Vancouver’s arts and culture bleeding out in “steady migration”, warn city creatives

Published in The Vancouver Observer | May 9, 2012 | Circulation: 120,000 monthly readers

Vancouver arts and culture bleeding out of Vancouver. An artist at the now-closed Red Gate collective paints during its final event. Photo by David P. Ball

One of Vancouver’s most creative and unique spaces is so obscure it takes a Youtube video to find it: through an alley, behind the blackbird-painted door across from some dumpsters, and up a creaky wood staircase.

Press the buzzer outside Vancouver Hack Space (VHS) – a creative hub housing a regular assemblage of craft makers, computer nerds, amateur philosophers and more – and one of the members will turn a crank outside the second floor window, lowering the door key on a thin metal wire. Inside, the lights are controlled by red-green-blue sliders (which are wired to, and blink, when the toilet flushes, incidentally).

One member made their own 3D printer out of aluminum and plastic joiners sculpted on the lab’s other 3D printer – that one made of plywood. I’m offered a mason jar of frothy home-brew as a member explains how VHS fits into a world-wide network of “hack spaces.” A large fibre-optic sign reads “BYTES,” a memento from the long-retired Science World cafe.

VHS is both a space and a community. Created several years ago as a creative social network, collective studio and maker-space, today it spans 60 paying members. It’s beginning to outgrow the long, narrow room it’s occupied for several years in the Downtown Eastside.

“It’s like a brain gym,” says VHS member Emily Smith, “and is really a gem in Vancouver.

“However, I’m concerned that if spaces like this continue to get shut down . . . Vancouver will lose this vibrant, expanding community.”

Indeed, although VHS seems financially stable – possibly due to its fervent do-it-yourself ethos – other spaces like it are being pushed away: The Red Gate artist collective was evicted from its Hastings and Cambie three-story arts headquarters in October – and is still searching for a new space – and the Vancouver Community Lab is having to leave their Great Northern Way location later this year (525 Great Northern Way, Building 3, Unit 105).

Add to that the oft-mourned closure of the debt-riddled Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company just shy of it’s 50th birthday, and the departure of rising star dancer Joshua Beamish to New York, citing a lack of support, and you get a picture of a troubled arts community across all the disciplines.

Part of the problem, says Smith, who co-founded Vancouver’s wildly successful Mini Maker Faire (June 23-24, PNE) – modelled after a similar event in San Francisco – is that the city’s creative communities too rarely work together, cross-pollinate or even communicate with one another.

“A lot of these groups exist, they’re just in marginalized spaces,” she explains. “They need more support – more visibility and more awareness of what they’re doing. Rather than talk about a problem, I’m talking about solutions. This is what people are forced to do – to separate from their creative community and start their own communities and projects.”

Once you’ve found VHS – which hosts public open houses every Tuesday evening (not to mention an upcoming “egg drop” event and open houseMay 26, 45 W. Hastings St) – the location seems obvious and intuitive; it’s finding it that first time that’s the hardest. On a deeper level, the same could be said of much of the city’s creative scene.

Elusive to discover; rewarding once found.

As property values skyrocket higher than any other city in the country (second place worldwide), Vancouver’s artists are facing stark choices about their future. Many find day jobs, paint and create in their bedrooms, or gradually drift to the suburbs. But an increasing number are leaving the city in what Red Gate’s founder, Jim Carrico, describes as a “steady migration of artists.” They’re going to Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, even Berlin, Germany.

“The shortage isn’t of expensive space!” Carrico says, laughing sardonically as he describes Red Gate’s Kafkaesque quest navigating city permits, applications and bureaucracies, both before their eviction and now in the search for a new home. “There’s lot of expensive space around.

“There just isn’t much affordable space. . . It’s an unsustainable bubble at this point, I don’t think anybody can disagree with that. When median prices in Vancouver are more than twice as any other city in Canada, and yet median salaries are lower.”

Unaffordable rent. As the cost of land goes up, the rental costs do too, as does the cost of living overall. But, with the exception of celebrated painters, dancers and performers, the average artist lives relatively close to (or below) poverty, struggling to make ends meet, let alone sustain a creative practice.
Fostering an arts culture of experimentation

Kate Armstrong, director of Western Front gallery. Photo by David P. Ball

“This is a great arts city – the community here is amazing,” says Kate Armstrong, Executive Director of Western Front gallery (303 East 8th Ave). “We have an amazing group of artists, curators, and a fantastic artist-run culture. There’s lots of energy, lots of ideas, and a lot of innovation.

“Having said all that, it’s a huge challenge to be in this real estate climate trying to do cultural projects. It’s really difficult for culture to compete on an open market. It’s an industry that needs institutional supports. . . The price of rent here for commercial spaces and artist studio spaces are high. That makes it difficult, and draws people away from this city. They look at other cities, where rents are lower, and see it would be easier to sustain a practice there.”

For Armstrong, whose own upcoming exhibit explores narrative links between cyberspace and geography – opening May 11 at UNIT/PITT Projects (15 East Pender St.) – the problem isn’t simply affordable rent. It’s also about how the city nurtures and supports its artists. Ten years ago, she moved here from New York City.

