Tips & Tricks for Setting Up Studio Space — Akin Collective (2023)

Tips & Tricks for Setting Up Studio Space — Akin Collective (1)

Tips, Tricks & Resources

The Akin team of practicing artists and arts educators has collaborated on this document in the interest of sharing some of our learnings over the past twelve years on how to source, secure and set up art studios and creative spaces in Toronto, a city in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so. We hope that these insights help you as an artist to pursue setting up studios yourself, or with others, but much of this information can apply more generally to anyone entering into a commercial lease. Please note that these are simply recommendations and general summary guidance based on our past experiences - we strongly advise that anyone entering into a contract or agreement access legal support (resources for free legal advice are detailed at the end). Akin is not a landlord or property owner (we offer memberships) but we’ve learnt a fair bit from dealing with them on our members’ behalf!

Landlords and property owners often present a lease as though it is the final document and you have no choice but to sign it but that’s simply not the case. You have the power to impact the terms of a lease with a landlord, and what you are binding yourself to.

Rent can be a major expense in your creative practice and figuring out a lease can feel daunting, but the most important point is getting an agreement that you’re happy with and feel secure in (even if you don’t get everything included that you’d hoped for).

If you are a BIPOC artist, group or arts organization in search of your own space Akin gladly offers additional, focused support and strategy to address your needs. Please contact oliver@akincollective.com should you wish to request a meeting.

We hope this brief guide is helpful as you consider your studio needs and gives some insights into Akin’s process. Please share as desired, and we welcome any feedback, revisions or additions!

Love, Akin

Tips & Tricks for Setting Up Studio Space — Akin Collective (2)

  • How do you find space in a city like Toronto? We recommend checking out listings on Realtor.ca, SpaceFinder, Spacelist, and Retail Insider along with listings on the old, but still reliable, Kijiji and Craigslist. For shorter term needs This Open Space and Breather can be great resources as well.

  • Just like you would with an apartment, tell everyone you know that you’re looking for a studio space! Crowdsourcing can be a great resource and you never know when a random connection might be aware of available space. Also consider reaching out to your local city councillor or developers working in the area who may have suggestions to steer you in the right direction.

  • Before viewing, can the landlord provide photos and a floor plan along with historical costs for things like utilities, taxes and maintenance to avoid any wasted time or nasty surprises?

  • Consider the physical accessibility of the space with varying needs in mind. Look for things like automatic doors, ramps, tactile walking surface indicators, purposefully low placed signage, to list a few.

  • Figure out your own personal checklist for a space as well as a cap for how much you are comfortable paying. Try to determine what fair market rents are in the area (maybe you know other artists renting space in the same building or nearby).

  • Make a list of what you need in the space (ex. physical accessibility and safety features in/around the space, is natural light a must have, how close do you need to be to public transit, ventilation, electrical requirements). Try to decide on your ‘must haves’ and ‘would be nice to haves’ and rank them accordingly.

  • Are the businesses/activities in other units or buildings nearby conducive to the plans you have for your studio? If you’re a sound artist you probably don’t want to unknowingly set up near a loud metal shop, but if you’re a sculptor you might find it useful.

  • Try to give yourself ample time for viewing spaces before you plan to move in, so you have time to prepare and negotiate your lease.

  • Are there good (and affordable) places to eat or buy groceries nearby? Somewhere to grab a cup of coffee? Somewhere offsite you could meet collaborators and clients when needed? You and others will need somewhere to go and refuel.

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  • Take notes and your own photos (with permission) during the visit for your own records. Create a list of things to inquire about so you don’t forget to ask or check for. Here are some suggestions: voltage, existing lighting, availability of electrical outlets, ventilation, mailbox use, operational freight elevator, existing plumbing and water pressure, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire exits and signage, fire sprinklers, fire extinguishers, waste disposal, recycling, compost (more specifics on some of these items to come).

  • Measure the square footage yourself, if possible. Landlords often have incorrect estimates- by accident or intentionally. They often “gross up” the square footage of a space to include space taken up by hallways and wall thickness, so it’s good for you to know the actual interior square footage.

  • Get everything discussed in writing when it comes time to sign a lease, landlords so often suddenly forget things they had previously agreed to verbally. It’s a good idea to consider sending a follow-up email after a viewing to confirm everything discussed in person.

  • What work needs to be done to the space, and who is going to do it? These are typically called ‘leasehold improvements’. If it’s the landlord who’s responsible, discuss the game plan and timeline and make sure to have it included in the lease as part of landlord work commitments.

  • Is there bike and/or car parking included with the space, and is it well-lit outside for safety?

  • Check if the lighting and electrical set up is safe, sufficient for your needs, and has the necessary voltage and make sure there are fire/exit signs.

  • Check that the plumbing is up to what your needs and expectations are- including sufficient water pressure.

  • Whats the window situation? Is there good natural light and can you open them to increase airflow during warmer months? If the building does not have central air, can you install an air conditioner when it gets warm out?

  • Check the system for receiving mail, waste disposal, accessing the building and on site property management and security.

  • If the space is larger than you need, is it divisible and you can only take a portion of it? If you know anyone else in the building, ask about their experience there and with the landlord.

  • Commercial leases are different than residential leases (since they’re way less regulated and hence more risky), so it’s important to work carefully with a commercial landlord - as there is less protection for the tenant.

