For Alica Hall, the new Nia Centre was a grand vision worth pursuing
The executive director of Toronto's new Black arts space saw the possibilities as an intern
Google "art gallery Toronto" and you are sure to get at least nearly 30 good suggestions, with a total of over 92 million Google search results. Every gallery is different ranging, from the ever-popular AGO to the quirky Museum of Illusions, but until November 2023, fewer than two of these results were exclusively dedicated to Black artists. Alica Hall, executive director of Nia Centre for the Arts, is determined to change that.
"Toronto has benefited from Black culture and the culture of African people who came here and brought their cultural traditions and their art," Hall says. "It has really infused the spirit of what is Toronto, yet we don't really see an ongoing and concerted effort to support Black artists."
Hall's vision of a $12 million Black arts centre took root while she was a young intern at Youth Challenge Fund, the group that gave the initial grant that brought Nia Centre for the Arts — then a grassroots organization — to life. Like all groups funded by Youth Challenge Fund, Nia Centre aimed to combat youth violence in the community during a period when Toronto was experiencing a spike in gun violence.
The process of seeing an arts education organization that centered Black voices come to life from the other side of the table was a rewarding experience, says Hall. The influence would stay with her as she pursued a career in communications, then was later hired as executive director of Nia Centre in 2018. The vision for having a physical arts centre remained relevant when Hall took charge, but by that time Nia Centre had a lease on an old medical centre at 524 Oakwood Ave. and only $1 million left from the initial Youth Challenge Fund grant.
"It's not like there's other Black art centres in the city that have undergone $12 million renovations," Hall says. "There are a lot of elements that have never been done before. So as a team, we had to be creative and responsive to the projects that we were approaching."
In just one year, the Nia Centre went from a team of one to a team of 10, and decided to take the initial modest plan of a one-floor renovation at 524 Oakwood Ave. to a three-storey renovation. Hall fundraised $6 million building relationships with patrons such as the Hilary and Galen Weston Foundation and individual donors from across the country, and even got the federal department of Canadian Heritage and the City of Toronto — who owns the property that the centre currently sits on — to chip in.
She consulted artists like architectural and structural specialist Philip Aitken, and worked with interior designer Robin Fraser and the architecture firm HOK to design a space that would not only sustain a wide variety of artistic disciplines but also pay homage to the African diaspora.
"The use of wood was inspired by the baobab tree, which is indigenous to Africa, and a place where the community tends to gather," says Hall. "We wanted to invoke some of those references that would create a sense of familiarity, like the corrugated metal found on the outside of the building, that's a material that is often found in urban communities in Africa and the Caribbean. It's a material that is relevant and familiar to our community."
Now the first of its kind in Toronto's history, the centre, located just steps from Little Jamaica, is a chic all-black, three-storey space outfitted with artists' studios, office spaces and a multidisciplinary performance space dedicated to showcasing and incubating Black multidisciplinary artists. The 14,000 square foot space officially opened to the public on Nov. 2, and has hosted a youth photography exhibit and a youth-driven showcase. Other opportunities to participate include an interior design program, a youth drop-in and a writing forum with acclaimed author Whitney French.
For artists like Shantel Miller, supporters like Nia Centre are the difference between anonymity and professional success. "I have a lot of love for Nia Centre," Miller says. "They have done beyond what words could describe for me in terms of creating those milestone moments for me to believe in myself, for me to trust my skills, and they've trusted me to share with their community."
Miller first connected with Nia Centre as a shy workshop participant who wanted to build her public speaking and engagement skills. Today she is an award-winning artist with a Master's in Fine Arts from Boston University and the recipient of several prestigious fellowships. She is also a frequent arts facilitator at Nia Centre.
For a long time, so much of the struggle for Black artists was the fact that their work was only celebrated during Black History Month, so to have a place like Nia Centre is a game changer, says Apanaki Temitayo Minerve, Nia Centre's current artist-in-residence.
"A lot of us Black artists only get remembered when it's Black History Month or some crisis happens in the world that highlights our Black experiences," Minerve says. "Then all of a sudden people want to do performative work, and get a Black artist to do a workshop or that kind of thing."
"So to actually have a space that has no kind of conditions where that is concerned, where we could create and express ourselves eloquently in whatever form we choose to express — a beat, a song, film, music, art or dance, performances of any kind — that is really important."
In December, Nia Centre will host a collage workshop, an artist panel and a wellness retreat. All of this will be kicked off by a homecoming event on Nov. 30 that will feature everything from artistic installations to a rap performance by B1GJuice. The event is meant to be a celebration of everything the new centre is bringing to the community.
"I think this space is really an opportunity for us to share our culture in a really intentional, meaningful and authentic way," says Hall, "and give it a home and ensure that our space serves as a destination and beacon for Black culture and our stories and experiences here."