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June 14, 2019

The art of affordable housing

There is no denying the excitement on Eric Plamondon’s face.

“It will be a building unlike any other,” he says. “It’s going to have a positive impact on the lives of artists living in or visiting Winnipeg, as well as the many art organizations tapping into their talents.”

Eric is executive director of Artspace, a non-profit organization founded in the 1980s that serves more than 45 arts groups across Manitoba.

Artspace manages the historic Gault Building in the city’s Exchange District. Revitalization in the 1970s and 80s challenged the presence of the many artists working and living there. Artspace stepped in and leased the building for 100 years. They transformed it into a cultural hub featuring studios, galleries and multi-disciplinary facilities for artists of all kinds.

“Art is a foundational pillar of a community,” says Eric. “And artists have a right to live and work in the neighbourhoods they help to define.”

Having secured a home for the arts, housing for artists was a natural next step. “Part of our vision has been to provide artists with not only space to work, but also to live and expand their community.”

Things started coming together a couple of years ago.

Eric became aware how arts organizations of every medium involve out-of-town artists in their creative process. Through conversations with a number of these organizations, Eric and his team identified a critical mass of artists seeking short-term affordable living arrangements.

Around the same time the University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corporation 2.0 (UWCRC 2.0) had plans to develop a 14-storey mixed-income building at 290 Colony Street.

Artspace jumped at the opportunity to secure some units for artists.

“UWCRC 2.0 understood our need and the challenges the art sector and its members are facing in terms of appropriate living units for artists,” says Eric. “And the location made it even more of a no-brainer.”

The Arts District building at 290 Colony is situated across the street from the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the soon-to-be Inuit Art Centre, the Prairie Theatre Exchange, and the world-famous Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. The Artspace units will enable artists to live affordably, comfortably and close to work.

The goal is to have the equivalent of a floor of approximately 12 suites dedicated to visiting and local artists.

Eric and the team were involved in the design process with UWCRC 2.0 and identified some key requirements, such as kitchenettes. “Artists work at all hours. And if you’re looking for dinner at 10:43 on a Tuesday night, there aren’t many places open,” says Eric. “Plus, cooking at home reduces your living expenses.”

The building will also feature soundproof rooms. “Practicing French horn at 1:09 in the morning just isn’t possible in your average hotel,” he continues.

Common spaces with free Wi-Fi will enable artists to prepare grant applications or complete other administrative tasks on their own schedule.

“I can’t wait,” beams Eric. “It’s been a vision of ours to have a facility that provides artists with a place to live that takes into account how they work. Our hope is that the Arts District will provide a model for us to replicate in other creative neighbourhoods.”

The Arts District project is funded by the Rental Construction Financing initiative (RCFi), a National Housing Strategy initiative.