Given the large turnout at the October 6 federal election arts debate, it was expected that last night’s mayoral arts debate, organized by the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance and the Alliance for Arts and Culture, would be similarly popular. But much of the Arts Club Theatre’s Granville Island Stage theatre hall was empty for the October 26 event, with only about 200 attendees—many of them local politicians, including Vision Vancouver Councillor Heather Deal and NPA Councillor Elizabeth Ball—turning out to watch the NPA’s Peter Ladner and Vision Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson square off on their arts policies.
Those who did attend heard both candidates talk up their cultural credentials: Robertson boasted that he “grew up with a guitar shoved in my hand at five years old”, that he plays the tuba, and that his wife, Amy, is a former art-school student who does basket weaving. Not to be outdone, Ladner bragged that he played piano through high school, and revealed he was once a boy soprano who sang the role of Mabel in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Pirates of the Penzance.
Both Ladner and Robertson addressed the need to relax bylaws and zoning requirements for artists, such as noise bylaws and parking requirements, to encourage more arts in the city. But the candidates diverged on their views of how to further support the arts: Ladner spoke of the need to attract big-business head offices to the city core which, he said, would help generate more private donations to Vancouver arts groups.
Robertson focused more on the grassroots level, declaring he would support an “arts-first policy” regarding city-owned warehouse and light industrial space, and look into making civic theatres available at discounted rates to small arts organizations on dark nights.
Robertson also trumpeted Vision Vancouver’s proposal to create an arm’s-length Vancouver arts council to oversee cultural grants, a move which Ladner rejected as unnecessary.
Addressing the issue of affordability in the city, including artists’ studio spaces, Ladner said: “We’ve taken a lot of heat for recognizing that density is part of affordability. We have to push that as much as we can....The more we supply housing the better chance the prices are going to come down and when those prices come down, it ripples through everybody, particularly the artists who are...at the lower end of the income spectrum.”
In response to a question about expanding performance spaces outside the downtown core, Robertson said: “I’d love to see more nightlife in other parts of the city, in particular Commercial Drive, Main Street, 4th Avenue, Broadway are all four corridors that could have a lot more going on instead of the entertainment district all concentrated on Granville.”
Ladner responded by citing the need for more flexibility and “having advocacy on council” to ensure the needs of the arts community are incorporated into city projects such as new developments.
Ladner frequently cited his experience in council and his lack of partisanship on the provincial level, claiming that he was more qualified to champion the arts to the B.C. government than Robertson, who served as NDP MLA for Vancouver-Fairview prior to diving into civic politics.
Ladner praised the progress made by the province on funding initiatives to establish a cultural precinct downtown around the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and to aid the Vancouver Art Gallery in building a new home in False Creek. Even so, Robertson received large applause for his assertion that the province is exerting too much influence on Vancouver, dictating the location of the VAG and the makeup of the proposed cultural precinct downtown.
In closing, Robertson stressed Vision Vancouver’s electoral platform, which includes creating a city arts council, as proof of his commitment to the arts community; Ladner promised to be “a champion for the arts” and pointed to the city’s recent culture plan as proof of recent progress.
Wrapping up the event, Andrew Wilhelm Boyles, executive director of the Alliance for Arts and Culture, expressed some regret over the low turnout, noting: “It’s at the municipal level that we are most directly affected by decisions. In a sense it’s disappointing that the place is not full, however we can all speak to our friends....The important thing is that we vote.”