During the past decade, redevelopment in the Exchange District has become a common sight. Not a year has gone by without at least a few large projects on the go. Thirty years ago, though, when the Gault Brothers’ Warehouse was converted into what is now Artspace, it was a bold and risky venture.
The building, located at 100 Arthur St., was constructed from 1899 to 1900 for dry goods wholesaler Gault Brothers of Montreal.
Architect George Creeford Browne designed the Richardsonian Romanesque four-storey warehouse.
Its two prominent entrances, one on each corner of Bannatyne Avenue, were created because the building was initially subdivided, with Clarke Brothers and Company, a stationery wholesaler, taking up almost half the block.
The Gault’s business boomed along with the city, and it didn’t take long for them to decide to expand.
In 1903, architect James H. Cadham designed the building’s annex. He seamlessly integrated the extension, a six-storey building to the south that currently houses Red River Book Store, and a two-storey addition to the original building that created the unique covered laneway that passes through it.
Even today, it is tough to tell where one building starts and the other ends.
Fast-forward to the early 1980s, and the hustle and bustle of the Exchange District as the engine that built and serviced Western Canada was long gone. There was, however, a renaissance of sorts taking place.
Starting in the 1970s, the Old Market Square Association worked hard to make the area a shopping destination for its quirky array of retailers, furniture warehouses and artists. This included branding the neighbourhood, getting the city to invest in new streetscaping and hosting farmers markets on weekends.
In 1978, the fight to save banker’s row from becoming a parkade led to the creation of the city’s first heritage bylaw and raised awareness of the area’s long-forgotten built treasures. It also attracted federal funding to rehabilitate some Albert Street properties.
The idea to establish a building in the area in which to house the offices and studio spaces of numerous smaller arts groups had been around for years, but it wasn’t until the creation of the Core Area Initiative in 1981 that there was a vehicle to fund further study of the proposal and, eventually, the project itself.
Jim August, former CEO of The Forks North Portage Partnership, now co-chairman of the Winnipeg Arts Council, was the Core Area Initiative’s general manager at the time. He says when the idea of a not-for-profit group running such a large facility was first proposed, it was "scary, but interesting."
August recalls, "Many buildings in the area rented space out to artists at very low rent, but with changes in the area, rents were going up, and good studio space was limited. Providing a home for arts organizations and studio space for artists was seen to be a great idea by many of us (at the Core Area Initiative)."
Artspace’s original executive director, Brent Mooney, told the Free Press at the time, "The primary role of Artspace is to give the small and medium-sized visual arts groups the same kind of facilities as any of the larger groups have come to expect."
This included secure, up-to-code workspaces with access to the amenities of a professional office, such as a boardroom and photocopiers.
The north portion of the Gault Warehouse, long since separated from its southern annex into two separate buildings, ranked high among potential locations for both for its location and its sturdy construction which, despite 85 years of wear and tear, had stood the test of time.
In 1985, the building was purchased by the Manitoba Centennial Centre Corp., owners of the Concert Hall, Pantages Playhouse Theatre and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and leased to the Artspace Inc. for one dollar a year for 99 years.
Extensive renovations got underway on the six-storey, 55,000-square-foot space in September 1985, but the budget of $2.8 million, about $2 million of which was covered by the Core Area Initiative, was tight. Artspace relied on donated materials, including the building’s passenger elevator, which was salvaged from a nearby structure, and a variety of fundraisers to help raise their portion.
When the building opened in October 1986, it wasn’t quite with a bang.
Fundraising efforts had fallen behind, in part because of a year-long battle with Revenue Canada over getting charitable status for the corporation. Some of the renovations, such as the installation of central air conditioning, had to be scrapped. Not all of the artists’ studio spaces were filled, and a key ground-floor tenant, Winnipeg Film Group’s Cinematheque, was months away from opening.
Still, with most of its 32,000 square feet of rentable space spoken for by 20 arts groups at $3 per square foot, just below market rates for the area at the time, Artspace achieved its primary goal. They also scored a victory for the budding heritage conservation movement and helped ensure the Exchange District would remain a focal point of the city’s arts and festival communities for decades to come.
Thirty years on, the vision and mandate of Artspace has not changed. Executive director Eric Plamondon notes the building has not lost a tenant in 23 years and is busier than it ever has been.
This is thanks in part not only to the below-market rents, now at $7 per square foot, and the suite of shared services, from office equipment to bookkeeping services, Artspace offers. Plamondon points out tenants have been able to modify their spaces to keep up with their changing demands. These modifications include the conversion of offices to classrooms for the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, or Video Pool’s air-conditioned media archive storage room and unique "floating" recording studio.
The building itself has held up well despite the age of its renovation. The most immediate issue is the building’s 142 massive windows, many of them original to the building, in dire need of restoration.
Though always a focal point for the arts community, Artspace has also seen the community at large around it grow and flourish during its three decades.
Plamondon says of the space, "It’s a public building without being a public building," noting with Cinematheque, a main floor gallery, weekly workshops put on by groups such as the Manitoba Association of Playwrights, Manitoba Writers’ Guild and Winnipeg Film Group and people just hanging out during the many festivals hosted across the street at Old Market Square, it is estimated 80,000 people passed through their doors last year.
What is the continued draw of Artspace and the Exchange District?
"Thirty years later, this is the creative hub, the creative centre, the creative neighbourhood of Winnipeg and Manitoba," says Plamondon, who himself is a visual artist.
"When you’re an emerging artist, you’re like, ‘I want to be at the centre of it’ because this is where the energy is, where I can learn from my peers, and this is where I am also given a place of value. I don’t have to fight to say, ‘Why does art matter?’ People get it in this neighbourhood."
August, who calls the Artspace project an "aggressive undertaking" at the time, says despite the challenges, "It has been a great success, from my perspective."
Plamondon agrees, "It’s still a bold statement and still a bold idea. Was it a success after 30 years? Unequivocally. Absolutely."
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.