This March, work begins to decide whether an old Hudson’s Bay Company warehouse in Yellowknife can be given new life – and what that life will be.

The Yellowknife Artists Co-operative Ltd has raised enough money to begin a feasibility study into ways of turning the building, a designated heritage site at 3501 Wiley Road, into a space that provides artists from across the North a place to perfect their craft.

At the same time, the group must decide how to best satisfy the city’s wide variety of artists and arts collectives.

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“The arts community is not commonly known for collaborative efforts,” admitted Matthew Grogono, the co-operative’s president. “Artists, when they feel artistic, often retreat to their own studio or own space to create art.

“The community has been lobbying for a very long time for the advancement and the development of the arts community, arts education programs, and artist supports. That is the question – can those interest groups find enough common ground to come up with a plan for utilizing the Hudson Bay Building?”

‘Quick to say yes’

Recently, the City of Yellowknife’s Heritage Committee awarded the group $3,000 to conduct its feasibility study – an unusual step, as the committee does not ordinarily issue funding to for-profit organizations. A further $10,000 has been provided by the territorial government’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment (ITI), with the remainder of the study’s $21,000 cost coming from members of the public.

Raising the money needed shows the arts are fully supported by the Yellowknife community, argues Grogono.

“We had an initial, very small market testing to see if there was support from the community to move forward with this project,” he said. “Members of the city like Dave Lovell were quick to say yes. ITI? Yes. The City? Yes.”

Lovell, a former mayor of Yellowknife, was the first person to donate to the co-operative.

“I think that the arts in Yellowknife are very, very vibrant,” Lovell told Cabin Radio. “You have everything you can possibly think of – painting, music, everything, the theatre – and I do think that it needs to be supported.

“A lot of good people work hard on sports and that, but I think it’s time to take a look at how to sponsor the arts community.”

Five years

That argument is timely, as artists in the North take their dispute over lottery funding – presently limited only to sports and recreation – to the territorial government.

Grogono hopes his project, if successful, could one day become the collective voice that the arts in the north has previously lacked. But it won’t happen in the immediate future.

The feasibility study, to be started in March, is on a “finish as fast as possible” timeline according to Grogono. However, if the project goes ahead, the process of converting the Old Town property into a fully functioning arts centre will be long, and expensive.

“The plan is to have the thing up and running in full capacity in four or five years’ time,” said Grogono. “We figure within five years, we’re in the ballpark of something like $5 million.”

Following the feasibility study’s conclusions, Grogono and the Yellowknife Artists Co-operative will next establish a business plan for the centre for presentation to the current property owners.