“In New York, they recognize (art is) a major part of life and they put value to it, even just in the sense of commercial value in connection with a tourist industry,” she says, sipping a mint tea. “They recognize arts and culture as a major part of why people travel there. They also manage to foster a culture where there’s experimentation.”

“(That) doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of different voices working on different levels to build up an ecosystem where it works. . . It’s not a matter of making one simple demand to politicians, and having it granted. All the layers of government need to recognize it’s a priority and work together with the culture industries to forefront it. Culture shouldn’t be in a little box off to one side that we decide to open this year or not to open – it relates to everything we do.”

Armstrong was inspired by a meta-art phenomenon that has taken hold in Montreal and Toronto: Nuit Blanche. The annual event effectively turns each city’s downtown into an open-air, all-night gallery, replete with interactive sculptures, light and sound displays, and incisive performances.

Several years ago, in Toronto, two artists blocked all traffic on Bay Street – the country’s financial centre – and installed decrepit, reclaimed fairground structures to symbolize the excess, thrill and decay of capitalism. I recall sliding down a bumpy slide representing fiscal downturns, surrounded by thousands of people taking a rare opportunity to witness, open-mouthed, as art transformed their entire city.

So Armstrong, working with New Forms Festival Director Malcolm Levy, began to work with other creative Vancouverites to pitch the idea for
the West Coast. After all, the reasoning went, we come third in population after the other two Nuit Blanche prototypes. One of the people Armstrong approached was the owner of Cause+Affect Design Ltd.Steven Cox.

“That was a case of something we thought was a slam dunk,” recalls Cox, who also hosts the popular Pecha Kucha idea-sharing gatherings. “We’ll put all these professional people together in a room, think up how to do this thing, and go talk to city and corporations about getting involved.

“The majority of corporations said to us, ‘Arts and culture isn’t where we put our money.’ Vancouver is notorious for a wait-and-see attitude. It’s very hard to convince anybody in this city to get involved in something before it happens.”

But art is just too important to take for granted, Cox asserts, searching for words when asked why creativity is necessary for a city.

“That’s one of those questions that should be obvious,” he says, stumbling as he ponders. “The answer should flow off your tongue!

“Art is like the freedom of a city. It’s in many ways the heart, the emotion, it’s the sharing, the relationships – it’s all that stuff that business doesn’t contain. It’s funny we’re even asking the question, ‘Is are necessary?’ What would happen if it went away?”

And while Nuit Blanche died on the vine sometime last year, thousands pack into the hockey rink and baseball stadium – not to mention turn out for the summer fireworks displays.

“Why is biggest outdoor event we have in city fireworks?” Cox laments. “Give me a break.

“We can’t convince you guys to give us money to have biggest outdoor cultural event in city, but we can shoot lights into the air and they’ll blow up?”
Real estate boom, affordability crisis

Bob Rennie, development marketer and arts collector. Photo by David P. Ball

It’s precisely the corporate support for the arts – so effusive in cities like Toronto and New York – that some see as what’s needed to preserve Vancouver’s arts community.

Leaning over the table at the back of his son’s cafe, Bob Rennie – owner of Rennie Marketing Systems, as well as curator of the Rennie Collection at Wing Sang (51 East Pender St) – thinks artists should stop complaining about the troubled arts scene in Vancouver and instead get to work, making it work.

“The Playhouse just fell by wayside,” he says, sadly. “In our city, art’s not celebrated. But we can’t just sit and complain anymore. We need to look for solutions.”

Rennie – who sits on the North American acquisition board for the UK’s esteemed Tate Modern – feels the province in particular needs to step up and increase its funding for the arts, while the city should emphasize smaller arts collaborations and younger artists, rather than focus its resources in the Vancouver Art Gallery. But on the artist-side, real energy and effort is required, particularly because of a paucity of corporate funding – artists could and should be more active in finding sponsors and patrons.

“We’re not a head office city,” Rennie laments. “We don’t have the corporate philanthropy of the arts that Toronto and New York have. It’s a corporate responsibility there.

“I can get the world to move here, but we’re going to have to fill in the arts and cultural background for people to stay here.”

Of course, Rennie has his opponents, and he knows it. Though insisting he’s not a developer himself, the oft-described “condo king” (he begrudgingly acknowledges the moniker) knows he’s a “lightning rod” for community criticism. The attacks come particularly from groups in the Downtown Eastside who argue that rampant condo developments – many of them Rennie’s clients – are causing rapid gentrification of a once working-class neighbourhood, and displacing the impoverished residents, including artists.

The hipster-bespectacled art collector and condo marketer – considered a behind-the-scenes powerhouse in city politics – disagrees fundamentally with the anti-poverty activists’ analysis of urban social processes.

“That gentrification argument went away long ago in Toronto – ten years ago – but we’re still five years away,” he says. At the same time, however, he acknowledges that, unless Vancouver safeguards its arts and cultural communities, which he calls “the fabric of the city,” we risk becoming an uninhabitable “resort town.”

