Three leading figures in the arts community give their views on a city at a cultural crossroads.
Few cities in North America are being dug up and overhauled as rapidly as Vancouver is right now. And while the local cultural scene may not be growing at the same head-spinning clip as the condo market, the arts in Vancouver appear to be moving through a phase in their evolution that will be remembered as pivotal. Despite an ongoing lack of venues, independent theatre and dance companies thrive, building nationwide reputations for risk-taking. New genre-mashing festivals seem to spring up every year and quickly gather momentum. And with the 2010 Winter Olympics no longer on the horizon so much as racing straight toward us, the city’s creative community is making a bid for a thoroughly international profile. So, with the spring arts season getting into swing, the Straight spoke separately with three central players in the city’s cultural scene, getting their views on where we stand and where we’re headed.
For the past year and a half, Robert Kerr has been program director of the Cultural Olympiad, the sweeping, multifaceted arts component of the Games that includes late-winter programming this year and next, followed by a full arts festival set to run in tandem with the Olympics in 2010. Before joining the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee, Kerr spent 21 years as executive director of the Coastal Jazz & Blues Society, best known for putting on the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
Since becoming director of the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2001, Kathleen Bartels has put up some impressive numbers. Not only has the gallery’s endowment ballooned from around $200,000 to over $6 million, and membership increased eightfold, but the collection itself has grown by some 3,000 works, most notably through the private donation of two large, world-class photo collections. Bartels is now leading the charge for a larger facility to house it all.
Margo Kane set up Full Circle First Nations Performance in 1992 with the goal of opening new, interdisciplinary paths for aboriginal performing artists. Through workshops, collaborations, and training programs, Kane and Full Circle have helped a generation of emerging First Nations artists blend tradition with the latest theatrical techniques, developing whole new vocabularies for expressing aboriginal experience. The innovative results are seen every year in the organization’s annual Talking Stick Festival.
What’s the most exciting aspect or area of the Vancouver arts scene right now?
Robert Kerr: “I would say the most exciting aspect from my perspective is its spirit of adventure. I really feel that there’s an openness to experimentation and to collaboration in the scene right now. People are reaching out beyond their comfort zones and connecting to artists of different genres, of different cultures within the community and also around the world. And I find that really energizing and really exciting. You know, we’re not in a defined state in Vancouver, in the arts and cultural community. I think we’re very much in a state of discovery and in the process of defining who we are. As a result, I think it’s a time of great potential in the community.”
Kathleen Bartels: “Without a doubt, Vancouver is one of the leading centres for the visual arts. Most notably, Vancouver is internationally renowned for its photo-based artists. We’re so lucky that so many of the internationally recognized artists who choose to live and work here are from Vancouver. Just in the past year alone, Jeff Wall had a major retrospective that started at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and went to the Art Institute of Chicago and just closed in San Francisco. Of course, we [the VAG [Vancouver Art Gallery] showed Roy Arden’s big career retrospective, and then Stan Douglas had a huge exhibition at the Wí¼rttembergischer
Kunstverein and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. And this summer we’re presenting Canada’s 2005 Venice Biennale recipient, Rebecca Belmore.”¦And they bring so much attention to this city. Jeff Wall was born and raised in Vancouver, Roy Arden is from here, Stan’s from here. Rebecca’s not from here, but she chooses to live in Vancouver because of the
exciting art scene.”
Margo Kane: “The opportunity that the PuSh Festival has given to the smaller independent companies to do their work as part of that alliance. I think it’s really important that more established companies, as part of their community development, encourage others where they can—not everybody can, I know. I admire that, and I think it’s very important for the development of a healthy arts scene to have a variety of voices from a variety of different artists and sizes of companies.”
What’s the biggest issue or obstacle facing the arts in Vancouver?
