For those left behind: Hamilton's arts renaissance isn't working for everyone

In a city presented as a shining beacon for arts and culture — a music city, a place where "art is the new steel" or "you can do anything" — many artists find themselves struggling.

In the midst of all the buzz about Hamilton's art scene, some people are being pushed to the margins

George Qua-Enoo is a Hamilton-based photographer who has been working in the city for six years. He says Hamilton's arts boom might be great for certain institutions or people, but others are getting left behind. (George Qua-Enoo)

George Qua-Enoo hit rock bottom three years ago when he put all of his camera equipment up for sale.

Photography was his dream and his passion, but the Hamilton photographer also had two kids to feed. He loved the promise the city showed, but after years of struggling and at times working three jobs, something had to give.

"It was one of the lowest points in my life," Qua-Enoo said.

Thankfully, friends and supporters talked him out of a wholesale sell-off, and today, he's still working as a photographer.

But his story is emblematic of a much larger problem. In a city presented as a shining beacon for arts and culture — a "music city," a place where "art is the new steel" or "you can do anything" — many artists find themselves struggling.

There's plenty of buzz about art in Hamilton. But is this renaissance working for everyone? Qua-Enoo emphatically says no.

"I've still yet to feel like I'm part of a team. I still feel like I'm a spectator on the bench," he said.

As Supercrawl, the city's flagship of downtown arts renewal, hits its 10-year anniversary, CBC Hamilton is presenting a series of stories about the city's arts scene — where it has been, where it is going, what's working and what isn't. 

The arts scene blossomed as steel and other manufacturing sectors struggled and offered the city a chance to foster a new identity and pursue another route to prosperity. Artists have been at the heart of the city's renaissance and transformation as they helped bring cachet and desirability to some of the city's more run down areas.

But the success itself has bred some problems and its benefits have not been shared by all.

We're sort of being co-opted to produce this narrative that [economic development] wants to produce ... this revitalization narrative, when really, that kind of revitalization isn't matching up with needs in terms of housing, and security, and living wages.- Angela Orasch, arts researcher

Rents are soaring, as the pressures of gentrification become more dire by the month.

Creative types are pushed out of performance and studio spaces as buildings are sold and flipped to house condos and cafes.

Many people find themselves working multiple jobs just to stay afloat, sapping their creative drive. Amidst those pressures, a sizeable funding source has run dry.

Diversity is a problem, as many people who are feeling excluded are visible minorities.

While there are problems, there are also successes. The city's arts industry has grown significantly over the last decade.

Statistics Canada data for the Hamilton census metropolitan area (which includes Burlington and Grimsby) shows that Hamilton had 11,600 people working in creative industries back in 2001, including music, film, and visual arts. The latest available census data shows that number had almost tripled by 2016 to 30,000.

"Overflows" was one of the most striking Supercrawl art installations in recent years. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Local musicians are gaining international notoriety, while Supercrawl brings hundreds of thousands of people to the downtown core each fall, and has become one of southern Ontario's premier street festivals.

Renowned television shows and films like The Handmaid's Tale and The Shape of Water have been filmed in the city, with 539 filming permits issued in 2017 alone, amounting to over $12 million in financial uplift for local businesses, the city says.

City institutions see immense potential in Hamilton's arts scene and are building new programs that will bring exciting things to local stages in the coming months. The city has a vested interest in this growth, as the arts scene now features prominently in all its advertising materials.  

But for many people outside the city's largest arts institutions, the notion of Hamilton as an artist's paradise is a facade, Qua-Enoo said. 

"I've still yet to see that art is the new steel. I've still yet to feel that you can do anything in Hamilton," he said.

The James Street North art crawl is often held up by the city as one of its crown jewels. (Sheryl Nadler)

Pushed out of the core

Gabriel Pinto once lived in the heart of Hamilton's arts district on James Street North, a place often held up as one of the city's most drastic turnarounds.

Now, the saxophonist can't afford to live anywhere in the downtown core. The pressures of rising rents limit where he can live — and by extension, limit his work.

"Now more than ever, I have to worry about making ends meet so that I can afford to live in a dwelling and not end up on the streets because some landlords think $2,200 a month non-inclusive is a fair price for a one-bedroom, fourth-floor apartment," he said.

Gabriel Pinto is a local saxophonist, composer, and conductor of the Top Hat Marching Orchestra. (Gabirel Pinto)

Over a four-year period and with a move, he says, the cost of rent for his family in downtown Hamilton more than doubled to $1,950 a month from $800 a month.

It wasn't sustainable. So he moved to the Mountain, which pulled him out of the area where he works. Now, there are  extra expenses tacked onto his gigs like late night travel — along with a creeping fear that he's being forgotten because he's not as attached to the city's music scene.

"If you get forgotten, you don't get hired — so you don't make money," he said.

Records show property values on and around James Street North have surged in recent years.

