Bartley Collective rebuilds its North York arts hub

The industrial warehouse-turned-art space and experimental living project forges on after fire inspection forces out residential tenants

The party may be over for the Bartley Umbrella Building Collective, but the real work is just getting started.

The 35,000 square-foot warehouse south of Victoria Village in North York is zoned for light industrial uses, but for the last seven years has grown into an eco-arts and community hub attracting arts groups and makers as well as industrial uses. 

Matthew Krist, one of 20 core members of the collective, is longtime artistic director of Frolick Theatre, one of several arts groups leasing space in the building. He moved his multi-faceted, interactive theatre troupe to Bartley in 2014 after stints at the now-defunct Lagoon Theatre on Toronto Island and Bavia Arts Studio on St. Clair West.

He describes the Bartley Collective as a tight-knit group of “geniuses” doing everything from building solar stoves and Burning Man sculptures, to restoring antiques and growing food. Other building tenants include Truly Local Farms, which designs systems that enable urbanites to grow their own food, and Green Gardeners, whose owner Andrew Roy stewards a half-acre of land on the property that grows 180 types of plants.

“It’s a place where if you were working until 5 am, you can find a place to just curl up and get back to work after a couple hours rest,” Krist says, comparing it to New York’s Chelsea Hotel that housed numerous artists, musicians, writers and actors in its heyday. He credits Bartley’s landlord for providing what he calls “flexible management.” Tenants pay between $500 and $1,000 to rent space. Some of those renting space have taken up residency full-time, converting the facilities to live-work spaces.

As word got out, Krist says homeless people, some with severe mental illnesses, joined. “There was an eclectic mix of entrepreneurial artists and anarchists, and it led to a bit of a volatile arrangement for a while before coming to a head this summer,” he says.

That’s when the Toronto Fire Department came calling in August and ordered $10,000 worth of upgrades to the fire alarm system. Zoning for the area allows there to be no more than 30 people in the building for work-related purposes only, which means full-time tenants have been forced to find other accommodation. 

Frolick Studio Theatre.jpg

Frolick Theatre is one of several arts tenants at 160 Bartley Drive.

Tenants and building users, such as the annual Burning Man Decompression party, which attracted hundreds of “burners” to the venue last November, had to cancel or postpone their events.

While many tenants are abandoning the warehouse, groups like Frolick Theatre are staying put. 

On Halloween, Krist put together a giant haunted house dinner theatre, and until November 5, he’s leading Frolick In The Face Of Certain Death, an interactive and experiential tour at the warehouse.

He says the owner of the building has been in discussions with the Collective about next steps.

Krist notes that the industrial area is changing. Bartley Collective neighbours include Celebrations Banquet Hall, a Fitness Depot and a mosque. To the east there’s a retirement home and long-term care facility, and a residential development mostly comprised of townhouses being built.

But Krist is not worried about filling the space. He says a rising number of arts organizations downtown are losing ground to condo developments and rising real estate. There’s interest in low-rent spaces like 160 Bartley Drive as word gets out.

“I’m carrying the flame and saying, ‘We can make this work.’ We have an awesome space and great artists who are putting their heart and soul into creating something unique. There’s lots of opportunity here still.” | @michdas

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