Studio space shortage and diversity issues dominate panel discussion at Creative City Strategy launch

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      Grassroots artists want more of a piece of the funding pie. Artists are leaving the city due to skyrocketing housing and studio-space prices. And Vancouver's arts programming does not proportionately reflect the diversity in the city's ethnic makeup.

      These were just some of the issues that came up when Creative City Strategy launched its public-input process yesterday. The packed event and panel discussion took place at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, cohosted by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

      The strategy team, headed by managing director of cultural services for the City of Vancouver and former Ballet BC executive director Branislav Henselmann, will spend the next few months hosting such events and collecting input from artists and the public on how the City of Vancouver should be investing in arts, creativity, and culture. It aims to implement its strategy in early 2019. The strategy will replace the existing 10-year Cultural Strategy in place from 2008 to 2018.

      In an opening speech, Henselmann stressed that the new plan will reflect the City's history and that his process has a firm mandate to focus on equity, diversity, inclusion, and Reconciliation. 

      The public engagement "also includes, more importantly, voices that are not represented in this room," he added. "We know this is a huge task ahead of us and we'll be engaging in a number of ways, from events  like this to Facebook and social media."

      A panel discussion that followed raised some of the big issues the strategy team is going to face as it tries to plot out the city's cultural future.

      Amid the recurring topics was gentrification and the shortage of affordable studio space in the city.  "What is the city doing with art societies that are at constant threat of eviction?" asked Nancy Lee, a multimedia artist who sits on Vancouver Art & Leisure’s board of directors, pointing to the Red Gate Arts Society, which became a symbol of artists being forced out of the historic Downtown Eastside due to rising rents. "How can we create arts and culture if artists no longer have anywhere to create? People are leaving Vancouver. What can we do to secure spaces for young creators to stay in Va voucher and to validate them? I would like to see that addressed in the cultural strategy."

      She pointed to her own artist collective, Vancouver Art and Leisure, as an example of the challenges groups face. She said VAL had a fire, but needed to produce a 10 year lease in order to get assistance funding from the government. "Who here has a 10-year lease?!" she asked.

      Indigenous interdisciplinary artist Cease Wyss said the need for space, especially collective gathering space, is top of mind in her community as well. "We all have our little canoes but to be honest we don't have a longhouse to go and hang out in," she said. "Every indigenous group I've ever worked with, we've never had a home."

      She and others expressed the need for Indigenous and other diverse groups to have a stronger voice at the funding table, and a stronger role at local galleries and in local theatres.

       "We live in a really diverse city and a constant challenge for me is the fight for more representation. If we think of the city as 40 percent Asian of some varity, it's very rare that you do see 40 percent representation onstage or in the audience," said Tarun Nayar, a DJ/producer, member of culture-mashing band Delhi 2 Dublin, and artistic director of the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration Society.

      Concurred Lee: "I work with marginalized communities, the queer people, people of colour, and often we don't fit into these traditional institutions. Often queer people and people of colour have a different relationship to government authorities, so often funding isn't as easy to access."

      Tarah Hogue, Vancouver Art Gallery's new senior curatorial fellow on indigenous art, encouraged the city to seek wide input as it launches its process of public input.  "A start is to open up the process to actually ask artists what's important to you. If things are going to be culturally relevant then they need to be tackling these big questions.

      "Art is going to be unruly," she added. "Find a structure that allows artists in our community to really lead the conversation here."

      Beyond those conversations, the panel took steps toward tackling questions of who decides if work is culturally relevant or has artistic excellence. Opined Belle Cheung, an arts administrator and stage manager who's pursuing a Geography masters in arts funding as it relates to diversity on B.C. stages: "I don't think we should use the terms cultural relevance and artistic excellence in the same sentence together," adding that there is a notion that arts is what gets funded and culture is "everything else".

      The topics raised speak to the current and emerging challenges the Creative City Strategy will face in coming months, as it hosts events aimed at gathering feedback from arts stakeholders and the public at large. PuSh artistic and executive director Norman Armour, who sits on the strategy's external advisory board, encouraged people to take an active, vocal role. He said stakeholders and the public should not just make sure to hold civic staff accountable for the strategy, "but also to hold ourselves accountable so that in a year's time this will look like something you should believe in...and the money is properly invested."

      Find more about the strategy here

      Among its stated goals, posted yesterday:

      Connect disparate communities and align divergent interests.

      Identify priorities to guide the city's future efforts and investments.

      Address the critical needs and opportunities facing the sector in a phased action plan.

      Create more equitable practices that better reflect and connect the diversity of our city.

      And build a culture of Reconciliation throughout Vancouver.

      Meanwhile, you can check out the Facebook video of the event here.