Take the building at 174 James Street North, near Cannon Street West. Back in 2005, it was sold for $254,500. Then in 2012, it sold again — this time for $730,000. It sold yet again in 2014 for $1.25 million. The building's worth had more than quadrupled in under ten years without any major renovations.

Similarly, rents jumped. Artist Tim Francis, who once had an art gallery in that building, was forced to leave in 2014 as he couldn't afford it.

Fabric Shop and creative workspace Needlework, which is housed in that same building, is also feeling the pressure. Needlework's rent was $1,200 a month back in 2012. Now, it's $2,400.

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Co-owner Kate Hunter says the shop's landlord has been helpful, and raised the rent gradually so they could offset the jump as the business grew. But she still worries that at some point, the space will just become completely unaffordable.

"It's definitely a fear we have. Our lease is coming up soon," she said.

"We're not sure what the future holds."

Artists on the move

So why can't artists just move to other, cheaper parts of the city as rents rise?

Researcher Angela Orasch told CBC News that attitude hinders a healthy arts scene.

"People think [artists] can just move to further abandoned places in the city, whether that's the industrial park or the North End," she said. "I don't think anybody really wants to live that way. I think in order to build community and connections … you can't be consistently transient.

"You should be able to live and not have to worry about how you're going to do that just because somebody else wants to make money in your space and on your land."

Parts of James Street North have changed significantly in recent years. This corner of James and Cannon, pictured in 2007, now houses Hamilton Artists Inc. (Google)

Orasch is a PhD candidate in political science at McMaster, and the organizer of the Gaged Forum, which has been holding a series of events across the city to talk about gentrification.

She says artists are telling her that it's becoming increasingly difficult to create and work in Hamilton.

"We're sort of being co-opted to produce this narrative that [economic development] wants to produce ... this revitalization narrative, when really, that kind of revitalization isn't matching up with needs in terms of housing, and security, and living wages."

Funding culture

There's a hope from many fronts that the city's grant structure could help supplement some of those needs, especially as it becomes more expensive to live, work, and create in Hamilton.

The city drastically shifted how it funded the arts back in 2015. Prior to that, it hadn't significantly increased arts funding in 15 years. That changed with the introduction of the City Enrichment Fund, which promised a bolstered investment in culture over a three-year period, topped up with a $660,000 pledge from the Hamilton Community Foundation.

That initial funding period is now up. The amount the city pays out to artists has stayed fairly consistent over the last couple of years, but the community foundation has no plans to renew its funding, leaving the city's artists with fewer opportunities to find cash. 

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"The fund was established as a time-limited initiative to work alongside the City of Hamilton's investment," said Sharon Charters, grants manager for the community foundation. "The foundation continues to support the arts beyond this program through a number of its open-call and donor-advised funds. As we review the outcomes from the Creative Arts Fund initiatives, the board will explore opportunities to continue to support the arts in Hamilton."

While the city's funding has stayed relatively consistent, the demand for cash from the arts community keeps rising. 

Collectively, the the arts community asked for just under $4 million in grants in 2017, while the city paid out just over $2.7 million. This year, artists requested over $4.2 million in grants, while the city again paid out just over $2.7 million.

All told in 2018, the city received 85 funding requests from artists, and paid out 65 of them to varying amounts. 

Hamilton's Arkells have become one of the city's biggest success stories. The band has won multiple Juno awards, toured the globe, and hosted a massive stadium show at Tim Hortons field. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The issue, some people in the city's arts community say, is it's really tough for new, emerging or alternative artists to be funded through the city's grant structure. The city's largest institutions manage fine, says Jeremy Freiburger of CoBALT Connects, a non-profit organization that connects creative businesses around the city.

It's the smaller organizations or singular requests that end up pushed to the margins, he said. What the city is lacking is new funding for new voices. 

"A city that's growing like Hamilton has to have a window where new communities and ideas can be considered and funded," he said. "Until council adds new money, no new people will get through the door — so great ideas will die.

"Small, new startups desperately need these grants."

A complex question with no easy answers

So what can be done to combat the pressures of gentrification, and include local artists who feel excluded?

That answer remains elusive, even for people who are entrenched in, or actively studying, those very issues.

"I think if there was a go-to answer to that question, every city would be doing it," Freiburger said. "It's so complex."

Supercrawl has become a massive cultural driver in Hamilton in recent years. (Adam Carter/CBC)

It's a problem that touches on areas of affordable housing, responsible development, and proper management of cultural facilities.

Jessa Agilo, founder of cultural organization ArtsPond, says she believes that society as a whole faces ongoing challenges in simply understanding the inherent value in creative and cultural expression.

"We're faced with some really complex challenges that are going to take more than five or 10 years to solve. So I'm afraid that it's going to be a really challenging road ahead for the current and upcoming generation of artists," she said.

"But if we don't start somewhere, we're not going to get any progress at all."



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.