A labour of love: Origin Arts and Community Centre looks to the future in Hintonburg

By Rosa Saba

The Origin Arts and Community Centre has been operating in Hintonburg for two years, hosting performances, workshops and other events in a small, welcoming, low-cost space — all part of an effort to make the arts more accessible in Ottawa.

But the idea for the centre began much earlier than that, in the minds of two Ottawa artists with a shared dream of fostering the development of emerging talent. Now, the coordinators of Origin are struggling to renovate the space in the hopes of expanding their client base and extending their reach in the community.

When performance artist Jacqui du Toit moved to Ottawa from South Africa in 2011, she felt something was missing.

Jacqui du Toit. Photo: Merrit Decloux

“I found there was a lack of arts community,” said du Toit. She immediately began organizing grassroots events for new and emerging artists in Ottawa, and the idea for a permanent space for these creative spirits began to form in her mind.

Jamaal Jackson Rogers, a spoken word poet, arts educator and Ottawa’s current English-language poet laureate, had the same idea around the same time: establishing a small-scale community arts hub that would be both accessible and affordable for emerging Ottawa artists, especially youth.

In 2015, the opportunity arose to rent a space in Hintonburg, a small spot near du Toit’s home that once housed the Happy Goat coffee roastery. Du Toit used to visit Happy Goat often, and had even envisioned it as a performance space. So when Jackson Rogers approached du Toit about opening a community arts centre, she knew just the place.

“We had only to look at the space and we knew that was it,” Jackson Rogers said. “We inherited the space two days later.”

“We’ve been working on it ever since,” du Toit said. “It’s just been thriving.”

Jamaal Jackson Rogers. Photo: Rosa Saba

In fact, the venue has been so busy, there’s been no time to even celebrate the birth of the OACC with a grand opening.

“We’ve been in the renovation stage for the past two years,” noted Jackson Rogers. “But because of the popularity and the affordability of it … we haven’t even been able to launch.”

The first show at the Origin Arts and Community Centre was held in November 2015, six months after the space was acquired. Du Toit, Jackson Rogers and his older brother Captain — also a spoken word and hip hop artist — spent those first months renovating the space with their own limited budgets; there was no outside funding. So the three put in their own time tearing down walls, fixing doors, painting, and doing everything they could to make the space ready for performances.

The small, square building houses a stage, a floor covered in colourful carpets, a small kitchen and a ceiling covered in old doors and cabinets, the combined effect being down-to-earth, artistic and welcoming.

“We became carpenters and masons and handymen,” said Captain. “We had to think creatively, pinch our budgets from our pockets, and really find a way to make it nice and cosy.”

The three co-ordinators of Origin wanted to use the space not only to facilitate the development of young and emerging artists, but also as a venue to host their own programs and performances.

“All three of us wanted to give back to the community,” Captain said. “This is a labour of love for all three of us.”

Throughout the past two years, the space has been rented for dance practices, musical performances, poetry nights, workshops and youth programs, including the Amplified Youth Coffee House — part of a Trillium Foundation-funded project to showcase the talents of young artists and the work of aspiring impresarios learning how to stage cultural events.

However, because Origin charges much lower prices than other rental spaces, revenue is limited and not always enough to cover the cost of actually running the place. The remaining funds come from Jackson Rogers, du Toit and Captain, all of whom work full-time.

Now, the artists are looking to expand opportunities for Origin, with significant renovations planned for the Lyndale Avenue venue. Du Toit wants to start hosting arts programs next fall for Ottawa youth. Jackson Rogers wants hardwood floors, a full kitchen facility and mirrors — all things that would make the space suitable for a wider range of rental clients.

But there are obstacles, the primary one being money.

Many of the grants and awards available through local or provincial funding bodies don’t match Origin’s scale or management model. Other funding sources are only available to tax-paying organizations or commercial businesses, which Origin is not, said Jackson Rogers.

Renovations could mean more clients, and the possibility of operating as a commercial business, but like his partners, Jackson Rogers said he has limited money to put towards the project, and limited time as well.

“When we’re looking at gathering people in that space on a consistent basis, we want to make sure that there’s no issues,” he said, but “we’re not finding any kind of funding programs that support that cost.”

Du Toit said they plan on trying to raise funds through staging events, and are considering options such as Patreon, the subscription-based crowd-funding platform that helps sustain many fledgling arts enterprises across North America.

Jackson Rogers said he will continue to apply for any grants and awards he can identify; and both artists agreed that any awards they receive as artists will be going towards improving Origin and making it a sustainable model for accessible community arts programs, well into the future.

“We want it to finally get to a place where it’s … rented so much that it could pay for itself,” said Captain. “We’re always doing little things.”

He emphasized the warm, inviting atmosphere of the space, which he and the co-owners of Origin envisioned from the very beginning.

“This is what the Origin Arts and Community Centre is,” Jackson Rogers said. “It’s a smaller, affordable, accessible venue … for the arts to still thrive and serve the community and reach people.”

This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.

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