Eastside Culture Crawl artists on the endangered list

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      Right after artist Eri Ishii hosts Eastside Culture Crawl visitors at her rental studio for the Eastside Culture Crawl this weekend, she'll go to City Hall, hoping to save her creative space and the studios of 31 other artists who work there. Christopher Bozyk Architects, on behalf of Amacon developers, has applied to the city's development permit board to turn the red-brick building at 190 Prior Street (formerly 901 Main Street) into 10 high-end apartments. The meeting takes place on Monday (November 19) at 3 p.m.

      "If we lose this and any more buildings like this, we're going to be like just another North American suburb," Ishii told the Georgia Straight during an interview at her studio overlooking the Georgia Street Viaduct. "If this happens, the whole city will be dead."

      Ishii and a small group from 190 Prior plan to ask Culture Crawl visitors to sign a petition against the development this weekend. Amacon did not return the Straight 's calls by deadline.

      The timing is almost theatrical, but the issue is serious. According to Valerie Arntzen, executive director of the 11th annual Eastside Culture Crawl, the future of the grassroots visual-arts festival is threatened by the swift gentrification of Strathcona and Commercial Drive. Although the number of guests is growing, the crawl, which runs from Friday to Sunday (November 16 to 18), is losing artists.

      "They're moving out of the city as costs rise," Arntzen told the Straight in an interview in her studio at 800 Keefer Street. The former film-set decorator bought the heritage building with four others for $390,000 in the mid '90s. It's now worth $1.5 million.

      "At 1000 Parker [which houses 71 crawl artists] a few years ago, the rents went up to market value, so a bunch moved out then. All of Railtown [Studios, 321 Railway Street] got kicked out over the years. In the West Hastings block [across from Woodward's], they kicked out all of those artists and galleries years ago. It made us weep."

      Arntzen noted that there are no more inexpensive industrial-type spaces for artists to go to except for out in the Fraser Valley. That's not news to Sue Harvey, the City of Vancouver's managing director of cultural services.

      "We talk to the [arts] community all the time, and there's no question we have space challenges in Vancouver," Harvey told the Straight in a phone interview. "It's among the highest-priority concerns."

      In response to these and other issues, her department is producing reports and recommendations.

      On October 2, city council hired Toronto Artscape consultants for $91,250 to develop a new cultural facilities plan. That plan, Harvey said, will guide policy, including studio issues, for the next 10 to 15 years. Artscape will start work by the end of this month, consult with the public in January, and introduce recommendations in April 2008. The last cultural facilities plan promoted the creation of artist live-work studios–a model that Ishii and Arntzen said does not work for many artists, including them.

      In addition, on October 2 city council heard the final recommendations of the Creative City Task Force, a three-year city hall committee charged with reviewing Vancouver's arts picture. The report referred to studio space once. It recommended that city council "review City policies, by-laws and guidelines to facilitate the renovation of affordable spaces for artists and creators with an emphasis on incubator studio and production facilities requiring access to industrial land."

      In the meantime, 190 Prior is vulnerable. Vision Vancouver councillor Heather Deal toured the building on November 9. The cultural services reports, she told the Straight in a phone interview, should have been done years ago. Currently, Olympic arts planning has pushed the downtown cultural precinct agenda ahead of all other arts concerns in the city, Deal noted. "Clearly, we need protection for our rehearsal, gallery, and studio space," she said.

      She accused NPA councillor Elizabeth Ball, who has a lifelong history in the arts in Vancouver, of not advocating strongly enough for the noninstitutional arts sector. Ball did not return the Straight 's calls by deadline, but she and MLA Jenny Kwan have met with the 190 Prior artists.

      The local arts community is passing around a much stronger-worded privately commissioned report. Vancity credit union's The Power of the Arts in Vancouver: Creating a Great City claims that the city does not support its own artists. Visiting Italian city planner Pier Luigi Sacco, in collaboration with Vancity researchers Bob Williams and Elvy Del Bianco, charged in the report that Vancouver's real "ground zero"–the epicentre of the city's biggest problem–isn't Main and Hastings streets. It's Robson and Thurlow streets, where there isn't a cultural institution within sniffing distance (except, as the report points out, for the Vancouver Art Gallery, which is planning to move). Strathcona and Commercial Drive, celebrated by the Eastside Culture Crawl, is the heart of this city, the authors wrote. They note that gentrification threatens Vancouver's "Eastern Cultural Complex" and suggest the city should develop some kind of policy. But even these authors don't recommend any concrete actions to preserve studio space.

      Arntzen, along with Ishii and fellow artist Dennis Brown, said that organization is an impediment to rallying support for studios.

      "As a group, we [the crawl artists] are concerned, but our mandate is that we are a festival, not a political group," Arntzen said. Losing 190 Prior is "a crying shame. It's been full of artists since the 1980s. I look at it as an anchor.”¦That's 30 artists out of 280 that participate in the crawl. That's a big chunk."

      Deal also said she doesn't hear enough from the city's artists. If Ishii and Brown hadn't called her about the development of 190 Prior, she said, it might have slipped by.

      Links: City of Vancouver's Creative City official site
      Eastside Culture Crawl official site