by Ben McGuinness, Peak Associate
On January 16, SFU Public Square held a meeting in its City Conversations series called “A City Without Artists?” to discuss the challenge of maintaining space for artists in Vancouver. The room was packed with a diverse audience of all ages and backgrounds. Three stakeholders in the topic led the discussion, but it was emphasized that everyone in the room was welcome to participate.
The first guest, sculptor Michael Vandermeer, expressed frustrations over watching artist space sit empty during his 20 years working at on Granville Island at studio ie: Creative. He explained that Granville Island is federally owned and is intended to have 125,000 square feet of space dedicated to arts and crafts, but in reality provides much less than that. Public pressure is needed, he insists, to remind the government that the space and its intended purpose of fostering arts belongs to us.
Painter Eri Ishii spoke of her experience trying to defend her studio space at 901 Main Street from developers. In speaking with the city, she found they were completely unaware that artists had been working and holding cultural events in the building for years, and that they as individual renters had little ground to defend it. As part of her campaign she formed the 901 Artists Cooperative, which founded Portside Studios nearby and is better equipped to protect their new space as a collective.
Brian McBay, executive director of artspace planning non-profit 221A, explained that very little funding is being put into arts and many organizations must both fill the gap with private donors and navigate the politics of those partnerships. He sees a foreboding risk to our democratic freedoms in the struggle and corporatization of arts. He also posed an interesting challenge to the notion that artists are subject to market forces, seeing their struggle instead as an issue in a city’s DNA to be rectified by better planning.
The audience occasionally cheered, hollered, and booed as they empathized with the experiences and challenges that the speakers shared. It was clear that most people in the room, unlike myself who was there to learn more about the issue, were already deeply invested in it.
Those who took the microphone to speak had just as much to share as the guest presenters did. A printmaker named Peter explained that he was invited to Singapore to teach his craft — where the city-state invests in cultural assets to make up for its lack of physical resources — and came back to find that the City of Vancouver did the opposite, choosing to instead focus on selling their assets for short-term revenue.
Audience member Kate came well-prepared to speak from the administrative office of Granville Island, explaining that they want to open up space for artists but lack funding for the major costs associated with keeping buildings up to strict Vancouver code. They hope to turn the former Emily Carr building into a multi-use space, leasing out some of it for a profit in order to provide the majority of it as subsidized space to artists.
This discussion seemed to ruffle feathers for those who did not see this as a valid explanation for the lack of progress. Brian reeled the conversation up to a broader one about the way that Vancouver’s insanely high building standards make it hard for cultural projects to flourish — although safety is, of course, important. As he had stated before, the foundation of Vancouver’s city planning seems to squelch creativity.
I couldn’t help thinking that the real solution is to get these outspoken stakeholders, especially those that butted heads, into a meeting room for an in-depth conversation about what needs to happen next. I’m glad to see that SFU facilitated the first step, which was to gather diverse voices and inspire the rare feeling that there really is a democratic public sphere someplace.
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