How small-town cultural hubs are creating a sense of community away from big urban centres

From Sydney, N.S. to Jasper, Alta, a cross-Canada look at big things happening in small places.

From Sydney, N.S. to Jasper, Alta, a cross-Canada look at big things happening in small places

Jasper Community Habitat for the Arts is located inside The Jasper Library and Cultural Centre. (Marianne Garrah/David Baker )

Growing up in Birtle, Man., a town of fewer than 1,000 people, David Baker felt lucky to have a high school teacher who taught a course in visual storytelling, ultimately giving him an outlet to explore his creativity.

"I was a video geek in high school," Baker says. "In a town, if you're not an extreme mountain biker, cross-country [or] downhill skier, or outdoors dude, [then] maybe you have an interest in theatre, maybe you want to make films."

Baker draws on this early life experience in his current role as director for the Jasper Community Habitat for the Arts, an organization that exists to provide creative facilities in the alpine Albertan town of 5,000 people. These include a pottery studio, a multi-purpose room used for performance and film screenings, a media lab and a sound recording studio. It's all available for the public to rent by the month, week or day.

Infrastructure for arts and culture, Baker says, "is something that exists for kids here now [who] maybe aren't the super jocks ... it gives kids an alternative avenue of something to do if you aren't one of those [other athletic] things." 

Inside the Jasper Community Habitat for the Arts. (Marianne Garrah/David Baker)

Habitat for the Arts, the brainchild of a Baker and his partner Marianne Garrah, is a cultural hub and part of the trend in community spaces and studios for fine art practice, exhibition and performance in buildings where you may not expect to find them. Habitat for the Arts leases space in the recently expanded Jasper Library and Cultural Centre, which also houses the Jasper Artists Guild and municipal council chambers. It's a prime example of how a new or regenerated building can transform into a cultural hub, offering a fresh type of space to arts and culture organizations that may not otherwise have access to it.

Acknowledging there is no set description for what a cultural hub or district is, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage published a report in the fall of 2018 defining hubs as "conceived and designed to encourage collaboration, innovation and productivity… [and include] shared space, technology and other resources; opportunities to develop collaboration and to exchange ideas; and public access and programming [across disciplines]." 

The report includes a number of recommendations by the committee for how the government can direct support to cultural organizations in rural areas and small towns that often rely on donations, various levels of government funding and property tax exemptions.   

However, cultural hubs are not all government supported; the emergence of these types of spaces in smaller urban centres is also the result of a need expressed by artists and creative people for spaces to practice and engage among themselves and with their local community.

In Peterborough, Ont., in a former commerce building at Hunter St. and Water St., a number of neighbouring downtown artists' studios open to the public on the first Friday of each month for a public art crawl. 

Café Molos. (Café Molo)

Many of these studio spaces have been occupied by artists for decades, withstanding pressures to develop the building.

In Wakefield, Que., the owners of Café Molos were motivated to transform their circa-1880 structure into a multi-purpose cultural hub after hearing about local creatives commuting to Ottawa just to access work space with Wi-Fi. The building, which faces the Gatineau River, now includes a shared writers room (called The Beehive) that members of the public can rent; an open studio used for yoga, pilates, meetings and photography; a tattoo shop; and a second-hand store. 

"Originally we thought we'd rent it to a small company that had four or five employees, but it was at the height when these types of spaces were becoming really popular," co-owner Diane Morey explains. "One of our partners who lives in the city suggested it and it just seemed like a good go between instead of having a permanent tenant."

Keeping true to the "countryish" feel of the place, the owners of The Beehive have installed a little loft bed on the way up to the writing room for weary writers that may have travelled far to Wakefield to use the space. The purpose is not just decorative, Morey says it's there "in case you want to nap in your day." 

At the same time, cultural spaces supported by government funding are not necessarily used as cultural hubs. In Orillia, Ont., cultural hubs were the subject of a recent public opinion town hall regarding the local Orillia Opera House. General manager Wendy Fairbairn says they are maxed out of availability for rental for the arts and the building itself doesn't accommodate other uses. 

