With their city regularly cited as one of the most livable metropolises on the planet and their province’s economy booming, Vancouverites have plenty to feel smug about. But, business people and members of the arts community warn that without a cohesive arts-and-culture infrastructure, all the convention centres in the world will mean nothing. This is the state of the arts.
Last August Canada’s art world mourned the sudden passing of Richard Bradshaw, the Canadian Opera Company’s charismatic artistic director who suffered a fatal heart attack at age 63. Chief among Bradshaw’s legacies was taking charge of a 30-year campaign to bring a world-class opera house to Toronto. In the fall of 2006, the $181-million Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts burst onto the world stage, opening the 2006/07 season with the first complete Canadian performance, over four nights, of Richard Wagner’s epic masterpiece, Der Ring des Nibelungen. As Wagnerites from across the globe descended upon Toronto, members of Vancouver’s arts and culture community turned an unmistakable shade of green.
Talk to just about anyone involved in the theatre, music or visual-arts scene in Vancouver, and they’ll tell you the city is sadly lacking in performance venues and exhibition space. Yes, Vancouver may have bagged the Olympics and may be reaping the rewards of an economic boom, but when it comes to the state of the arts, the city could be described as the metropolitan equivalent of a mediocre art student’s final project: poorly integrated, lacking in care and trying desperately to measure up. And perhaps more importantly, business and community leaders warn, if we don’t start addressing the shortcomings in our arts-and-culture infrastructure, we’ll never live up to the phrase that local politicians are so enamoured of lately: world-class city. Worse still, with the global labour shortage, Vancouver is at serious risk of losing out in the talent wars. Michael Audain, the chair of Polygon Homes Ltd., puts it plainly: “With Microsoft opening a new software-development centre, we’re going to be looking for the best – the young people with the best brains – and many of them are interested in the creative life and a culture that complements them. They don’t want to live in a city without an active cinema and a strong and vibrant music scene and opportunities to learn what’s the latest in the visual arts.” The Canadian Council of Chief Executives echoes the warning. In its February 2006 paper, From Bronze to Gold: A Blueprint for Canadian Leadership in a Transforming World, the council noted: “There is growing evidence that artistic and cultural creativity plays an important role in transforming communities into destinations of choice for skilled people in any occupation.” In addition to his role at Polygon, Audain is one of B.C.’s greatest arts supporters. Past-president of the Vancouver Art Gallery and chair of the Vancouver Art Gallery Foundation, he also heads the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts, a B.C. family trust that awards grants to artists, galleries and arts-related organizations. Sitting in a downtown office adorned with art by local painters and photographers, he doesn’t hesitate for a moment when asked for his take on the city’s cultural amenities. “Vancouver suffers from a serious lack of cultural infrastructure compared to, say, Seattle or Toronto,” he says bluntly. “There’s a real lack of theatre space available, both for our own companies and visiting groups.” The art gallery, he adds, is desperate for space. “It’s trapped in a 1911 Edwardian-style building that has quite a few heritage issues, which negates its expansion.” With 2010 looming, there’s a massive push to put Vancouver on the global stage; the state of Vancouver’s cultural infrastructure has never been more critical. Bernie Magnan, chief economist for the Vancouver Board of Trade, observes that, in addition to helping draw tourists and employees, arts and culture are an anchor for a city’s identity. “Any community or any city around the world that has made a name for itself has a thriving arts community as part of it,” he says. Examples include Sydney, Australia, with its world-renowned Opera House, Seattle, with its multitude of visual-art museums and even Winnipeg, with its internationally recognized ballet troupe and New Music Festival. That’s exactly the kind of thing that Vancouver lacks, according to a January 2007 Vancity report. Entitled The Power of the Arts in Vancouver: Creating a Great City, it unflinchingly states, “Vancouver seems to lack a consistent cultural identity, and consequently, despite their relevance for the local economy, most knowledge-related activities remain an exotic field for a large part of the population. As identity is, in a sense, the backbone of a knowledge economy, a weak identity is therefore evidence of some form of structural fragility.” When it comes to performance venues in Vancouver, it’s slim pickings – a staggering number of performances take place in churches or community-centre halls. The availability of small to medium-sized venues is so tight that the installation of new carpeting last spring in Ryerson United Church, a popular chamber-music venue, triggered mild conniptions among classical musicians who bemoaned the deadened acoustics. Diane Loomer, a prominent choral director in the city, called the church renos “really, really, really sad,” in an August 23 Georgia Straight article. When a religious hall can’t even touch up its decor without prompting a wounded outcry, you know the city’s arts resources are strapped. What’s mystifying about the situation is the fact that Vancouver, according to a recent study, has the greatest number of artists per capita of any city in Canada. A March 2006 report, Artists in Large Canadian Cities, by Ontario-based arts research group Hill Strategies Research Inc., found that while Vancouver has