West Queen West in Toronto, also known as the “Arts + Design District,” lost more than 76 per cent of its galleries in the last decade, and locals say this has drastically and irreversibly shifted the strip’s very identity.
Since 2004, West Queen West – spanning from Bathurst Street to Gladstone Avenue – has been defined by its artists. The strip had the highest concentration of galleries per kilometre than any other street in North America, with a total of 33. Today, there are only six. Even government-funded galleries like the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) – who moved away in 2018 – fell victim to this exodus.
Robert Sysak, executive director of the West Queen West BIA, said in a phone interview that surging rent – brought on by an increase in property values due to the arrival of high-density housing – drove out the galleries.
Beginning in 2013, Sysak said the strip saw an increase in the number of condominiums being built. He believes the developers moved in because West Queen West land was relatively cheaper than the surrounding areas. He estimates since then, property values have surged by over 50 per cent.
Sysak added developers purchased many of the properties being leased out to galleries. In 2013, developer Urbancorp applied for a permit from the city to demolish the buildings housing MOCA, the Clint Roenisch Gallery and the Edward Day Gallery to make way for a nine-storey condo tower, which would aptly be called “MOCCA Condo.” Since then, all three galleries have moved away.
“I don’t like to say it, but we got gentrified,” Sysak sighed.
Stephen Bulger, owner of the Stephen Bulger Gallery, echoed Sysak’s observation. He said in a phone interview that he opened his business in West Queen West in 1995 before relocating to Little Portugal in 2017 for a larger space. When he first moved to the street, his rent was approximately $10 per square foot. By the time he left, it had more than doubled.
“But others had it worse,” he said in a phone interview.
Bulger added his neighbours’ rent more than tripled or quadrupled in the same period.
“In that way, I was one of the lucky ones,” he quipped.
Landlords had their ‘hands tied’
Doc von Lichtenberg, owner of Doc’s Leathers on Queen Street West, said in an interview at his store that when the developers moved in, the city rezoned many parts of the area to accommodate them. This meant that under Ontario’s highest and best use tax policy, landlords were being taxed under the assumption their properties were multi-storey condos, even if this wasn’t the case.
Local landlord Joseph Gatto said these factors forced property owners to raise their rents up to three times more than what their gallery tenants could pay.
“We had our hands tied. There was nothing we could do except adapt,” Gatto said.
Sysak believes this gentrification has shifted West Queen West’s demographics. He noted the street today attracts more tourists and families than ever before.
“It’s still a mix. But now more than ever, at places like Trinity Bellwoods park, you see families with baby strollers or playing tennis. We have schools near us,” Sysak said.
Bulger said he also observed this demographic shift. He said he initially moved to West Queen West because he was attracted to the independent businesses characterizing the street.
“But when I left, those vendors were all but gone. Inevitably, the families and tourists didn’t want handcut fabrics, they wanted designer brands,” Bulger said.
Sysak added that specialized retailers – like galleries – can’t adjust to drastic market shifts by virtue of their business models. Consequently, when there isn’t a demand for independent galleries, it becomes unprofitable to run one.
West Queen West pre-gentrification
Lichtenberg said when he bought his building 29 years ago, it went for a relatively measly $60,000 because the folks who called West Queen West home scared away wealthier investors.
“The ladies of the night made their homes here, so the bohemians followed them. Consequently, so did the galleries,” he recalled.
Today, the only Bohemian you’ll find in the neighborhood is the owner of the Museum of New: Joseph Drapell – who hails from Humpolec, in Czechia’s Bohemia region.
Drapell settled in West Queen West back in 1990 when he bought his building for approximately $100,000, which he acquired from previous art dealings.
Because Drapell owns his building, he is one of few gallery owners fortunate enough to avoid being impacted by the surge in rents.
“The renters weren’t so lucky,” he said in an interview at his gallery.
In 1998, Drapell opened his Museum of New. He said back then, profitability was not a priority. It didn’t need to be. Despite his self-professed lack of business acumen, his paintings resonated with the street’s bohemian audience.
Today, Drapell said galleries can’t break even unless they cater to the strip’s new clientele, consequently compromising their artistic integrity.
“They had to sell out or move out,” he lamented.
An identity ever-changing
Robert Sysak said he believes that for better or for worse, neighbourhoods are always changing.
“We’re growing. That means change. It’s how we survived the pandemic,” Sysak said.
But, he also added that West Queen West has not lost its unique identity as Toronto’s premier art destination.
“We still have fabric shops, Michelin-starred restaurants and BIA-sponsored graffiti murals. That’s art, too,” Sysak said.
However, just like many other West Queen West community members, he still mourns the loss of the strip’s art galleries.
“But when you lose amazing people like Stephen Bulger, you can’t sit and mope about it. You have to ask yourself, ‘What do we do now?’” he said.
Sysak said the BIA has introduced and sponsored many initiatives to support the street’s galleries.
“When we noticed we were losing galleries, we did an outdoor art and artist gallery with QR codes, tours and sculptures with OCAD students,” he explained.
On the other hand, Gatto said this isn’t enough. He believes the stakes are too high for West Queen West to leave it only to the BIA to protect the street’s art galleries.
“The galleries are West Queen West,” he asserted.
He said because they brought in interesting people, they brought in interesting businesses, too.
“They brought a kind of texture to the neighbourhood that we’ve now lost,” he said.
He believes more subsidies, grants, and initiatives from all levels of government or the nearby OCAD University could bolster the strength of the strip’s remaining galleries.
“If the city or province wanted to implement a tax reduction for properties being leased out to art galleries, landlords would definitely accommodate,” he suggested.
And like Gatto, Drapell believes this exodus is a cultural blow not only to the community, but to Toronto art as a whole.
“When you focus on breaking even, you can’t dare. You make democratized, sanitized, family-friendly art catering only to the lowest common denominator of the masses,” he said.
Amid all this uncertainty, Gatto believes one thing is certain for West Queen West.
“It is the end of an era,” he said.