RK: “From my perspective, I think it’s the short-term focus that most people are forced into due to a lack of reliable and sustainable core funding. There’s a focus on projects—kind of a sequential project focus. People go from one to the next to the next. And that’s partially because of the nature of the funding—in a lot of cases, it’s project-focused—and sort of a survival mode that people are still operating under. There have been some good strides recently, no question about it, on the funding front. There have been more resources from the City of Vancouver, from [the Department of Canadian] Heritage, the province through the Renaissance funds, the Arts Partners in Creative Development commissioning support, and the Cultural Olympiad bringing new money and opportunities into the community, which are all great. And I’m hoping that this will really lead to full-fledged creative-community development, which is perhaps a friendlier way of saying that we need to develop our arts community as an industry, without it becoming like capital-I industry, but really thinking about it in terms of a core element of our community that has so much to offer on so many fronts that aren’t necessarily all measurable by an economic matrix, but that contributes so much to the quality of life and to the attractiveness of Vancouver as a place to live, and just to our own identity.”¦There’s so much clutter out in the marketplace right now, so many things to attract people’s attention, and we kind of live in an attention-deficit society. So it’s challenging for people to get their work recognized. That’s all tied into this need to get beyond the short-term focus and beyond the project focus and really develop a fundamental awareness and ingrained focus on arts and culture in our community.”
KB: “I can speak from the Vancouver Art Gallery point of view. In our case, the limitations of our current building are becoming critical. That certainly is an obstacle for the gallery. Our lack of space really is inappropriate on many levels. We have a lack of space for people, for art, for an outstanding permanent collection, for larger exhibitions. So space really is a critical need for us, which is why we’re moving forward with a new Vancouver Art Gallery. Every great city, whether it’s Paris, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, is really judged by its arts and culture. I think this is a moment for Vancouver, with the Olympics on the horizon and so many artists from here—visual artists that are known internationally—for Vancouver to kind of step up to the plate and raise the bar on the arts and culture side, whether that’s facility-related or supporting artists through commissioning or exhibiting, et cetera. So many of the well-known artists here are some of the best-kept secrets in Vancouver.”¦I think we’re lacking some understanding and support of the artists being supported and collected outside of here.”
MK: “Well, I think there’s still a range of diversity that hasn’t been engaged yet. Aboriginal performance and artists of colour, different cultural communities, are still on the fringes—way on the fringes.”¦We’re not considered yet. Some of that is just because development dollars have not gone to our communities. Development is happening, but it’s very, very slow if it’s not supported in any substantial manner. So I’m trying to do the Talking Stick Festival for a number of reasons, and one is to give an opportunity for aboriginal artists across many disciplines to have a public space for their work. But I am so small myself that I cannot do justice to the work that needs to be done there. So that’s very frustrating for me because I can’t really assist in any huge way—I can’t assist in the development of new work in the way I would like to. Full Circle has always assisted in the development of new work in small ways with various small artists and companies doing projects. We’ve attempted to do that. And we’ve attempted to bring people together at the festival to begin to talk and communicate and perhaps create collaborative projects together. We’ve tried to do that, but it just feels like such a small amount. Therefore our limited resources are spent on trying to raise the profile for us all.”
Do you feel that the arts scene here adequately reflects the city’s cultural diversity? If not, how could the lack be addressed?
RK: “I think it’s made huge strides in the last 10 years. If you look at what’s happened with things like the Asian heritage month, the Vancouver International Bhangra festival, Chinese New Year’s and the different cultural and arts celebrations that are developing around it, the Talking Stick Festival, and the growing diversity of the festival scene in general”¦there is a really remarkably diverse programming base within all that activity, and I think it’s increasingly diverse. So does it ”˜adequately reflect’? You might ask 10 different people and get 10 different answers. But I believe it is reflecting it well, and that diversity is increasingly well-represented within the activity that’s going on. And we’re discovering more all the time, in terms of what’s happening within the South Asian arts community and the Persian community and the Chinese community. And the activity within those communities is, I think, reaching out to the community at large and not just within the particular cultural group. So that’s all incredibly positive, and I think we just have to keep nurturing it.”
KB: “Vancouver is wonderfully vibrant and rich, particularly from a cultural perspective, which is one of the reasons I moved to Vancouver. Certainly, for the gallery, on the program side we have really tried to look at the wide range of diversity, whether it’s gender or ethnic diversity in this community, and we really have reflected that, I feel, very well in our programming, from [2006’s] Raven
Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art, to [2007’s] House of Oracles, the Huang Yong Ping retrospective. Right now, we have Kutlu? Ataman: Paradise and Kí¼ba, who is a Turkish artist. We will be presenting, I mentioned, Rebecca Belmore, along with Zhang Huan, who is one of the most important Chinese artists working today and has influenced a whole other generation of artists. And of course there’s our big exhibition this summer, KRAZY! [The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art].”