fewer artists in total than Toronto or Montreal, it has the highest percentage of artists in its labour force of any other city in the country – 2.4 per cent, compared to Toronto’s 1.6 per cent and Montreal’s 1.9 per cent. Cultural observers in the city consistently praise the level of creativity and artistic quality represented in Vancouver. “We have enormous diversity of artists – a diversity of artistic practices, of art forms, of cultural backgrounds, of ethnic backgrounds. It’s just an enormously rich environment,” notes Andrew Wilhelm-Boyles, executive director of Vancouver’s Alliance for Arts and Culture. (Prior to taking up his role at the Alliance, Wilhelm-Boyles was national director of the Creative City Network of Canada, which he moved to from the post of executive director of the Winnipeg Arts Council; before that, he was executive director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and DanceArts Vancouver.) But somehow the cultural sector simply hasn’t had any meaningful impact on the city’s infrastructure. The 21-year-old annual jazz festival has garnered a large following, but serious jazz venues are few and far between (apart from Capones Restaurant & Live Jazz Club in Yaletown and the Cellar Restaurant and Jazz Club in Kits, there are few venues dedicated primarily to the jazz scene). Vancouver photographers such as Stan Douglas and Jeff Wall are huge names on the global art scene – last February, Wall was the first Canadian to be given a major solo exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – and yet, unless you count Presentation House Gallery on the North Shore, the city has no gallery dedicated to photography. This, despite the fact that artists and dealers worldwide now refer to a certain style of photo-conceptualism as “the Vancouver school.” “Here’s this incredible, incredible environment, and yet we are not renowned as a cultural destination or as a cultural mecca,” laments a perplexed Wilhelm-Boyles. And it’s not as though other Canadian cities of similar or even smaller size haven’t succeeded where Vancouver has failed. Take the Peg, for instance, says Wilhelm-Boyles. “Ask anyone across the country, and they’ll identify Winnipeg as a really rich cultural centre.” Vancouver is trying. In April 2006, the city announced it was launching a co-operative planning process to create a “cultural precinct” in downtown Vancouver, with Georgia Street as its focus. Internationally renowned local architect Bing Thom recalls when the initial vision for the project was sparked; he says Premier Gordon Campbell called and asked him to put his mind to creating something new for the city. Thom conceived of a decentralized collection of smaller institutions, situated around the land surrounding the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, where barriers between the arts would be broken down through shared facilities and spaces. [pagebreak] BLOCK PARTY: The cultural precinct would be bound by Georgia, Dunsmuir, Hamilton and Beatty streets and include the former bus-depot site behind the QE Theatre. In April 2006, the Ministry of Tourism, Sports and the Arts chipped in $5 million for the planning and initial development of the project, which was matched by $5 million from the city’s capital funds. The project was then taken up by the City of Vancouver’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which has developed a broad three-point plan that includes renovating the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, establishing the area as an Olympic Live Site and, following 2010, building up the site with cultural facilities to be determined in a planning process. Developments proposed for the precinct – which is focused on a two-block area bordered by West Georgia, Hamilton, Dunsmuir and Beatty streets – include, in addition to a renovated Queen Elizabeth Theatre, a new National Gallery of Aboriginal Art, a provincial Asia-Pacific Museum of Trade and Culture and a new Vancouver Art Gallery, which would move from its current location at Robson Square to the former bus-depot site at Cambie and West Georgia streets. It’s an ambitious plan, but so far there have been few indications coming out of city hall about what facilities will actually be built there in the coming years. The only part of the project currently underway is Phase 1 of the renovations to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, which involves work to improve the venue’s acoustics, air conditioning, lighting, sound systems and seismic bracing. Thom, for one, says he’s concerned about where the project is now headed. When he developed the concept for the cultural precinct two years ago, it was meant to be a place where institutions interconnected – a space that fostered cross-pollination of ideas. Since then, he says, “it’s kind of been bashed around. A lot of the vibrancy is kind of forgotten or misunderstood. Now I’m desperately worried that they’ll sub-divide the block and everybody will be hermetically sealed again. I was trying to break down the hermetically sealed institutions.” He’s also puzzled by the lack of open discussion about the concept since he first envisioned it. “I haven’t been called for a year and a half,” he says. Sue Harvey, the city’s director of cultural services, isn’t revealing much. She, with the help of appointed cultural precinct manager Ken Dobell, has been conducting feasibility studies on the project, but no one is prepared to say much more about it. (Dobell’s involvement attracted some negative press earlier this year. He was accused of violating provincial rules by failing to register as a lobbyist for the city immediately upon being hired to work on the project while at the same time working as a “special adviser” to Premier Gordon Campbell. Dobell insisted he was a consultant, not a lobbyist, and only registered out of caution. His name was eventually cleared in a memo from Campbell’s office.)
