It's OK* studios: A space to be honest and true
It's Ok* Studios is located at 468 Queen St W.

A Space to be Honest and True

For Black artists in Toronto, finding spaces to host a show, exhibition, or performance can sometimes feel impossible. In addition to the challenges that many artists in the city face — unaffordability, declining number of venues, precarity — Black artists often have to contend with a particular kind of gatekeeping within the industry.

In his May 2020 survey of 18 art galleries across Toronto, Palestinian-Canadian artist Ibrahim Abusitta found that among the 454 artists represented at these galleries, only 2.4 per cent (or 11) were Black, 0.4 per cent (2) were Indigenous, 9.69 per cent (44) were other people of colour, and 39 per cent (177) identified as female.  

“Toronto is often described as diverse and multicultural, but I didn’t see that representation in the rosters of these galleries,” Abusitta writes. “Several commenters expressed that this was not news to them, but rather an unspoken reality,” he adds.

Chris Wilson, a Toronto-based DJ, producer and cultural programmer, knows this reality intimately. Throughout his career, he has navigated spaces where there are no Black people in leadership positions. As a result, Black artists seeking access to these spaces often find themselves in a perilous position: convince a programmer or curator with little-to-no context or knowledge of your work of its merit, viability and, crucially, profitability.

It is with these experiences in mind that Wilson began collaborating with fellow cultural programmer Said Yassin, who had been thinking along the same lines.

In 2021, the City of Toronto acquired a vacant building at 468 Queen Street West for the purpose of creating a public park at the corner of Queen and Denison. Given the lead time required for demolition, the city expressed interest in using the space in the interim as an artspace focused on Black, Indigenous, and racialized artists.

After council approved a motion supporting the proposal in April 2022, It’s Ok*, an existing non-profit organization, took control of the space. In this moment, It’s OK* Studios– an extension of the highly successful performance series It’s Ok* — was born.

The lease agreement with the city notes that, at the conclusion of the lease in 2024, the city will develop a new park including 468 Queen St. W (where It’s Ok* now resides), 464-466 Queen St. W, and a portion of 15 Denison Ave.  

With a search for a permanent home on the horizon, It’s Ok* Studios finds itself in a very different position than the Wildseed Centre for Art and Activism, another Black-run arts space in this city. In 2021, Black Lives Matter Toronto purchased 24 Cecil St. from the city with private funding and a $250,000 contribution from the city.

Despite the challenges that exist for It’s Ok*, Yassin and Wilson remain steadfast in their vision of creating a space to build community and to showcase Black arts workers, artists and performers.  

“Where are we able to express ourselves and be honest and true to that?” Wilson asks. “We started to look at arts workers and the experience that I, myself, had been able to gain,” recalls Wilson. “It was never one where we could learn from other Black folks.”

“We started to realize that part of that ability to share knowledge is rooted in space.”

Album release with Jahmal Padmore | Photo by Jibril Yassin
It's OK* studios: A space to be honest and true
Jahmal Padmore takes the floor after an opening set by JOZEM | Photo by Jibril Yassin

Despite the challenges that exist for It’s Ok*, Yassin and Wilson remain steadfast in their vision of creating a space to build community and to showcase Black arts workers, artists and performers.

Thus, It’s OK* is not merely a Black-run studio but rather a community space in which knowledge, ideas, experiences, and insights can be readily shared amongst each other with the aim of deepening connections and opportunities with Toronto’s Black arts scene.

In summer 2022, It’s Ok* Studios opened to the public. In the basement of 468 Queen, there is now a fully outfitted recording studio. The ground floor operates as an exhibition and performance space, hosting public talks, concerts, art exhibitions and more. Lastly, the second floor contains an ever-growing library organized around art and design, with a particular emphasis on Black creators.

“We think about poetry and architecture, for example, and then taking that lens and really zeroing in on Black authors and Black books who speak within these spaces,” says Wilson.

Given the dwindling number of venues in the city combined with the diversity of events that It’s OK* can host, Wilson and Yassin have received many requests for private bookings. These private bookings not only help cover It’s Ok*’s operational costs but also help the studio subsidize costs for other community projects and events. In doing this, many of the shows, talks, and performances that would not have made it through the city’s many gatekeepers can now find a home.

Since opening, It’s Ok* has hosted numerous events including VenusFest Music festival, BLACK IS* THE NITE photography exhibition, and several live performances and artist talks.

Staff at It’s OK* have been consistently told how “refreshing” it is to have a space like It’s OK* in the city.Over the next year, their goal is to keep growing as a creative hub and incubator, production site, event venue, art gallery, and neighbourhood landmark. While 468 Queen St. W is slated for demolition at the end of the two year lease, the connections being built in the space are not so easily displaced.

This article appeared in the 2023 Nov/Dec issue.