market pressures, ensuring the long-term safeguarding of cultural expression and heritage. Existing policy tools and community benefit programs like the City of Vancouver’s Community Amenity Contributions (CACs), Development Cost Levies (DCLs), and Density Bonusing (DB) can help ensure cultural spaces are integrated into new developments. Additionally, the public and private sector should apply lessons learned from the National Trust for Canada’s explorations during their 2023 Transforming Heritage Conference and participate in the continued exploration of connecting places, cultures and practices in the upcoming 2024 Building Bridges Conference.


Next steps

The Cultural Spaces roundtable was the first of a series of roundtable conversations on cultural spaces organized by the Cultural Policy Hub at OCAD U and its partners. A second conversation in this series of dialogues will take place in the Fall of 2024, which will be followed by a report on possible policy directions. The Hub is interested in working with cultural sector leaders—arts workers, researchers, funders and policymakers at the municipal, provincial, and federal level—on innovative policy approaches to the challenges of cultural space.

Interested in this discussion on cultural spaces or learning more about the Hub? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter, follow us on LinkedIn or reach out to us.