“We’re in the process where we had committed to get back to council this fall,” says Harvey, deflecting questions about the cultural precinct during an interview in mid-September. She says the city “will be able to get more specific about what it looks like in time,” adding that “there may be things that happen in the immediate, near-term, the mid-term and longer term. It’s a matter of sequencing.” On October 2, her office recommended to council that a $110,000 contract to develop a “cultural facilities priorities plan” be awarded to Toronto Artspace, a non-profit art consultancy based out east. Its report is due in June 2008. In Thom’s view, the process has been much too secretive. “I don’t know why we’re not having a forum about the cultural precinct,” he says. “Where is the public in all of this? I think it should be opened up and there should be a much more vigorous discussion. It should be something exciting that we talk about instead of everybody guessing what’s going on.” The city is being more open with the development of a new 10-year plan for arts and culture, in which the cultural precinct, or what becomes of it, will play a part. The public consultation was launched in April with an online survey, along with what the city touted as “the first forum on the power of culture, creativity and community.” A free, all-day event at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, dubbed the Creative City Conversation, featured high-profile speakers such as Robert Sirman, director of the Canadian Council for the Arts, and George McWhirter, Vancouver’s Poet Laureate. It also included discussions and seminars for the 485 attendees. On October 2, the Creative City task force, which includes city councillors, staff and community representatives (including Wilhelm-Boyles), presented council with its initial draft report, which outlined some broad strategic directions and a development process for building an overall plan. Harvey says the draft will be taken back to the public for further input and finalized before the end of the year. While council seems to be making many of the right noises, members of the arts community are surveying the lay of the land with jaded eyes and aren’t convinced just yet that the city will make a concerted effort to support its cultural resources. After all, this is the same municipality that quashed the Coal Harbour Arts Complex (CHAC) – a multi-purpose space that was to include an 1,800-seat hall, a 450-seat studio theatre and an outdoor performance plaza. First proposed in 1989, the CHAC was approved by the city in 1991 and was to be located on a piece of waterfront land at the foot of Thurlow Street. What happened? Cast your eye at the site and you’ll get an eyeful of construction being undertaken on the expanded convention centre. In 2003 the CHAC was squeezed out in favour of the Vancouver Convention Centre Expansion Project – even though, as the September 2007 BCBusiness article “Conventional Wisdom” noted, the city’s lack of off-site venues and activities for convention attendees has event planners worried. The CHAC still has legs, but they’re wobbly; there has been talk of including it as part of the proposed cultural precinct. If so, it will have to jostle with the Vancouver Art Gallery over the former bus-depot lands if it is to be built. Of course, all of this is speculation; as it stands, any plans for the precinct above and beyond the Queen Elizabeth Theatre renos have been set aside by the city for further review. Mention the CHAC to Leila Getz, the spunky founder and artistic director of the Vancouver Recital Society, and you’re greeted with an exasperated sigh. “What Coal Harbour Arts Complex?” she retorts. Getz has been in the Vancouver arts scene for almost three decades. She founded the Recital Society in 1980 and made a name for her concert series with her ability to pinpoint emerging talent, hosting Canadian debut recitals by such names as soprano Cecilia Bartoli, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Joshua Bell. When she starts talking about the state of Vancouver’s venues, Getz practically trembles with frustration. Finding appropriate space for her concerts, she says, is maddening. The 2,800-seat civic-owned Orpheum Theatre, home to the Vancouver Symphony\ Orchestra, is too big for the type of shows that Getz – and many other groups in the city – program. Given that it was an old movie theatre and vaudeville stage, its acoustics are spotty and its backstage area was once described in this magazine by Bramwell Tovey, the orchestra’s music director, as resembling “a waiting lounge at a Third World airport.” (Not to mention that securing parking for shows there has become a test of will now that the lot directly across the street has been claimed for a condo development.) There’s the 1,185-seat Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, a hall based at UBC that is universally praised for its acoustics and Bing Thom architecture. Only trouble is, notes Getz, “It’s completely inaccessible if you don’t drive a car, so automatically that cuts out a lot of people.” There’s the Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts across from the public library on Homer Street, but, with an audience capacity of 1,845, it falls in between a large and medium-sized venue, which makes it difficult to program for – never mind the fact that its acoustics for unamplified shows are universally derided. The civic-owned Playhouse (688 seats) can only be booked on Sundays, as it’s home to the Playhouse Theatre Company, and, adds Getz, “there are people who also don’t like being down that part of town where the Playhouse is at night.” As for the civic-owned Queen Elizabeth Theatre, located alongside the Playhouse on Cambie Street, Getz labels it and its surroundings “a dead space.” [pagebreak]
