Nia Centre and the legacy of Black arts and culture spaces in Toronto
Nia Centre announced plans for expansion last month. Their Toronto venue will double in size
I remember feeling like I had snuck into an exclusive secret society. It was 2008, and I was sitting in a meeting room at the United Way Toronto building surrounded by some of the leading creative and intellectual minds in the city: historian and dub poet Dr. Afua Cooper; award-winning theatre director Weyni Mengesha; hip hop historian Mark V. Campbell; playwright, director and founder of b current theatre ahdri zhina mandiela; community leader and musician Quammie Williams; performer and playwright d'bi.young anitafrika; and the person who brought us all together, musician and artist Ian Kamau.
At the time, I was just a lowly community arts worker with no plays to my name, and no TV or radio shows, either. The imposter syndrome came on strong as I sat in awe of everyone present. In that meeting, we discussed the seed of an idea and all the possibilities it could manifest. 12 years later, that seed has grown into the Nia Centre for the Arts — an organization that will soon open Canada's first professional Black arts centre.
Nia Centre is a non-profit organization that has been running arts programming for more than a decade. They announced last month that they would be expanding in size and gutting an entire building to create a space that Black communities in Toronto have been craving for generations. Much of the funding for the $7.5 million capital project has been provided by the municipal and federal government as well as the United Way.
It's important for me to name the original folks who sat together in a boardroom 12 years ago dreaming up possibilities, because as I read articles celebrating this recent milestone, I was reminded that a rich and dynamic history is so often simplified (and too often dismissed).
Taking the meeting minutes that day was Alica Hall, a young new staffer with the Youth Challenge Fund. Fresh out of university, she had been asked by her colleague Nation Cheong to stick around after work for an important meeting. In a beautiful full-circle moment, Hall is now the executive director of Nia Centre. Last week, I asked her what she remembered about that day.
"Coming out of school where you're working through a lot of ideas related to identity, how we get ahead, what self-determination looks like, it was very clear that this [meeting] was a very practical application of all that," said Hall. "I just remember the weight and seriousness of that day."
Many of the individuals at that meeting went on to create the first vision for the Nia Centre space. They wrote the first grants for the centre, hired the first staff and formed the first interim board. I was there at the beginning stages. Looking through old emails, I was reminded of all the work that we did. I can say with certainty that the story of this journey deserves more than a sentence. It's worthy of a thesis research topic.
It all began with a newspaper article. In 2007, the now defunct Eye Weekly published a story on Fresh Arts. Founded in the early '90s, the arts mentorship program has near legendary status and has a reputation for its famous alumni (Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates, Jully Black, Director X). But in 2007, its work wasn't as widely known. The article put a spotlight on an important chapter of the city's community arts and activism that had been made possible because of a Black protest movement, an economic recession and an NDP provincial government eager to respond to both crises. By the mid '90s, this moment was over, as a Mike Harris Conservative government was hungry to make cuts and dismantle initiatives in the name of the economy.
After reading the article, Kamau sent out a mass email. Bringing up the siloed nature of community development work, the temporary spurts of financial support that left many initiatives unsustainable and an absence of intergenerational mentorship, he put forward a number of questions including a query that would spark a flame: why don't we have a Black arts centre in this city?
It's not for lack of effort. Toronto has a rich, if little-known, history of Black arts and cultural spaces, much of which I learned from that original group of Nia Centre artists. There was the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Hall located at 355 College Street (the same spot that housed Thymeless Bar). The building was purchased by the Black community in 1925 after they pooled their money together. A multipurpose space that was home to political meetings, community gatherings and live performances, for decades the hall was a safe space for many Black newcomers to the city. In Denham Jolly's memoir In the Black: My Life, he writes about UNIA Hall: "[It] became a monument to Black progress, a place the community could call its own and a rallying point. Twice a week the centre held gatherings and dances for young people, students and young women working as domestics, providing a much needed place for young Toronto Blacks to meet."
There was also the Underground Railroad Restaurant, opened in 1969 by musician Archie Alleyne, businessman Howard Matthews and former Toronto Argonauts John Henry Jackson and Dave Mann. Beyond serving a menu of soul food, it was also a haven for Black performers visiting Toronto, many of whom gave impromptu performances. Originally located at Bloor and Sherbourne, it later moved to King Street East, and the restaurant boasted big-name patrons such as Harry Belafonte, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
In the '80s, 101 Dewson Street became a collective residence for BIPOC queer folks. Owned by writer and activist Makeda Silvera, many of the folks who lived there created collectives, organizations, parties and magazines while sitting around the kitchen table.
In more recent history, BAND (Black Artists' Network in Dialogue) Gallery and Cultural Centre opened in 2008 through the collective work of four Black women arts leaders: Karen Carter, Maxine Bailey, Karen Tyrell and Julie Crooks. In 2014 they purchased an old Victorian house in Parkdale with the financial support of Scotiabank. The space hosts numerous exhibits and events. Earlier this year, just before the pandemic led to our new socially distanced reality, Black Lives Matter Toronto opened Wildseed: Centre for Activism and Art, a multipurpose space for community organizing, co-working, meeting, art-making and healing.
A critical and consistent thread throughout this history of space for Black art and culture in Toronto has been the question of ownership. Stories abound of tenants being evicted, commercial rents being raised to exorbitant levels and condos replacing buildings that hold so much significance and meaning for the community.
Ownership was a hot topic in those early meetings for the Nia Centre. When I spoke with Hall, she said that Nia Centre's process has been one of purposeful and gradual progression.
"One of the things we have to consider is that this hasn't been done before. So, saying that you want to own a building without ever testing the kind of model that you're looking at, I think, is a bit premature. What this essentially allows us to do is renovate the facility, get up and running, allow folks to come through and then look at opportunities to secure the building."
When Nia Centre first began, we applied for a pot of funding from a United Way initiative called the Youth Challenge Fund (YCF). At the time, $3 million felt like more money than I could imagine, and I remember arguing that we should use that money to purchase a building because capital funding is much harder to secure than program funding. But as Hall noted, the directive from the YCF was an alternative approach: find a building that was publicly owned and secure a long lease.
Nia Centre's current home in Little Jamaica is a city-owned building, and they are in the middle of a 10-year lease. "Purchasing a building could have easily just eaten up all of that [initial] money," she told me. "So if you purchased a building for $2 million and you want to have a full staff team working in it, you basically have no funding to run the organization because you're now responsible for the operating, heating and cooling, water, security. I think it was a much better strategy to have the space and time to develop that track record, hire staff, build some infrastructure, find a space."
Over the past decade, Nia Centre has been doing exactly that, working steadily to get to this point. Back in 2008, the most exciting moments of those early meetings were when we imagined what the space could entail. Many of those ideas have been checked off in the iteration being proposed in 2020. The new Nia Centre will have an art studio, a 150-seat theatre, two hallway galleries, smaller workshop spaces, a digital media hub, a recording studio and programming space.
There is still $1.5 million left to raise in the capital project, and Hall is hoping that this last piece of funding comes from the community. Fundraising in the midst of a global pandemic, when so many have been hit by economic uncertainty, is no easy feat. Trying to mobilize people's sense of urgency for this project is also challenging when we cannot gather collectively in person. But Hall is optimistic.
"I think it's really important that the community rallies around this space," she said. "It's about building a legacy for our community."