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Building Bridges to Unknown Culture

Updated: May 6

By Conor Fitzgerald, JD/MBA '22

The arts are in a bad spot. And not just the arts, but media too. After three years of being trained to avoid large groups, take Zoom calls, and binge watch 2 seasons of Love is Blind every year, it feels like every form of cultural expression is hurting badly. With the proliferation of generative AI urging us on, it feels as though, like fashion, furniture, and food before it, culture is becoming disposable. When things become “fast” they lose meaning and create issues; the speed of consumption has created environmental and health crises over the past 40 years, which we are just now working to “correct” (whether or not the actions we take to correct these crises actually accomplish anything are for another discussion). No matter what, culture has reached an inflection point, and it’s up to cultural managers to recognize and respond. 

Bygone Theatre has decided to respond with the Bridge, an interdisciplinary art space run with UKAI Projects that activates unused office space to “create bridges to unknown culture” - an opportunity to activate some of the ~30 million square feet of office space that had become unused during the pandemic. 

When I had my first few conversations with Jerrold McGrath, the Research Lead of UKAI Projects and author of “In Praise of Disorder,” he told me that we are in a period of cultural destruction and what will define the future is how we position ourselves to rise from the ashes. I think there are a lot of people who either recognize that TikTok and Youtube and disrupting and defining the future of cultural consumption, but either I’ve heard that this is (1) a natural type of growth that should be embraced or (2) a “kids these days” way to yell at clouds. There are two things I’ve observed: the proliferation of fast culture has eroded attention spans and made people seek out “experiences.” I’m not one to yell at clouds, and I also recognize that anyone who fails to listen to societal changes gets left behind – so Jerry’s words really spoke true. My gut reaction was fear. If I have dedicated my life to culture and I’m about to watch it burn, what does that mean to me? 

Artists have always been the harbingers of societal change. Commentators, philosophers, and entertainers – artists reflect and challenge society to create “culture,” which is really just the amalgamation of shared experience. Artists need and deserve space to explore and create; we opened the Bridge at 379 Adelaide St W in Toronto as a response to a number of issues: (1) the prevailing problem of unused office space; (2) the rapidly declining ability for artists to access space and infrastructure affordably; (3) the need to research and respond to shifting cultural norms. These issues are at the core of the Bridge’s business plan. We have focused on creating programmatic strategies and interdisciplinary partnerships to fund the space. The point of the Bridge is to be an open space for research and exploration to both give artists an opportunity to be the cultural creators they have always been in a way that is responsive to the changing marketplace. So many spaces in the city are for something specific – often this is a specific type of artist, or a specific type of person, or for a specific type of presentation. Usually this is because either a company is focused on its own, internal growth (when they create their own space rather than renting others’) or because there is an unmet need or marginalized group. I’m not saying that these are not valid and needed additions to the cultural landscape – especially in the case of magnifying and making available programs and space for those historically excluded – but there was something missing. 

The Bridge doesn’t have a corporate structure. It has partners who use the space to fulfill a purpose. Bygone Theatre operates the lease, and therefore those purposes are defined by a charitable and societal need, but the governance of the space is flat. At its core, the Bridge recognizes that a response to cultural production shift is not siloed. That is, a reduction in theatre goers is not going to be solved by theatres alone. As I said, culture, as a whole, is reflective and responsive to society, and in that way defines it, so we work together to find new ways to respond, new ways to fund, and new ways to produce culture. 

The key to this goal is accessibility – and true accessibility, for all groups. What we have recognized is that there is only one common trait among all artists – there is not enough money to create. The reason why people don’t interact with the arts is because it doesn’t meet their needs. When what is created is based upon access to resources, then few perspectives define expression. However, because access to resources is limited, we assess the value of expression based on an attempt at objective evaluation. This is true of grants, but it is also true of how artists choose their expression. Either art needs to fit into the strategic goals of a funding body, or it needs to reduce risk by trying to maximize consumption. In theatre, this usually means either highlighting specific experiences that may not be accessible, or ensuring that an aging population feels comfortable. This effectively creates a dichotomy of “art” which is often catered to a small group of “culturally elite” and “commercial” which is catered to the masses. In my opinion, the real proliferation of culture happens somewhere in between. 

In brass tacks terms, Bygone Theatre needs about $250,000 over the next 18 months to deliver programming that will provide access to the greatest number of artists and prove the model for future development. We’re looking to add two more partners who want to use the space consistently (as a daytime office, performance or research area in our 3500sqft shared space, and/or meeting space in our board room) and raise about $150,000 to provide access, mentorships, and infrastructure to artists in Toronto, coming together to find new paths to culture. 

The model the Bridge is building is replicable. This is an artist-led, non-corporate structure that can reduce the reliance on public funding, the need for large scale infrastructure (like Artscape), and allow more artists to create responsive culture, making Toronto a leader in cultural production. We are the most diverse city in the world, and I think it’s a natural base to create the foundation of the future, especially in this time of political, social, and economic uncertainty. I’d love to bring you all along as we build this bridge to unknown culture. Feel free to call or email me (647-454-3797, if you want to join the ride. 

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