“It’s dead all around it and it’s pretty dead inside too,” Getz insists. “They’re going to renovate it, but it’s still dead outside and it’s in a dead part of town. You can spend millions of dollars on it to upgrade it as a theatre or a space that will work, but, unless you do something really visionary with the outside, it’s a complete waste of time because it’s a dreadful space.” Vancouver-based opera soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen, who will appear in Vancouver Opera’s March production of Fidelio, recently participated in two seasons of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program, where she performed in and attended performances at the Seattle Opera House. Coming back to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, where Vancouver Opera productions take place, was disappointing. “You go back to a place that’s not specifically made for opera and it sounds like a tin can,” she says. Driedger-Klassen, who flies to New York every year for hundreds of auditions, finds that local interest in the arts is lacking. “I feel like when people go to live theatre or live concerts, they’re a little bit scared because they think, ‘I’m going to spend $40 on a concert and it might not even be good,’” she comments. “But that’s the excitement of going to something that’s live. You’re going to spend a lot more than $40 to go to a Canucks game and they’re not always going to win.” What the city needs, asserts Getz, is a place where the arts and the city blend together. “If you want to have an arts precinct, you need to have something that has stuff going on throughout the day and the evening,” she explains. Getz envisions a place where bookshops, restaurants, rehearsal studios and galleries sit side by side with performance halls. “What Vancouver does have that is absolutely without comparison anywhere that I’ve ever been is Granville Island. If it could have the arts equivalent of Granville Island, it will have reached its peak of sophistication.” What makes Granville Island so exciting is the mix of Emily Carr students, subsidized space for artists alongside retailers and, of course, the liveliness of the indoor market. The exact opposite of what you see downtown, according to Thom. “We’ve lost a little bit of grunge,” he observes. “I don’t mean in an elitist sense. I mean the edginess of the city. It’s become so sanitized, it’s become like a peroxide blonde.” The cultural precinct, if done right, says Thom, is crucial to sustaining the life of the city – both culturally and economically. “There’s no other single initiative that we as a metropolitan area, not just Vancouver, can make to address this issue of cultural institutions in our region,” he declares, “because culture and what’s happening with the knowledge economy is understood to be underpinning the whole future of where we’re going to go.” Bringing back the so-called grunginess to the downtown core will ensure that the city not only attracts but retains the talent that is already here, adds Thom. “The competitive edge for the metro area is our creative talent. We have oodles of it, but they’re all many little guys. Small companies, design companies, movie people, recording people, graphics people. We’re overflowing with young talent… The problem is, I don’t think we are seriously looking at how to develop what I would call the farm-team system to allow young talent to grow and prosper and develop here, rather than exporting them to New York or Toronto.” Getz sees the cultural precinct as a great start, she says, but she can’t get excited about it just yet. “It’s happening slower than a snail’s pace,” she says. “It’s not even depressing. It’s debilitating, the way things are going.” She adds, “There’s a piece missing in this link that somehow, somewhere, some folks are not doing something that can get the spark that will ignite this.” Is there complacency in the arts community? They may not like to admit it, but there does seem to be a hint of it in the air. Observes the Board of Trade’s Magnan, “The Board of Trade tried to work with the cultural alliance and other organizations to work together to promote the arts in Vancouver several years ago, and it fell apart. It fell apart because the arts organizations weren’t coming to the table. We were trying to work with the arts and businesses together, and everyone would say, ‘Oh yeah, we can work