What was I thinking?? It’s the year 2018, people are being ‘evicted’ every day, violence, exclusion, unemployment, mental health challenges on the rise, and rising costs. SKETCH must raise its funds to support and provide resources for hundreds of young artists who are navigating all of these things every single day – and I want to buy the SKETCH Studios!?
I was thinking SKETCH must find a way to stay downtown, accessible, and be present with and work alongside its community towards change.
When SKETCH started 25 years ago, we knew we would be in for a ride. Little did we know what a ride it would be! Our first space at 180 Queen Street West served its purpose as our initial cohort of about 12 individuals grew and grew.
1998: Our first space at 180 Queen Street at the Great Hall
But we had a greater vision to offer artists a safe place to create art, so when we found 580 King Street West, an old 6,000 square-foot leather factory, we could see the palette and began to build.
Numbers tripled and we found ourselves once again outgrowing the studios at 580 King Street. We were also seeing how we were being priced out of the neighbourhood as ad agencies and bars and chic restaurants started to appear on what was once an underdeveloped street. New neighbours would ask that young people and their dogs not hang out on our front sidewalk. We had been there for years, and yet we became an ‘inconvenience’.
Screenprinting at 580 King
Like our Queen Street space, 580 King was also privately owned, so we were again at the mercy of our landlords. On this, we could empathize with the hundreds of young people at SKETCH who were also seen as an ‘inconvenience’ and at the mercy of their landlords. We took a leap of faith, left King Street, and accepted the invitation to move into Artscape Youngplace, a repurposed school that was becoming a Community Hub for individual artists and organizations.
A first look at 180 Shaw Street before the build!
It was a risk to make this commitment and there were many questions – would young people cross the building’s threshold – a literal entrance to a ‘school’? Not exactly a place that would conjure up good memories.
How would the community respond to our presence? Would we run into bigger challenges of being seen as an ‘inconvenience’? How long would it take to settle into the space and have it work in the way we envisioned? This would only happen if the participant community saw it as their own.
When we launched programs in our new space in 2014, we figured it would simply take time….or at least that’s what we thought.
But youth found us and again our numbers grew!! From all over Toronto and the GTA, they found us and they began to create and build in this new multi-discipline studio! Then the rise of social enterprise prompted us to look at the ways in which we could generate revenue. And that’s how we developed SpaceShare, our studio rental enterprise.
SKETCH was offering a lot at that time: ten-week seasonal programs three times a year, plus a summer-nights season. As well as our triannual “Open Studio.” SKETCH became a space young people with potential could access to begin their journey of creativity, community building, co-learning and leadership. Yes, we were doing a lot!
Things were good….and then another challenge. Like SKETCH, Toronto was also rapidly changing right before our eyes.
After some financial forecasting, it dawned on us that with skyrocketing real estate prices, we would not be able to afford rent within five years. This would mean having to move yet again and losing not only our community, but the investments and hard work that had gone into renovating and outfitting our studios!
What were we going to do? How would we protect it? We couldn’t take it all with us!
We had to find a financial structure that could both help us buy the studios and work for an organization like ours.
Then we met Michael Sacke, an Impact Investor Specialist who understood the challenges facing not-for-profits to build capital and sustainability. Michael had been wondering where he could spend his energies when we met with him. We talked about our intention to purchase the space but we had no money to do this. We needed help and a creative and innovative approach. As the conversation went on, Michael started to bring up this idea of impact investing: investments “made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention of generating a measurable, social or environmental impact, alongside a financial return.” Impact investments generate capital to address social and environmental issues…and find solutions!
Then, it was almost like a chain reaction. After meeting Michael, former Artscape CEO Tim Jones told us about Tapestry Community Capital and connected us to the Inspirit Foundation’s Director of Social Finance and Investing, Jory Cohen. This began to bring all the right people together to build possibilities! It is what we do at SKETCH after all!
We had the ideas, we had people with expertise, and now we had to get approval from the Board to go ahead. We presented the plan and – big credit to them all – they agreed. Two caveats though: our ‘mortgage fees’ could not cost more than the rent we’d been paying, and we could not take any resources from operations. They agreed to hold the tension with us and gave us the green light. But there were more questions to be wrestled with.
What would happen if SKETCH did not secure the money? What were the risks in embarking on an impact investing journey as a community arts charity?
Even though SKETCH had been around for over two decades, we were still virtually unknown to the general public and had no recognizable brand.
We were also working within the charitable model which traditionally can be seen as a ‘waste of resources’. And many feel charities should not have ownership of property as an asset.
But with the support and encouragement from folks like Michael Sacke, Celia Smith, David Walsh, Mitchell Cohen and many others, we entered into the world of impact investing. Was there any other way to access capital, secure this space, and save our investment in the studio’s infrastructure, and build a more sustainable future?
We started with nothing but I knew deep in my belly that inviting people to believe in this project was the right way to go.
It was exhausting at times, lots of highs and lots of lows. Over the next several months there were multiple meetings, sometimes many all in one day! But I had to speak to many before I got the first “yes.”
Famous Person by Sue Cohen
My priority conversation was introducing the project to our participant community. When I first presented Project Home to these amazing young people, I was met with utter silence. (We couldn’t even afford to provide tokens for those coming to our programs, and yet there I was telling them that we were venturing to raise $4 million dollars to buy this space!) But the silence turned out to be about the frustration of the thought of having to move. They let me know they were 100% behind the purchase if it meant that it would secure the space and that SKETCH would remain in this community.
As our campaign progressed, even our ideas of what it meant to “own” the space shifted. We realized that we wanted this journey to be about the stewardship of the space, rather than the ownership. We do not ‘own’, but we do have a responsibility to care for the land we are inhabiting. This was an important principle as we moved forward in the project.
We have an important space here in Toronto, and we have established ourselves as an organization that will do whatever it takes to stay. We must remain fierce in our mission, vision and principles.
The world around us is always shifting and we continue to lean into the work of it all. Twenty years ago, when we moved from Queen Street to King Street, 9/11 happened. We had just signed the lease for 580 King, and I thought “this tragedy changes so many things, it changes the way we experience ourselves and our work in the world.”
It made me want to care for our community even more.
Supper is served at 580 King!
Now here we are in 2021 and In a global pandemic. Our capacity to overcome, stay present and engaged, and keep working has been so essential. We need to take care of our home and be witness to the profound voices experiencing poverty, precarity, racism and gender-bias.
We kept to our mission and vision by securing our space so that we would be there for that conversation to keep going. Through Project Home, individuals, entrepreneurs, and foundations have both invested in SKETCH and enabled us to plant our roots firmly.
With your commitment, we have laid a foundation and we are committed to following through with wherever that will lead us. Project Home is a pure impact investment – a real community based investment.
What is next? What am I thinking now?
How about exploring more questions like; How can we shift the narrative around charity models? How can we create a model that invests directly in young people and their ideas of how to make change, build right relations, heal and learn allyship? How do we create spaces for deeper co-learning? Together, in our community could we build space to ideate and create new ways of being together that are based on racial and social equity and justice?