The Western Front Society will soon have ownership of its space, ending any uncertainty about the organization’s future.
The nonprofit art society is a long-term tenant of a historic Mount Pleasant building whose owners offer low-cost rehearsal, exhibition, and office space to artists. Through an agreement with the City of Vancouver, the Western Front Society will receive funds from a community-amenity contribution (CAC) from the developers of the RIZE—The Independent at Main tower, which is currently under construction at Main and Broadway. City hall requires developers to contribute either building space or cash to a community fund held by the city when they increase property density.
Caitlin Jones, director of the Western Front Society, explained that with the $1.5-million CAC gift it can purchase the space, thanks to “the generous owners of this building [who] are willing to sell to us on the lowest side of [the] market”.
The purchase means that the location will be secured for use by future artists, said Jones, and the society is grateful it can buy out the private owners as they enter their retirement.
“These are owners who have, out of their total dedication to cultural life in this city, been renting to the Western Front Society and to EDAM Dance [which has a studio in the building]…for crazy-low rates and they’ve never made any money off this building at all,” Jones said at the Front.
However, accepting money from a developer of a new tower in the neighbourhood wasn’t a snap decision. “I guess it’s deeply ironic that we are securing our own stability through a mechanism that is making so many others unstable,” Jones said.
To explore the issue of housing and space affordability in Vancouver, this past fall the society held a conference and exhibition called Urgent Imagination. The project proposed creative alternatives to Vancouver’s “developer-driven architecture and urban planning” (according to its artistic statement), and will continue with another chapter later this year.
Vancouver interdisciplinary artist Jen Weih participated in the conference as a member of the Other Sights for Artists’ Projects collective. Weih is critical of the city’s CAC model, but is glad the Western Front Society is accepting the money.
“I don’t think it’s problematic that they’re getting the opportunity to stay in that neighbourhood, because they are a valuable community resource,” she told the Straight by phone.
Weih said that many artists are leaving Vancouver because they can’t afford to live here. However, she noted that it’s important to recognize that other low-income people are also facing the same challenge.
One of the current owners, Hank Bull, has been involved with the Western Front since 1973. The multimedia artist, who also founded Centre A, lives in a small suite on the top floor, and described his existence as “hand-to-mouth”.
Bull said at the venue that his share from selling the building won’t be enough for him to buy a condo in Vancouver, and his plans are uncertain. But he said he’s ready for a change. With regard to the city’s plan to give CAC money to the Western Front Society, Bull said, “The city is to be congratulated because they looked at the situation and they could see that it would be difficult in the future for arts groups, not to mention artists, to continue to live in Mount Pleasant.”