Theatre SKAM seeks Victoria city council support for downtown arts hub

A Victoria theatre company is hoping city council will pick up part of the tab for establishing an arts hub in a downtown storefront once occupied by Ageless Living Market.

Theatre SKAM wants to lease the building at 851 Johnson St. and convert 7,200 square feet into a shared space for independent artists and small-to-medium performance companies.

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Plans call for a “black box” theatre venue and a smaller rehearsal studio as well as office space that arts organizations will be able to rent at below-market rates.

Other amenities could include a script library, artists’ desks, a painting studio and storage for theatre equipment.

Matthew Payne, artistic and managing producer, said Theatre SKAM intends to run the arts hub as a pilot project and has already secured commitments for office space from several other theatre groups.

The theatre company is seeking a one-time contribution of $40,000 from the city in hopes of securing matching grants from other governments and organizations to cover $200,000 in initial construction costs.

As well, the company wants $20,000 a year to help with ongoing operating expenses.

“After almost 30 years as a professional artist in Victoria, I am convinced this moment is a very rare opportunity,” Payne stated in a letter to council.

“Truly, I have never seen an opportunity like this before: a large enough space without posts in the middle of it, a supportive landlord, and a collection of select stakeholders ready to contribute.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and councillors Jeremy Loveday and Stephen Andrew are recommending support for the project in a motion going to committee of the whole today. They’re advocating a $40,000 one-time grant from the contingency budget and $20,000 a year from new assessed revenue for five years.

Loveday said in an interview that the city has wanted to establish an arts hub for years, but discussions with other partners and governments have yet to yield results.

So when he heard about Theatre SKAM’s efforts, he saw it as an opportunity for the city to provide seed money that might spur contributions from other levels of government.

“If we can get on board as a founding funder, I think that will be looked upon very favourably when they seek out funding,” he said. “It will also help us achieve a long-standing goal.”

In addition to providing a much-needed performance venue, the arts hub would be a place for artists and cultural groups to come together and collaborate, he said. “And I think our community will be richer for it.”

As well, the building’s proximity to the Metro Theatre and the Victoria Conservatory of Music makes its a good fit for beginning a “small cultural cluster,” the motion says.

Loveday noted that the city was losing significant amounts of arts and cultural space even before COVID-19, largely because of escalating land values. The pandemic has worsened the situation and “decimated” many non-profit cultural groups, he said. “A lot of them can’t last much longer without significant government support and/or things returning to normal and being allowed to put on performances again.”

In a related matter, councillors will decide today whether to approve a new cultural infrastructure grant program aimed at protecting and increasing the supply of spaces owned or operated by non-profit arts and culture organizations. Council approved $100,000 in one-time funding for the grants program in January.

If the program goes ahead, groups would be eligible to receive up to $25,000 to upgrade, repair, build or expand cultural spaces. Grants up to $10,000 will be available for conducting feasibility studies or hiring consultants.

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