You could have walked past the Manitoba Public Housing building at 444 Kennedy many times and never known that Studio Central occupies the second floor. It’s only advertised by a small paper sign above the entry keypad.
A project of Artbeat Studio, Studio Central offers free arts programming to the wider community as well as the building’s residents.
(Artbeat Studio is a program that enables consumers of mental health services to engage in artistic expression that promotes recovery, empowerment and community).
The fact that Studio Central is in the building is testament to the ingenuity and desire for self actualization of some of the first Artbeat Studio alumni. They had been teaching art classes to the residents at the request of Winnipeg Regional Health Authority nurses in the building.
It was a progressive partnership in line with documented research about the benefits of art. Overwhelming evidence from many studies shows that participating in art classes or other creative classes is beneficial to older adults.
The arrangement worked well, so when the nurses vacated the building in 2007, they left the keys; as well as a completely empty second floor.
The artists quickly moved in their easels and materials in true guerilla fashion. It’s a common practice according to Wikipedia: “An art squat is a name used to describe the action of artists to occupy (or squat in) an abandoned building, thereby creating studio space to create art. Art squats often have a semi-legal or illegal status.”
The newfound space answered the prayers of alumni. Many lived in the area, known for its cheap rents, and after finishing their residencies with Artbeat Studio had been unable to continue their practice due to lack of studio space.
In a spirit of co-operation and common sense, the powers that be realized this was a good thing for everyone involved and this ad hoc arrangement was allowed to continue. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they were offered the vacant second floor by Manitoba Housing.
While their building was being renovated in 2010, the loose collective of artists moved into Portage Place and they decided they wanted to share their newly won space
Two months turned into six months which gave themselves, Artbeat Studio, residents and neighbours time to formalize details of their occupancy.
The consensus was that they wanted a very clean, safe space with purposeful arts programming that was open to all. And thus Studio Central was born.
Today when you buzz 201 to get in, you enter into a bright, clean space with no street noise. Plants, whimsical touches and artworks breakup the gleaming whiteness.
Stated rules have never been found to be necessary. Careful furniture placement and lighting levels go a long way to creating a calm working environment.
It’s an urban arts centre promoting healing and empowerment through creative endeavours. To that end, there’s a rhythm to the day.
Mornings are for self directed studio for Artbeat Studio alumni; indeed anyone desiring to apply their creativity in the process of art making. Artists are encouraged to use one of the studio spaces to work on their own projects. Due to budget constraints, paints, canvases and other materials aren’t provided.
In the afternoons, Creative Technique classes are slotted in. These are varied classes taught by Artbeat Studio alumni, giving them momentum career-wise; and all materials are provided. Building residents are especially welcome.
“I like the sense of community and camaraderie it gives the tenants and that it’s a safe place for them,” says Property Manager Shelley Wilson. “I like that you can just dabble, that you don’t have to be a ‘real’ artist.”
In fact the building residents and neighbours do a lot of the day to day tasks of running the studio. They get job training and a chance to participate in social activities and community building. Connection happens. That’s one of the things Ernie Bart, volunteer and board member, is most proud of.
“Observing someone who becomes increasingly more confident in their art making and then seeing that person meet other artists and soon they’re coming just to talk; breaking out of their isolation,” says Bart, who knows how important this is. His son Nigel was diagnosed with schizophrenia and started Artbeat Studio to help others with mental illnesses after art helped him to heal.
‘But I’m not artistic’ excuses don’t wash here as everyone is assumed to be creative and mentored with a kind professionalism.
The Central Park/North Portage neighbourhood has many socio-economic issues which can be stigmatizing. According to the 2011 Census, the average income in this area is only $19, 975 as compared to $38, 159 for Winnipeg as a whole. More than 90% of the dwellings here are rented and most residents don’t own cars.
“They [Studio Central] are one of our key partners, we’re grateful for their presence and their help,” says Randy Braun, President of Central Park Neighborhood Association (CPNA). “We always have a representative from Studio Central sitting on our board.”
All this is in line with a new worldwide movement called Creative Placemaking which is the use of arts and culture based projects to revitalize neighbourhoods and boost local economies.
Studio Central held their popular Mental Health Carnival recently at the Portage Place food court. They tackled important and stigmatizing issues among many newcomers in the area using therapy dogs, balloon figures, art, games and music to supplement information about resources.
As well as participating in various neighborhood events like the Central Park Canada Day Celebration, their ongoing Central Park: Ignite Your Creative Spirit project will see many more community building art projects in the area.
As part of the Health Sciences Centre Renewal Project, Artbeat Studio alumni Ildiko Nova and James Adamson created two murals beautifying the Tecumseh parkade entrance to HSC.
Participants in the Creative Technique classes, under the direction of Katryna Lipinski, Community Projects Co-ordinator, are working on a series of 10 large and colourful narrative paintings for Seven Oaks Hospital. Every six months they put up a new art installation in the north east entrance corridor.
These days Studio Central is busy conducting art workshops everywhere from Unemployment Centres to Drop-in Centres. They’re getting more and more requests from non-profits.
The Artbeat Studio alumni get experience implementing a comprehensive community-based arts program and the organizations are grateful for the monthly classes.
It’s not all art and no play. Café Central takes up about a third of the space at Studio Central. It’s an intimate venue with seating for 25 at round tables replete with tablecloths and plants and the stage boasts professional sound equipment. Tuesday through Friday they host a House Concert at 3 p.m. The half hour performances give the building residents, and anyone else around, a musical treat and a chance to socialize.
The bands get to play in front of a receptive audience and to try out new material. And what’s a venue without a house band? Harmony Workshop have been together for a year now. They’ve really grown as a band and they play once a week. Otherwise you’ll hear anyone from bands to singer-songwriters to poets and comedians. The schedule is online in the Studio Central bulletin.
From such a humble and unconventional beginning Studio Central has grown to have a huge impact on the community. Many of the artists still give back to the community by volunteering.
“It was a transformative experience for me,” says Ernie Bart of listening to and being inspired by the artists who started Studio Central, by taking their own needs as artists seriously.