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Renovating the arts

The Artful Dodger promises huge space for local artists of all stripes

Jonathan Petrychyn
A&C Editor

The old brick building that houses 1631 11th Ave. is one of a series of unassuming and abandoned storefronts in building that lays on the edge of downtown and the heritage district. It’s easy to walk past unnoticed despite its size and vibrant red brick façade. Its windows are papered up, its doors are creaking and unmarked except for the metal address number.

For Carol Cairns, it was perfect.

“We drove by. We were looking for a building in the area – just downtown area – and saw a lease sign in the window,” Cairns said. “I liked the art moderne style of it, and it looked like it was large enough because the building had to be large enough to house everything we wanted to do. Once I got inside of the building and did a tour I was excited for the possibilities.

By the end of March, the unassuming but large brick building – and Regina’s arts scene – will be transformed into a multidisciplinary artistic hub housing dozens of artistic projects, organizations, and individuals, at the centre of which will be the café and music space The Artful Dodger.

The Artful Dodger gets its name from a character in the classic musical Oliver! Like its filmic counterpart, The Artful Dodger will be the centre of creativity and life in the city.

“The vision for this was to have a space large enough where you can have artist’s studios and businesses related to the arts and like a variety and create this whole energy,” Cairns said.

The Artful Dodger will share the spotlight with the TAE Contemporary Art Gallery, which will be located in an adjoining space in another one of the currently unused storefronts.

“We want to be self-sustaining, so that’s why we would have the licensed café and music area,” Cairns said. “We would like the artists to be working in the gallery and the café, and they’d be giving art lessons and music lessons.”

Cairns comes from a varied artistic background as the former performing arts director of the Organization of Saskatchewan Arts Councils and the founder of the Gateway Festival. She even holds a studio space at the Creative City Centre, and so it makes sense that her vision would include performing arts, visual arts, and everything in between.

Central to Cairns’ vision of the space is a vision of unity and community, a space where people can gather for food, music, and art.

“People for all time have come together with food, and art, and music,” said Cairns. “So food has always been a part of that sense of community and celebration. I really believe in the importance of the arts, and that’s why this space needs to be big enough to house everything, both the performing and visual arts.”

Cairns added it was important that she didn’t “do anything in isolation.” She said she wants to mimic the environment of university so that recent graduates could transition easily into Regina’s arts community.

“The university’s like an island,” Cairns said. “[It has] this supportive wonderful energy where you’re feeding off of each other, critiquing constantly, and you’re in this awesome space, but it’s like an island. And once you’re off the island, and onto the mainland, there’s this period of time where you have to reinvent yourself, or you’re trying to figure out how do you redefine yourself as an artist and as an individual once you leave that university.

“So I’m trying to build a bridge between the university and the mainland so that emerging artists and students of the arts can have a space where they can go and integrate with the mainstream public.”   

Cairns envisions the space encompassing as many different artists and artistic endeavours as can fit into the building, from music to film to improv. The main floor is a whopping 7,800 square feet and has a basement to match.

But while the main floor and the Artful Dodger is looking at creating a “comfortable environment” for the public to engage with new and emerging artists, Cairns envisions the basement as a more free-flowing space.

“Think Andy Warhol’s The Factory,” said Cairns. “I wanted to create a space where people could let their ideas you know be realized. … If there’s something you want to try out, you want to do poetry slams or whatever, and maybe you don’t want to do it upstairs at The Artful Dodger, maybe you want to try something out in a more intimate setting with friends or whatever, you can do that downstairs.”

It may be hard to imagine how a vision as grand and broad as Cairns’ is all going to fit into one building. But looks can be deceiving, and it’s difficult to describe the amount of space that exists. The basement is a maze of rooms of varying sizes, from small closets to intimate theatre spaces.

Of course, everything still has to be imagined, because the space is still under construction.

One of the many rooms houses a letter press that local print collective Articulate Ink is hoping to restore. Its members held a fundraiser last August to restore the press they found in the space.

Karli Jessup, one of the founders of Articulate Ink, was excited at the possibility of using the letterpress in the space. Because of the sheer weight of the thing, the group is unable to move the press to its third-floor space at the Creative City Centre.

“It’s a space that we do use, but we’re not gonna like move all our stuff there and be there permanently, because the press is like way too big and heavy to move up to the Creative City Centre,” Jessup said. “Like we’re packed [at the Creative City Centre]. We have the four of us, plus three members, all of the equipment that we have.

“The space down there is going to be sort of a shared space. Michelle [Brownridge, another member of Articulate Ink] wants to make a darkroom in one of the rooms.”

Comparisons have been launched comparing The Artful Dodger to the Creative City Centre and The Artesian on 13th, two other arts venues that have opened up in the last year. Marian Donnelly, CEO of the Creative City Centre, insisted that,though the venues may be “competing slightly for the same audience on some nights,” the three venues will be working together to further the arts in Regina.

“We are preferring to work collaboratively than competitively,” said Donnelly in an email to the Carillon. “For example, the Creative City Centre took the lead in developing a grant application to the [Saskatchewan] Arts Board to support a joint marketing initiative to promote events at the Creative City Centre, the Artesian on 13th, and the Artful Dodger.

“We are already working together to sort out what that marketing initiative will look like and will be having a number of planning sessions to work it out before the Artful Dodger opens.”

The grant application was successful, and the three organizations were approved for $25,000 to develop a joint marketing initiative.

Donnelly believes that, though each organization will be working independently from the other outside of marketing, the three venues will be bringing something unique to the Regina arts scene.

“The thing that sets us apart from other music venues in town is that the audience actually sits and listens to the music at our venues,” Donnelly said. “At our venues, the priority is what is happening on the stage. And the artists appreciate that as much as the audiences do.”

That being said, however, Cairns looks at the Artful Dodger as being a slightly different experience from that of the Creative City Centre or The Artesian.

“Their music space is either only rented out, or open during specific times,” Cairns said. “Where our biggest thing revolves being open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. There’s constant feeding of the arts. So then you have a café and the music venue. It opens up more possibilities.”

The venue will open at the end of March and will immediately play host to both local fare, like MFA student Crystal Howie’s exhibition, and national acts like Vancouver’s Said The Whale.

Andy Warhol said in the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame. Cairns and the Artful Dodger staff surely hope he was underestimating.

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