  • Don’t rush to sign! Take your time with the lease thoughtfully and thoroughly, even if the landlord creates an unfair sense of pressure. Unless their first offer is your dream lease, there is room to negotiate in order to improve it.

  • What is the difference between gross rent leases and net rent leases? With gross, you pay a complete amount to the landlord that covers rent and any other add ons (utilities, property tax, insurance, maintenance, repairs). These add-ons are often called TMI (Taxes, Maintenance & Insurance). You may be offered a lower (net) rent, that does not factor in these costs and you should try to understand how much they will be before moving forward. Another possibility is somewhere in between in which some of these costs are included and some are not. Be clear on exactly what’s included in the rent and what any additional costs will be.

  • Post on social media that you’re in need of help from a real estate lawyer to review a lease if you don’t have someone- you never know who is willing to help out.

  • ‘Fixturing period’ is a term often used in commercial real estate and it equates to free rent so that you can set yourself up in your new space at the beginning of your lease term. Ask for a month (or two months) of ‘fixturing period’. Sometimes perks like this are referred to as ‘inducements’.

  • Are there items that you’d like the landlord to repair, or provide in advance of your move in? Include them as landlord work in the lease.

  • Try to include an option to renew in your lease, if that is important to you, and push back against any year by year increase. Include a maximum rental increase cap option to renew so there are no surprises on how much you’ll have to pay to stay.

  • Do you want to install signage? It’s best to add it to the lease if so.

  • The landlord should be responsible for HVAC and plumbing. Who’s responsible is a detail that could end up costing significantly should something go wrong. If you can’t have the landlord take full responsibility, set a cap on amounts you have to contribute in case repairs or replacement is necessary.

  • Why not ask for the maximum lease term, if you know you’d like to stay for a long time? The longer the lease term, the more likely you are to successfully negotiate a lower rent.

  • If you anticipate subletting or assigning some or all of the space to others, specify the ability to do so in the lease.

  • Confirm how rent will be paid (paying electronically can make everything much more simple, because cheques are just a pain).

  • Is there potential for a lower rent rate if you are able to pay a few months of rent up front?

  • Include wording that makes it clear, ideally, that you are reimbursed by the building owner for any damage to studio contents from building failures. If they install a sketchy pipe and it bursts, they should be covering the costs of getting things back to normal.

  • For tips on negotiating rent, we found this series of videos extremely helpful. Put yourself in the landlords shoes, and figure out how to frame things so that it makes sense from their perspective.

  • What does it say in the lease about either party terminating the agreement? What happens if the building is sold/demolished or if you can’t pay rent for one month or need to break the lease and move somewhere new?

  • You can’t get what you don’t ask for. If there’s something you’d like to have added or edited in the lease, give it a shot. The worst that happens is they say no.

  • What sort of agreement will be in place between the folks sharing the studio space (if that’s the case)? Will there be a Code of Conduct that all agree to? Feel free to use this linked document as a starting point. What will regular ‘space related’ communication look like? How can everyone provide feedback and input? How will everyone pay for their share of the rented space? Who will be responsible for cleaning and maintaining the space?

  • What’s the plan for resolving conflicts amongst those sharing the space? It’s better to be proactive and have a plan in place, than be reactive when something goes wrong. Our process (one that evolves and is revised as we learn and grow) can be found here.

  • Get an oily waste bin! Many supplies and materials we use as artists can be dangerous, and discarded oil paint rags can quite literally burst spontaneously into flames.

  • Internet: find out if the landlord has a preferred service that is already used in the building and don’t let the install technician leave until you’ve checked your service is working properly!

  • If you’re setting up a shared space, how will people enter and exit the space (keypad? Individual keys?) For larger spaces with many people coming and going we recommend investing in a keypad lock and security cameras that you can refer to if needed in emergency situations.

  • How can you make everyone feel safe entering and exiting the building? How is the building lighting and security?

  • Accessibility: Consider the number of stairs in and around your space, how doors open and close and how your washroom is set up. Ask those who will be using the space what their needs are. Share the physical accessibility limitations of the space so people are aware and can plan accordingly.

  • If you have to move to a new space, what does your tear down look like? What items and building materials can be re-used etc. Can you build your space in a way that will make this easier, and also minimize waste? Can any supplies you no longer need be donated to other creatives or local organizations?

  • For set up materials and supply needs we recommend buying from local, ethical businesses. A list of local Black-owned businesses can also be found here. Other alternatives, some larger businesses, include The Green Jar, Saponetti, GreenShift, and Lowe’s; simply sourcing items on Kijiji, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace can get you pretty far. We try to avoid Amazon, Home Depot, Dollarama, Uline, and Walmart whenever possible.

  • If you need any construction work done in your space, Out of The Box and Building Up are both social enterprise construction companies and a list of Black-owned Real Estate and Home Services including Plumbers, Painters and Contractors can be found here.

Tips & Tricks for Setting Up Studio Space — Akin Collective (6)

  • As mentioned, we strongly recommend getting legal advice before signing a lease. We also understand that legal advice can be costly! For free legal advice, consider looking into Pro Bono Ontario and Artists' Legal Advice Services (ALAS). Feel free to reach out to us if you’d like recommendations of lawyers.

  • Getting insurance for your studio is an additional cost, but a necessary one. Shop around for the best rates and coverage that serves you best. Typically, proof of insurance will be required by your landlord. If possible consider working with an insurer you already have a relationship with, to get a better rate. Work with your insurance broker to decide what level of liability and contents coverage you require.

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