together,’ and then they would go away and they wouldn’t work together.” It’s not only that the arts community sometimes has difficulty trusting the business sector (one need only remember the convention centre’s eclipsing of the CHAC) but also that the arts community itself is fractured. Wilhelm-Boyles has been conducting round-table discussions with arts and cultural workers in the city, and he notes, “What we’ve been hearing from people is that they realize that they have not been the most unified community, that to really prosper and to make their case, they really do need to become less fragmented and less fractured.” The city’s arts and cultural workers tend to operate in isolation, says Wilhelm-Boyles – both in the arts scene and the wider community. “We need to break down the silos within the arts, but we also need to break out of the art silo, and we need to be talking more to the other sectors of our community,” he observes. “We need to be talking more to business, to health care, to justice, to all of those other segments of society which we influence and which, of course, influence us.” But, he adds, “it’s very hard to be collaborative and generous when you’re fighting over scraps, and it’s very hard to be inclusive when you’re trying to protect the little that you’ve got.” A lack of funding for the arts is a refrain that is heard over and over again throughout the country. And, as many arts organizations are beginning to realize, they can no longer count on money from the various levels of government; they’re going to have to convince the private sector to invest in them. When it comes to philanthropy for the arts, notes Audain, “we’re way behind other cities in that regard, and it seems here that most large private donors are interested in directing their funds to universities and hospitals which, while very laudable, can have the effect of somewhat freezing out the cultural sector.” In Seattle, he says, there is very generous private support for the art museum, the opera and the symphony. “While there are some very generous donors in Vancouver, you always seem to see the same names cropping up,” he adds. “I’m hopeful, as time goes on, more British Columbians will appreciate the importance of having a vibrant cultural sector. What we need to do is get them addicted to opera or, say, the visual arts in the same way that people of a certain age seem to get addicted to the golf course.” Magnan, a former member of the Chor Leoni men’s choir who has served on the boards of the Vancouver Opera and the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, adds that it’s important that businesses step up their involvement in the arts. But with head offices leaving town, that’s become more difficult. “Head offices make decisions on investing money on arts and culture, and when you don’t have many, it makes it that much more difficult for the arts organizations to show, ‘We’ve got a good business plan but we need support from business to help us promote that.’” The irony is that if there were more cultural vibrancy in Vancouver, those head offices might well be more agreeable to staying. As a city, insists Thom, we should focus not only on updating our venues, but also on supporting artists within our communities. “We have to find a way to economically make it affordable for the artists to stay in the city,” he says. One of Vancouver’s greatest assets, he notes, is its West End. “In our wisdom we have frozen the West End so that we’ve allowed this great pocket of affordable housing in the core of the city for all the people who have to work in the city. Two-thirds of my employees live in the West End.” With Vancouver’s East Side packed with artists, he says, care must be taken to ensure their continued presence. “We’re going to lose that if we’re not careful. They’ll all have to go to New Westminster or Surrey or Burnaby, and then we’ll lose it. We’ve got to grab hold of that.” Whether or not Vancouver’s businesses, philanthropists and politicians will wake up to the state of the arts in Vancouver remains to be seen. The cultural precinct may offer some hope, although it should be noted that many artists fear it will focus too much attention downtown and leave the East Side, where the greatest concentration of artists lives and works, out in the cold. (“I think most artists understand the need for a great city to have a vibrant cultural district, but there’s some concern that too great a focus on that area and on that specific location would lead to the starving of some of the really exciting neighbourhoods around the city,” notes Wilhelm-Boyles.) But as Richard Bradshaw proved to the world last year, and as anyone who has spent time in Paris’s Centre Pompidou, London’s Tate Modern Art Gallery or even Montreal’s Place des Arts can see, a centre of artistic focus can go a long way to putting a city on the map. Without one of its own, says Getz with her characteristic bluntness, “Vancouver will never have a soul.” Web Bonus: Editor's Podcast Series -- hear a discussion between the editor and writer on what it took to pull this story together.