"I can run a visual arts class here very easily," Fairbarn says, "but when you put welding and sculpting and that kind of messy art creation, I can't really do it at our space just for safety reasons." 

New Dawn Studios in Sydney, Nova Scotia. (Savannah Anderson.)

Apart from the common attribute of shared artist and community space that make cultural hubs what they are, each facility also tends to have its own mini-culture that articulates something about the underlying values. For Alison Uhma, an illustrator in Sydney, N.S., who shares her section of studio space in a former girls school with her husband, it's things such as multi-gendered washrooms that make her appreciate how the space has been conceptualized. 

"When it comes to gender and bathrooms and stuff like that, I know it seems like a small thing, but it kind of [represents] inclusivity," says Uhma, a mother of two teenagers who has used the space to build and develop her practice outside of her home. "It's a reimagining of space that, as an artist, I'm so thankful for."

New Dawn Enterprises, a social services organization in Cape Breton, N.S., actually expanded what they do in order to serve artists after purchasing and repurposing a former convent and the high school where Uhma works in 2013.

"When the organization started looking at the properties, we started to take community members through … and asked members of the community, hundreds of them, 'What should we do with these buildings?'," says  Erika Shea, Vice President of Development for New Dawn Enterprises. "The response that came back, again, was that there was not affordable space for artists to work in the community."

Creating permanent infrastructure for artists can also be a significant step toward preserving local language and culture, particularly in remote parts of Canada. In Iqaluit, members of a performing arts organization called Qaggiavuut!, which has toured internationally, lament having no dedicated space close to home to rehearse and present their work.

"Most of the workshops and shows that we do, we can have really talented and professional people, we could have excellent light and tech and all of those things, but we're still in a high school gym," says Terrie Kusugak, a musician from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. "So no matter how elevated you make your show or your performance … you're using a space that's not meant for what you're trying to use it for." 

Without creative facilities, Qaggiavuut! repurposes what spaces it can across the North, including soup kitchens, church halls and francophone centres, despite the effect on morale.  "We make shows anyways, [but] it takes away from the professional feeling … it does a lot to your mind, to feel like a professional. To go into a real space meant for what you're using it for," Kusugak says.

The challenges faced by artists who work without a dedicated space is a familiar story and not unique to Canada's North.

Michael Flisak, a visual artist, was part of a movement that founded the Jasper Artists Guild 20 years ago, and he witnessed how an organized space for artists helps them advance in their practice, especially in a smaller town. 

"If you're an artist in a beautiful town you want to live in, you can't really make a go of it on your own," Flisak says. "You need, obviously, to coalesce with other people in order to make something happen and be noticed. I think that was our framework right from the beginning."

Flisak maintains that cultural hubs help artists outside big cities realize their dream to take their practice to a new level. The physical spaces may give artists a boost so they can overcome the challenges associated with their location being so far from the big urban centres, which are more ripe with opportunities to develop, professionalize and monetize their work. 

New Dawn Studios in Sydney, Nova Scotia (Savannah Anderson)

Before landing in its current location, the Jasper Library and Cultural Centre art guild originally made a go of it without having its own space, organizing "floating" galleries (pop-up exhibits in non-gallery spaces) in town before occupying space in the town's old firehall.

At the time, Flisak recalls the municipality wanted to work with the artists after seeing them generate substantial revenue from selling their work one summer. Despite this, he sees the value of their work going beyond financial gain. 

"The perception of what art is and what it can be in a community — rather than just a tourist shop, for example — it can actually be something meaningful, in terms of cultural expression," Flisak says. 

"To me, a cultural hub would be somewhere where there's an opportunity for people to share ideas and share concerns about the arts in the community in all facets, whether it's dance or theatre or poetry or visual arts. It's a place where people can go to promote a project to get things started. There's a sense of empowerment somewhere with the hub, where people can meet and join forces in order to ensure the cultural heritage of our town."


Arianne Robinson is a journalist, producer, and writer who lives in Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter @ariannerobinson