Victorians should welcome the prospect of a new arts centre in the old Bastion Square courthouse.
A NEW BLACK-BOX THEATRE, a recital hall, artists’ studios, media labs, classrooms, a work-oriented gastropub—all these amenities and more could sprout up and thrive under one roof Downtown, if the Province advances its plans to revive the old courthouse building in Bastion Square.
On November 15, the Province received five submissions to its “request for information” for possible uses of the 1889-built courthouse, a national historic site. One pitch was for a commercial development, one for a community centre. The Maritime Museum of B.C. also proposed returning to the courthouse — where it had been based for 49 years, until the Province closed the building in 2014 for safety reasons — and revamping it into a $45-million national maritime museum, with a new 12,000-square-foot annex for travelling exhibits. But what didn’t get as much headline ink was the bid, supported by the City of Victoria and the Downtown Victoria Business Association, to remake the building into the 28 Bastion Square Creative Hub.
“It’s really missing in Victoria, this kind of central, arts-community space. We certainly don’t have it Downtown,” says Ian Piears, the current project lead. Piears, a former actor and puppeteer with the UK’s National Theatre, credits his growth as an artist to similar hubs he used in the United Kingdom. “You’re meeting different people and showing your work,” he says. “Unfortunately in Victoria, with space being so precious, people are off in their own little areas, and don’t have that opportunity to collaborate more.”
One example of such a hub in this country he cites is Artscape Youngplace, in Toronto’s Queen West neighbourhood. Originally an old public school, in 2013 it underwent a $19-million renovation, and today it’s home to an Indigenous theatre centre, a bookbindery, a contemporary art gallery, and film and video production companies. Victoria-born pianist Eve Egoyan has a studio there too.
A model for Bastion Square: Toronto's Artscape Youngplace (Photo by Garrison McCarthur Photography)
In April of 2018, Piears and other local artists conducted a design charette with HCMA Architecture to similarly reimagine the courthouse. The main hall of the ground floor could become an experimental project space, opening to an outdoor stage onto Boomerang Court to the north. The Province has required that some of the building’s heritage elements be preserved, such as its “birdcage” elevator, and its third-floor courtroom — which might become “The Stand,” a lecture hall and memorial to First Nations’ conflicts with the colonial justice system. (See the design charette sketches HERE.) A rough estimate pegged the arts-hub reno at $20.5 million, which included a seismic upgrade, a new service elevator, and a commercial kitchen.
Those plans aren’t set in stone. Piears says flexibility will be crucial to the space, and its users will ultimately decide how it develops. Although tickets might be sold to shows in the theatre or recital hall, the goal is that the hub is constantly full of activity, and that the public can always see and participate in it. “The thing that’s come through again and again is that the door is always open,” Piears says. “You’re not paying an entry fee to get inside.”
The Province says there are no guarantees it will proceed with redevelopment of the courthouse, but Piears remains optimistic. The Province knows the building is important, he says, and “hopefully, they’ll keep the momentum going. It’s a huge shame for it to sit there empty.” To sustain that momentum, he’s soliciting letters of support for the project, from artists who would use it for performances, organizations that might become tenants, potential private funders, and members of the public (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
The need for such a space increases daily. “As prices rise, it gets pretty prohibitive to stay Downtown,” says Matthew Payne, artistic director of the always-inventive Theatre SKAM, which has staged shows in parked cars, on loading docks, at Macaulay Point’s artillery emplacements, and along the Galloping Goose trail. (SKAM celebrates its 25th birthday on January 11; see their Facebook event page for details.) Currently, SKAM runs popular classes in acting and stagecraft for kids in a rented house in North Park, and stages plays in a Fort Street retail space currently slated to be demolished to make way for a seniors’ development, so they’ll be forced to move again soon. Payne helped advise the design charette for the courthouse, and says an arts hub there would be a great opportunity for SKAM: “After 25 years, we’ve evolved to a place where we could really use a permanent home.”
— Ross Crockford
Edited by Ross Crockford