In Parkdale, a black artists’ network finds its way home

It’s the afternoon before the evening opening of BAND’s exhibition for the Contact Festival, and Karen Carter is busying herself with a scraggly shrub crowding the building’s back door. “I need all of this gone,” she tells a hardhatted landscaper, surveying a patch of weedy grass. “I need space for people to mingle and move around.”

While it might seem an overly domestic concern for the board chair of a bona fide burgeoning cultural organization — BAND (Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue), not quite a decade old, has quickly become a hub of African-Canadian culture here — it’s one that Carter relishes. Less than a year ago, this would have seemed like a distant fantasy scenario: An opening, in time for Contact, in a building BAND owns itself.

Its $800,000 price tag (it carries a small, more-than-manageable mortgage) is a capital-cost fever dream for virtually any independent cultural organization, and it’s the product of a stranger-than-fiction tale. To get here, BAND stared down homelessness twice, endured constant offhand discrimination at the hands of prospective landlords, and almost gave up entirely before a perfect storm of fate, a beneficent bank, and improbably, Toronto’s inflated property market delivered them to a solid place to stand.

“I just kept telling myself: ‘Happy place, happy place,’ ” laughed Carter late last week, as she helped prep BAND’s new HQ, a slim Victorian house on Brock St. in Parkdale — painted top to bottom in inky black — for opening night. “Our conundrum was, if we couldn’t solve the space issue, we might just be done. We weren’t prepared to be one of those organizations that would pop up here and there. We wanted to be an anchor, so people could rely on us. That’s how you make connections, and connect to the bigger world.”

Its new show, Ears, Eyes, Voice: Black Canadian Photojournalists 1970s-1990s — featuring, this Sunday, four such photographers discussing their work — is an emblematic gesture, BAND shoring up its past to more solidly build its future. Less than a year ago, that seemed an unlikely goal at best. BAND was on the brink of homelessness for the second time in its brief history, and slipping towards a bleak property market where even the most decrepit options were likely out of its reach.

It wasn’t supposed to end that way. Last spring, BAND was settling in to the upper two floors of an old Scotiabank building at the corner of Queen St. W. and Lansdowne Ave. It had arrived to the derelict space two years before, and had put countless hours into its restoration.

It was sweat equity invested alongside the bank’s largesse: After years of wandering the wilderness of Toronto’s commercial rental property market, Scotia had set BAND up on those two floors with a 10-year lease. The cost, at $1 per year, spelled salvation for a nascent cultural organization trying to find its feet.

“We had a handful of buildings with vacant spaces that we gifted to charities (rent free),” said John Doig, Scotiabank’s executive vice-president of marketing, who at the time was responsible for branches in the city. “I liked the idea of having a gallery above the bank, and we liked what BAND was doing.”

BAND inaugurated its new space with an exhibition of the famed African-American photographer Gordon Parks for Contact, giving it profile; it followed Parks with celebrated black photographers Vanley Burke and James Barnor.

But in 2016, a top-level decision by the bank to divest most of its real-estate assets put BAND’s position suddenly in doubt. The building went up for sale, and BAND was back in an uncomfortably familiar spot. The group had spent two years on the street when its last building became too costly, and Carter wasn’t willing to let it happen again. “It was the typical story: Artists come in, make it better, and have to leave,” Carter said. “We just decided we weren’t leaving without getting something for it.”

They asked Scotia to run two sale-price scenarios: One in which the new owner would have to take on BAND as a tenant for the next 8 years, at their $1 rate (it was a formal lease, legally protected), and one where BAND would willingly vacate, for a price.

“It doesn’t take much to realize there’s not much of a business case for a new owner to take on a building where two-thirds of its space is being rented for a dollar a year,” said Doig. So BAND agreed to go, for a price. The building eventual sold for $4.25 million, and Doig helped negotiate a buyout of the remaining eight years of BAND’s lease at market price (Scotia declined to give the amount, but the new building’s purchase price of $800,000, now owned with a small mortgage and a pool of cash BAND uses for programming, gives a decent clue).

