British Columbia

The fine art of survival: A Vancouver art space survives despite looming demoviction

The first part of a series on living and creating in Canada's most expensive city. The James Black Gallery is home to 16 affordable studios, but it's on the chopping block.

The first part of a series on living and creating in Canada's most expensive city

Odera Igbokwe and his niece look at his Nigerian fantasy illustrations at the James Black Gallery. Igbokwe is one of at least 16 artists who rent studios at the gallery. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

In Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, on Sixth Avenue near Main Street, an oddity stands out among the low-rise commercial buildings: a bright blue, dilapidated heritage house that beckons passersby to enter.

The sandwich board out front says it's the James Black Gallery. The house accommodates at least 16 studios, an exhibition space and the bedrooms of its two live-in artists. New media installation artist Zandi Dandizette, who uses the pronoun they, is one of them.   

"Some people just look at the space as a business venture," said Dandizette, clad in their signature pink-and-blue colour scheme. "But it's more than that — it's a community creation."

Dandizette thinks of the James Black Gallery as a creative hub that attracts misfits from across the city. It's one of the city's rare spaces that offers affordable artist studios — the small spaces rent for as low as $160 a month. 

Here's a tour Dandizette gave of the space:

Take a tour through the James Black Gallery

4 years ago
Duration 3:01
This Vancouver art spaces is home to a gallery, studios and living space.

'Trying to be creative'

Vancouver has long been known as one of Canada's most expensive cities, but the city's artists face additional barriers. With a median salary of $22,000 per year, according to the city, they seek affordable homes and need cheap space in which to create their work.

This three-part series focuses on those who have found creative solutions to those barriers. 

"We're all trying to be creative out here," Dandizette said. "It's just kind of what we have to do to live ... an optimal lifestyle."

Zandi Dandizette in their bedroom at the James Black Gallery. Dandizette is one of two artists who live and work in the building. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

The city says it knows spaces like the James Black Gallery are quickly being lost to gentrification. Last year, it gave out $13.3 million in funding to support studios, organizations and venues. 

But artists like Dandizette say it's not enough. They would like to see the city help informal spaces like the James Black Gallery flourish.

'My childhood dream'

Dandizette, 28, discovered what is now the James Black Gallery while they were finishing up a degree in animation at Emily Carr University four years ago.

"When I walked up the steps I was like, 'oh, this is my childhood dream," they said. 

The James Black Gallery in Vancouver is filled with art and oddities, like this teacup collection in the kitchen. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

When Dandizette moved in there were eight people living there at the time, and, at one point, there had been 16. 

Over time, most of the bedrooms were converted into studios: the front room became a gallery, the basement turned into a pottery guild. 

'A good cause'

Arkun Durmaz, who owns the house, says he was glad to see Dandizette clean up the space and turn it into studios. 

"We knew Zandi was using it as artists' work galleries, which was, you know, a good cause," Durmaz said. 

Durmaz charges $2,300 a month for the space. The occupants pay to fix anything that goes wrong. 

Odera Igbokwe rents his studio space at the James Black Gallery for $160 per month. If the gallery were to get demolished, he figures he would be paying at least $400 for a space farther away. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

He also owns the apartment building on the one side of the building and the empty parking lot on the other. The area, near Vancouver's anticipated new SkyTrain line, is prime for rezoning and redevelopment.

Durmaz says he's waiting for the outcome of the city's Broadway corridor plan before deciding his next move.

The struggle is real

Vancouver's head of cultural services, Branislav Henselmann, says the city is aware that creative spaces like the James Black Gallery are being lost every day.

"With the ongoing gentrification and displacement issues, we know that the artists — as some of the most vulnerable  workers in the city — are really struggling," Henselmann said. 

Dandizette understands that the house is not long for this world. They want the city to reduce red tape so more spaces like the James Black Gallery could thrive. 

"Allowing spaces that are smaller to incubate and exist is super important for them to flourish into these ... really experimental and creative spaces," they said. 

"I mean, isn't that the city you want to live in?"