MK: “I don’t. [It could be addressed] if people would care about it and reach out and look for collaborative situations and small ways that they could encourage that collaboration and development by reaching across their borders, reaching outside themselves. Maybe there’s a company or an artist that they might like to encourage and develop over a period of time. That’s the other thing: it takes time. To develop a friendship or an alliance, you have to take the time to develop that rapport. And of course we always need money, and we will probably never have enough, but I guess what each of us can do in our own way is to try and establish new relationships where possible. I suppose it’s finding the company or people, no matter what culture they are, that you would like to collaborate with. But that also means that you actually have to seek relationships outside of your norm. And as an artist or an artistic company, sometimes we get hamstrung because we’re just struggling to survive. We don’t look outside, maybe, as much as we might. I guess the other thing is not to feel so restricted by our mandates or restricted by the community we come from. Maybe it’s time for us to just”¦go beyond where we are right now—seek solutions outside of just within our own walls, or our own little city.”¦We get kind of insular, I think. I think we’re all guilty of that.”
Will the city’s cultural landscape be different after 2010?
RK: “I think so, and I sure hope so. I think the community does have a growing sense of confidence, and that that will continue to develop—and will continue to develop in part as we take up the challenge of 2010. There really is an incredible amount of attention that’s being focused on Vancouver from the rest of Canada and from the world. You know, they’re turning their eyes toward us, and people are beginning to get a very tangible sense of this. They’re starting to think outwards more, pushing themselves, going beyond their comfort zone.”¦So I think the community will have a greater sense of itself post–2010, and the world will have a better sense of who we are. And I think we’ll also have taken another quantum step forward in terms of the awareness of the public in general of the vitality of the arts scene.”
KB: “I think it  certainly will be a pivotal year for Vancouver, just from the point of view of international recognition. When you have all those people coming here, it can’t help but broaden people’s awareness of what’s in this city. And certainly, the art side, the cultural side, will be very important in people’s experiences of Vancouver. So I think certainly the international visual-arts community is already looking to Vancouver because of the artists that live and work here.”
MK: “I hope so. I’m not really sure that I have a lot of faith in that, but yeah, I’m pretty optimistic. There’ll be some new artists coming into town, there’ll be some new work, there’ll be potentially some exchange that goes on. And I guess the other thing is that it might give us the incentive to invite people that we’ve wanted to work with from the outside to come in. Some of the funding that’s coming gives an opportunity to perhaps commission work and collaborate with people that you haven’t had a chance to work with, and try things that you haven’t been able to try before. And I think that’s very positive and very exciting. It hasn’t translated to very much money at this stage, but you work with what you have. So there’s always the downside of the Olympics—but when you’ve got lemons you make some lemonade. You try and make use of the time that is afforded you, and so I’m just choosing to be optimistic about it.”
Which event or show (other than your own) are you most looking forward to this spring or summer?
RK: “This is a tough one to isolate, but of course I’m still a jazz man at heart, so the Herbie Hancock gig at the jazz festival is just going to be an extraordinary show. He’s got an absolutely killer band with Dave Holland and Chris Potter.”¦And then Magnetic North, the theatre festival coming to town in early June, will be amazing. It’ll give Vancouver a nice cross section of theatre from other parts of the country that doesn’t often come to town, which will be a big plus—and as a part of it, HIVE2 being that opportunity for all the young, experimental groups and the cutting-edge theatre in Vancouver to captivate people and build on the success of the first HIVE.”
KB: “There’s several of them. At the Contemporary Art Gallery this spring they’re doing a large show of the photographer Stephen Waddell, curated by Roy Arden. The [Morris and Helen] Belkin [Art] Gallery right now has a wonderful survey of a younger generation of artists that I haven’t seen yet but I’m really looking forward to, because several of those artists I admire greatly, from Tim Lee to Alex Morrison and Kevin Schmidt.”
MK: “I am looking forward to Kevin Loring’s play Where the Blood Mixes, partly because Full Circle assisted him in the early development of that piece. We’ve nurtured Kevin along the way, and he’s been part of our ensemble. He does some part-time directing and teaching with our ensemble training program, so I am very much looking forward to that one.”