Time to stop Vancouver's exodus of artists before it's too late

I’ve been living and working as an artist in the Downtown Eastside for more than 13 years. I’ve lived in lofts, warehouses, and the back of galleries all over the area. I’ve seen many galleries and studios come and go as artists emerge and fall. But recently I’ve seen a disturbing turn of events. The artists are leaving.

I came to that shocking realization when I saw one friend after another pick up and leave. Most of them are walking away in frustration, most of them heading east. Studios and gallery spaces are disappearing at a rapid rate. The once affordable East side rentals are evaporating and artist-rich Strathcona is now almost completely unaffordable.

Most people don’t see artists or how they affect a neighbourhood. They hide in some of the poorest inhospitable places in the name of art. They are in the nooks and crannies of the very places you would not expect to find flourishing communities. In this city they are almost completely invisible but they do exist.

I don’t feel that this city owes its artists any sort of living. My opinion may be different than most, but I’ve never taken a handout and always worked hard to sustain a personal art space through my full-time job as a designer at the Georgia Straight.

Most artists choose their work as a path to self fulfillment. Some of us choose it as a source of income. Let’s face it, there isn’t a lot of money in the arts. It has been and will always be a long, hard road. Some do well and most don’t. This is why you’ll find most art communities in any metropolitan city in some of the poorest neighbourhoods.

It isn’t an easy to explain why all this is changing, but I’ll just say this much: by the time the Olympics roll into town it may become almost impossible for Vancouver to sustain an arts community without government grants. And with Harper axing $45 million in arts and culture funding this year, I wouldn’t hold my breath for help anytime soon.

There was a time in the not so distant past when I owned and operated a small commercial gallery on Carrall Street with my wife. For five years, we kept it alive and showcased well more than 50 artists in need of gallery walls. It gave us studio space, a place to show our work, and a legal place to live. It was relatively cheap and in a tourist-rich location. Amongst the crime and the violence of the DTES I found a temporary haven for art.

After the Olympic decision in 2003, developers started to examine the area and the rents started to climb. After a few years, it became an expensive burden that we could no longer sustain. These changes pushed out a lot of small businesses in exchange for the high-end retailers that have begun to take the area by storm.

The only galleries that survived those changes are the artist-run centres. All others are now mostly gone, along with all the warehouse spaces above Water Street that are slowly being converted in to luxury condos.

Today, I live in a Chinatown co-op and paint in a walk-in closet. I have no place to show my art in Vancouver. The lack of mid-range galleries has forced me to take my art south where I almost completely show these days. It’s hard to admit that I’m part of the brain drain into the U.S., but I went where the work was requested.

I admit I’m doing better than most, but I’m finding it very difficult to work in the tiny space that I call my studio. The more work I find, the harder it becomes to scale up my progress.

I’ve now begun to look at completely leaving the city. It’s been a tough personal decision. Many people are choosing to move away because they will never afford own a home, a studio, or a business here. It’s upsetting, because most artists can't do the work they love in the city they live in.

Vancouver as a “world class” city needs to start looking at what it's losing. Live-work space are not a substitute for studios or galleries. Those need a corner of the city that we can use to enrich and showcase our rich cultural heritage.

Look at Seattle’s Belltown as a prime example. It was once rich with galleries, cafes, studios, and cheap places to live. All that has changed in the past 10 years after it was slowly converted into a condo destination with nothing more than a Starbucks on every corner. The artists who maintained and helped that neighbourhood thrive in the rough times were quickly rewarded with eviction notices in the good times.

I would hate to think that when the world comes to Vancouver in 2010 they’ll be missing the opportunity to see what keeps the heart of this city alive. Don’t get me wrong: there’ll always be artists and you’ll always see small galleries come and go. I just wonder how long it’ll take for people to see the value in art and artists instead of pushing it out of existence.



Ismail Lancaster

Jun 23, 2009 at 12:32am

For whatever reason, rich non-artist types want to live in "artist lofts" that have now become unaffordable for REAL artists. Warehouses, downtown east side heritage buildings, you name it--are now being converted to trendy lofts that only someone who doesn't try to make a living as an artist can afford.

Brian Matheson

Jun 29, 2009 at 5:21pm

Well, I'm on the incoming train and wonder if anyone can point me in a good direction. I am looking for live and work space. I make a lot of noise cutting and carving stones and am loooking for between 1000 - 2000ft to rent. Anyone I should talk too?