Edmonton artist hub Harcourt House faces closure after 34 years

The cost of a studio space is based on square footage, making them affordable options for many artists. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC - image credit)
The cost of a studio space is based on square footage, making them affordable options for many artists. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC - image credit)

The Harcourt House Artist Run Centre has been a hub for Edmonton artists for more than three decades but is now facing closure unless it can raise millions of dollars to buy the property it occupies.

Its two buildings in Edmonton's Oliver neighbourhood offer affordable studio spaces, public galleries, and instructional spaces.

Created by the non-profit Where Edmonton Community Artists Network (W.E.C.A.N.) Society, board president and sculptor Edmund Haakonson said it's the only space of its kind outside of Toronto.

"I mean, [the buildings are] not sort of shiny and new and all spit and polished, they are not that," Haakonson said.

"But as artists, that's not what we need, these buildings are perfectly suited to our needs. So to be informed on relatively short notice that our lease was not going to be renewed was difficult."

Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC
Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC

The board was informed last year that the provincial government would not be renewing their lease in November.

After months of negotiations with Alberta Infrastructure, who owns the buildings, the group was granted a one-year extension to raise $3.5 million for buying the properties by November 30 this year.

"Which we believe is actually doable," Haakonson said. "It sounds a little bit insane but it's much more doable than what the initial statement might sound like."

Since 1988, artists of various skill levels and experience have been renting or on the wait-list for Harcourt's 42 studio spaces.

The collective has produced pieces that can be found all over Edmonton and Canada, from Ritchie Velthuis' sculpture of Bob and Doug Mackenzie in the Ice District, to Barbara Paterson's Famous Five statues on Parliament Hill.

The revenue collected from studio rentals covers the cost of operations and funds education and exhibition programs.

Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC
Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC

Haakonson has been working out of his third-floor studio for 26 years. He said much of the buildings' magic comes from the easy access to other artists.

A walk down the hall can result in feedback or inspiration. Harcourt said for those starting out there's potential for mentorship or advice from more seasoned artists.

"For somebody who's been working as an artist for a long time, having somebody just starting out is just energizing and it's a reminder of all the reasons why we do this. So the complete picture is the reason why Harcourt needs to exist."

Painter Mary Whale said her decision to rent a studio space changed her life.

"I never really felt like an artist until I moved here," Whale said. "I had three daughters, there's always laundry to do, but I always painted. I was a nurse for 30 years but I always painted.

But by coming here, you can leave everything behind and you can be what you truly are supposed to be. I was really surprised at the difference that it made."

Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC
Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC

The thought of losing her cozy studio space was enough to bring tears to her eyes.

"I left nursing to paint full-time. And I can afford this and it's really made a difference for me. But I have no idea what's going to happen here. Community-based artists are different and they just struggle to survive. But this is a happy place."

W.E.C.A.N. was created in response to the Black Friday Tornado that struck Edmonton on July 31, 1987.

Over 200 Alberta artists came together and organized an auction event to raise funds for relief efforts.

Out of destruction; a community evolved. Within a year, a lease was signed and Harcourt House has been the society's home for the past 34 years.

"Now we're facing the other direction where we now need other people's help," Haakonson said.

"It's vital because once this disappears, it's gone forever. It won't be recreated.

"Some of the artists here just won't find a studio space again. We will be scattered to the wind."