To be on solid ground in a city growing increasingly infamous for an affordability crisis (artists are leaving the centre of the city in droves, either priced out or simply evicted; BAND’s peers in the culture sector sit on pins and needles, awaiting their next lease renewals) is a rare luxury, and one on which Yao Togobo, BAND’s director, hopes to capitalize.

“This is really the first permanent home black culture in Canada has had,” says Togobo. “I’d like for this to be the place where black artists of all kinds can feel comfortable, and plot and plan and move forward together.”

If it feels like a happy ending, Carter isn’t allowing herself to breathe easily. “You’ve got to be thinking legacy,” she said. “To do that, you can’t be house poor. You’ve always got to be building.”

A look back at BAND’s brief history is a lesson in determination. Hatched in 2009 by Carter, Maxine Bailey, Karen Tyrell and Julie Crooks, BAND started out holding events in such venues as Grano, the renowned Italian-bistro-turned-literary-hub in Davisville, or at the Arts and Letters Club on University Ave., an old-world bastion of the city’s cultural elite (“we loved infiltrating places we weren’t supposed to,” Carter said).

Inspired by Canadian Artists Network: Black Artists in Action, a group that dissolved in the late ’90s, BAND decided to go a step further. A bricks-and-mortar space would give their effort the permanence it needed to stick around, they reasoned; using it as a hub for the city’s black cultural community to reach out to the world would keep it relevant. (“This organization isn’t about a bunch of black people talking to each other,” Carter says. “It’s about pushing the culture out into the broader society.”)

In 2011, they found a storefront on Bloor St. W. near Christie Pits. The space was modest, but the price, at $1,200 a month, was right. The group started holding monthly shows, and began to blossom as a community hub.

Then their lease came due: Within a year, rent had doubled to more than $2,000. BAND chose to move on. The rental market, though tight, was not forbidding; suitable properties seemed plentiful. One of their advisers had warned them to expect barriers, an idea Carter wouldn’t let herself believe.

“ ‘Landlords don’t like artists,’ is what he told us, ‘and when you say black artists, they’re thinking hip-hop parties,’ ” she said. “And sure enough, every time we went to see a place we could afford, they wouldn’t rent it to us.”

After almost a year of looking, Carter was becoming desperate. A space near the city’s Junction neighbourhood had come free, and she started in to what she believed to be serious negotiations.

“Then the landlord started asking me all kinds of strange questions: ‘How many people come to an opening? Is there music? Is there alcohol?’ ” Carter said. “I explained: Yes, it’s an art opening, so we serve wine and cheese, and we might play some light jazz. And over the whole evening, not at the same time, we might have a couple of hundred people.”

Carter’s face tightens, and she pauses before she continues. “Then he looked at me and asked: ‘How many black people?’ ” she laughs. “I asked myself: ‘Do I want this racist moment to suck my soul dry, or do I just move on?’ I just took a deep breath, and I walked away.”

It was one of the many moments BAND could have simply evaporated, sucked dry by unrequited effort that felt more futile by the day. “We were at that point: Either we get help, or this dies,” Carter said.

Then, hope emerged. Carter had been speaking to Jane Nokes, the director of Scotiabank’s art collection. Carter’s story struck a chord. Nokes knew of the bank’s quiet practice of parcelling off vacant spaces to charities in need. She connected Carter to Doig, and the deal to take on the upper floors on Queen began to evolve. “For every idiot, inappropriate, racist moment you have, you have 10 people willing to step up,” Carter says.

It took one more bounce for BAND to find their way home, but this one is on ground more solid than they’d ever hoped. “I’m a firm believer that the good guy wins, eventually,” Doig says. “They’re in a place now that they can look forward long-term.”

Carter’s under no illusion that things get easy from here. But one worry — a big one — is off the table for good. “It’s lift as you climb,” she says. “You want to pull the next generation of people along too. But we finally have a home for them.”

Photojournalists Jules Elder, Eddie Grant, Diane Liverpool, and Al Peabody discuss their work in the exhibition Ears, Eyes, Voice at BAND, 19 Brock St., on April 30 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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