Friday, June 9, 2023

Near and Now: Ace of Space- Catching Up with Jeremy Freiburger and COBALT Connects

Jeremy Freiburger has been busy during the pandemic. A life long Hamiltonian, Freiburger has always been a vocal advocate for the city as a vibrant hub of culture and innovation. In 2003, Freiburger founded COBALT Connects, a not-for-profit with a provincial mandate to advance projects, policies, research and facilities in support of the cultural sector. As the Founder and Cultural Strategist for COBALT, Freiburger has helped spearhead or facilitate a myriad of initiatives in collaboration with dozens of organizations across Ontario. Although the scope of COBALT’s work on these projects varies, the importance of making creative and culture spaces cannot be overlooked; the organization has been integral to developing over 200,000 square feet of cultural space throughout Ontario. Pandemic losses, with arduous lockdowns and audience limitations, have hit artists hard especially when it comes to the availability of sustainable performance and rehearsal spaces. But I had the chance to catch up with Jeremy, and ask him about COBALT’s recent initiatives in making space for artists and what they could mean for Hamilton.

Stephen: Recently, COBALT has been developing a sort of in-house space for use by your organization and other artists. What can you tell us about it?

Jeremy: Cobalt Connects has been developing space for the cultural community in Hamilton, and throughout Ontario, for nearly 20 years. Our most recent space is our Parkdale Warehouse [which was] created to house our growing collection of equipment for festivals and events, and to open the door into a few other areas of interest. [We] do work in public art, and more and more that’s leading into the creation and fabrication of projects. So we wanted a big open space to explore these kinds of artistic production.We’ve also been aware of the need for music rehearsal space in Hamilton, so this [warehouse] also includes a 250 square foot music studio used by a few local bands. So essentially we have a 5000 square foot warehouse that serves some of our immediate needs, but also leaves lots of open space to explore new areas of interest.

Stephen: COBALT has also been working with others in the arts community to help develop a space for performance artists. What can you tell us about that [initiative] and this new space tied to that collaboration?

Jeremy: During the pandemic we were afforded the luxury of time to talk with artists and producers in the community. We organized some loose conversations on Zoom with local theatre and dance artists. These conversations led to some thoughts about space – [those] we were losing, [those] we’ve never had, etc. With the studio building boom of the early 2000s, everyone and their brother started making ‘studios’ in the real estate sector. But what they were really making were offices that could suit artists.  This served a segment of the visual and digital arts community but it always left out the theatre and dance community and their space needs.

The conversations led to a little survey about what was needed with an eye to the pre-production phases of work. We found a clear need for rehearsal and storage space in Hamilton. But the most important thing was the sector is tired of working in crappy spaces. The project earned the name “Beyond the Adequate” to express this need for purpose built space for theatre and dance pre-production.  We explored a few specific sites but each of them came back with huge challenges – be it zoning, ownership, capital upgrades.

The large open space at Parkdale has an in-house PA system and some theatrical lighting on-site.  It can certainly be converted to a theatre rehearsal space that meets the needs expressed in the survey.  But without a proper dance floor, the concrete floor doesn’t lend itself well to this use. In addition, we’re also well into developing the Music Hall downtown – a 1000-seat venue with multiple auxiliary spaces that will open up for rehearsals. In taking the helm of that facility we aim to include a pre-production rental program aimed at local theatre and dance producers so we can help incubate that sector in space that is ‘beyond the adequate’.

Stephen: The pandemic saw several performance venues close, and many artists are having the same conversations about space they were having before COVID. Where do you see the future of new performance venues in Hamilton?

Jeremy: Venues have been hit hard.  I think of guys like Brodie from the Casbah and how important they are to the cultural venue ecosystem. We can’t afford to lose places like the Casbah. With the theatre community there’s a bit more protection.  Theatre Aquarius isn’t going anywhere, but they had to contract their spaces due to COVID. Community groups like HTI [Hamilton Theatre Inc.], DLT [Dundas Little Theatre] and the Players Guild are also pretty safe – but limited in their ability to serve the growing professional scene. 

Sadly I think we’ve come to the realization that the City won’t be championing a space for this sector.  They’ve sold off HECFI [Hamilton Entertainment and Convention Facilities Inc.], all but canceled the signature ‘cultural building’ as part of the Pier 8 development, the “Entertainment Precinct” has nothing to with local groups, and Bridgeworks is in reality a music venue.  So while they’ve owned real estate that could be designed to help this sector – it’s not happening. To see change in this issue the sector needs to come together – but that’s challenging.  There are lots of camps, big personalities, and limited resources. 

Honestly, with the real estate market in Hamilton, space projects are only going to come from breaking down collective barriers so groups can come together to face the onslaught of issues as a team.  The days of acquiring affordable space in Hamilton are over – and we can only take that big an issue on as a community.

Writer’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Stephen Near
Stephen Near
Stephen Near is a freelance writer and educator living in Hamilton. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He works at Mohawk and Humber College and is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and an alumnus of both the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen's plays have been produced at the Hamilton Fringe Festival and Theatre Aquarius and he is completing his first fiction novel.

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