SFU gets new digs for arts in Woodward’s development

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      When Nancy Shaw, a fourth-year film student at SFU, first laid eyes on the facilities in which she and her classmates would be spending countless hours honing their cinematic skills, her heart sank.

      “My first impression was, ”˜Is this all we’ve got?’ ” the 29-year-old president of the university’s film-student union recalled in a phone conversation with the Straight. “I was expecting, honestly, something a little bit more high-tech, and some facilities that I might actually encounter in the real world.”

      What Shaw and other fine arts students got instead were cramped classrooms located in portables on Burnaby Mountain. Or, more accurately, aging converted construction trailers dating back to the first days of the university’s School for the Contemporary Arts, according to Martin Gotfrit, director of the school. “Some of the trailers date back to Expo 67, when they took the show on the road—and when they reached Vancouver, it was the end of the road,” he explained by phone.

      Come next year, however, SFU’s aspiring filmmakers, visual artists, dancers, musicians, and theatre artists will no longer be learning in what Shaw affectionately terms a “little cardboard building”. In January 2010, the first crop of students will file into the brand-new SFU School for the Contemporary Arts in the new Woodward’s development.

      An impressive 125,000-square-foot facility located at West Hastings and Abbott streets, the school will feature amenities that Shaw and her colleagues have been dreaming about for years. Financed with $50 million from the province and $30 million in private donations, the $80-million campus will feature computer teaching labs; editing and composing suites for film, video, graphics, and electroacoustic music; a 350-seat cinema/lecture hall; a gallery with movable walls; a film sound stage featuring two 25-seat screening rooms and a classroom; three dance studios; two theatre studios; a music-teaching studio; and two visual art and interdisciplinary studios. As well, it will boast the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, a space that can be reconfigured from proscenium to arena, with seating for up to 450.

      It’s been a long time coming. “Over the years, there’s been countless efforts to get us new buildings,” Gotfrit remarked. “I think it’s emblematic of how people think of the arts—and not within the university, but within the larger social context. You know, we get chemistry buildings, but we don’t get new arts buildings.”

      Not only will students have access to improved resources, Gotfrit predicted the new digs will foster collaboration between the institution and the community. “We’re developing projects with W2 [Community Media Arts Centre], a collective of Downtown Eastside arts organizations that will occupy 12,000 square feet of space at Woodward’s,” he noted.

      According to Irwin Oostindie, executive director of W2, the collective will have access to SFU’s cinema, and hopes to share equipment with the school. In addition, he’s hoping SFU faculty will take part in W2 programs offered to Downtown Eastside residents.

      “W2 is very grassroots,” observed Oostindie by phone. “But the SFU School for the Contemporary Arts staff have been very encouraging of our relationship because they understand the ecology of the Woodward’s site, and how the”¦experience of SFU students at Woodward’s will be vastly improved and radically different if W2 is there.”

      Shaw noted that the new facility will provide students opportunities to work together. “We’re all in different spaces in Burnaby,” she explained. “We’re in one portable and the dance students are in another module, and the theatre kids are in another building entirely. ”

      She also suggested the school will help bolster the neighbourhood’s art scene. “I would say that the Downtown Eastside has the most cutting-edge art in the city, period,” she said. “It is going to mean there’s more attention for the galleries that exist, and it will bring more attention to us because we’re down here, we’re accessible, and it’s easy to get to.”

      It’s enough to tempt Shaw to rethink her educational plans. “It makes me want to come back and do an MFA,” she admitted with a laugh.

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