Artists need a velocity of contact, a critical mass

The fear of a Vancouver becoming a hollow Disneyland of a city is one shared by many artists.

“It’s a great point, I totally agree,” Armstrong reflects. “There’s a way a city can become so expensive that it (becomes) empty.

“This is such a beautiful city, and it’s a huge risk the way real estate is going here. It’s becoming a postcard of itself – so smooth that no one can afford to live in it. It risks becoming increasingly one-dimensional. If we really lost our artists – and we do take them for granted – we would feel it in ways that we can’t begin to describe.”

The loss of Vancouver’s talent to LA, Montreal, New York and Toronto is something that should concern us all, says artist, lawyer and recent independent City Council candidate Sandy Garossino.

“We’re draining the lifeblood out of our city with the disappearance of the artists,” she says. “By the time you’re at a certain point in your life, you can’t afford to live here.

“Artists, as much as they need affordability, they also need each other. They need an environment to bounce ideas – a critical mass, a velocity of contact, a really, really creative environment.”

Garossino rattles off the pros and cons of the various art Meccas on the continent which are pulling some of the city’s creatives away: New York City (expensive, but renowned arts scene); Montreal (mind-bogglingly cheap, and a real arts “incubator”); LA (relatively affordable, great community).
Using the arts support tools available – or slaves to the market?

Closing sale at the since-evicted Red Gate arts collective. Photo by David P. Ball

From City Hall’s perspective, both the arts, and affordability, are definitely on the radar. The question, however, is how to overcome the current crisis.

“We give out $10.2 million a year in grants, and the number asking for that money goes up every year,” says City Councillor Heather Deal, who is the point-person for arts and culture at City Hall. “(But) the charity system won’t support arts as it has in past.

“Art needs to be more self-sustaining, but that means . . . you have to make consuming art a high priority, so artists are paid. People say, ‘Just give us an affordable space.’ The city really doesn’t have the resources for that; the land is so expensive. We’re trying to use tools we do have for affordable space.”

Those tools, Deal explained, include working with developers to create art spaces – “but it’s not cheap” – searching for city-owned property for studios, and relaxing some zoning and safety regulations (such as lane-way houses and liquor permits).

Deal also pointed to the new Arts and Culture Policy Council, which was announced in February. Currently selecting 15 members from nearly 200 applications, the council is intended to help artists communicate with the city.

“That’s the first time in long time we’ve had the voice of artists in City Hall,” Deal said. “That’s a big change. To be successful as a city talking about creativity, you have to give artists a direct line to us.”

While the current City Council has done wonders for arts funding and grants, Garossino responds, it has been too “timid and squeamish” when it comes to tackling Vancouver’s real estate problems.

“Almost every other major government in world that is encountering the kind of affordability crisis Vancouver is, is acting,” she said. “The idea that we are slaves to market forces and market pressures is a complete fiction.

“We’re slow on the uptake on this one. I think there’s a real fear on the part of the civic government to deal with the international super-wealthy. Real estate has performed in select markets like Vancouver spectacularly well, and this has driven up the price. We are part of a global trend.”
A symbol of Vancouver’s resilient arts community

An artists’ table sits unused on the final night at Red Gate gallery. Photo by David P. Ball

Garossino herself, at one point, sat on the board of the Alliance for Arts and Culture, a 26-year old organization pooling the diverse range of creativity in the city, offering services to its members, and advocating to government.

“The cost of living is one of the biggest challenges we have to deal with in Vancouver in the arts community,” said Rob Gloor, the Alliance’s Executive Director. “It’s just very difficult to sustain one’s livelihood.

“When organizations are under-resourced or underfunded, and operating in a very, very expensive environment, they certainly don’t have capacity to be competitive in attracting and keeping the best talent. It’s certainly not just the visual arts – all of the arts have to cope with the tremendously high costs.”

But amidst the rising costs – not to mention the recent closure of the Playhouse Theatre – Gloor believes there’s a silver lining.

“The incredible number of artists here, the number of activities, the diversity of artists and organizations, and the type of art that our community has available – all of these are great assets,” he says. “It’s a strong symbol of the resilience of the arts community here.

“I think there are many companies doing wonderful work here that demonstrate very clearly the positive future we have for the arts in Vancouver.”

Though some have left, for the artists and makers who are committed to staying in Vancouver, the way forward is to continue promoting and discussing the importance of culture.

“I’d hate to see the conversation stop . . . and for the city to continue on a trajectory of becoming more sterile and emptied out,” Armstrong says. “We need to focus on cross-pollination, on temporary structures, on partnerships and collaborations – creative solutions to the very strange problems that we have.”

A city without artists, others concur, would be a bleak one indeed. And solutions, Smith reflects, must be fought for, not handed out on “silver platters.”

“I’ve lost a lot of fellow creatives and artists to other cities, and many have gone back to school because of the state of the job market,” she says.

“Myself and a few others have taken personal risks in order to counteract this effect, and root something that will change things in our own community. That’s what’s keeping people here. It’s up to us.”

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