There’s a new cathedral of arts education in Vancouver—and this one is for children and youths. On Tuesday (April 6), Arts Umbrella held a virtual grand opening of its 50,000-square-foot new home in the former South Building of Emily Carr University of Art + Design on Granville Island. And it has undergone such an extensive renovation that former students of the university would barely recognize parts of the interior.
“In the first three to five years, we anticipate more than 15,000 people per year coming to this building for a variety of programs, including performances in our new theatre,” Arts Umbrella president and CEO Paul Larocque told the Straight during a recent tour of the facility. “So I think it’s pretty amazing.”
Education in the new facility is scheduled to start on Saturday (April 10). Architect Richard Henriquez, husband of Arts Umbrella cofounder Carol Henriquez, redesigned four storeys to include six spacious dance studios as well as a 132-seat theatre, 10 art and design studios, and four theatre, music, and film studios for students between the ages of two and 22.
According to Larocque, Arts Umbrella has already surpassed the $35-million mark in a $37-million capital funding and endowment campaign. And it will help anchor Vancouver's burgeoning cultural economy in the 21st century.
“That means a lot of individuals, families, organizations, and corporations have all stepped up in very significant ways to realize the vision for this,” he said. “It’s something that we do not take for granted. This is something that happens to an organization once every few generations.”
In particular, Larocque credited the federal government for providing $7 million from the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund. He described this as the largest contribution from that pot of money to any individual project in B.C. In addition, the City of Vancouver has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in infrastructure funding. And the B.C. government stepped up, too.
“The province saw to it to transfer this building from Emily Carr to Arts Umbrella,” he added. “That was just massive."
This building transfer was in addition to a $1.4-million B.C. government grant.
Building includes large new theatre
Arts Umbrella has come a long way from its humble origins. Back in 1979, five artists and some parents with a passion for arts education launched the school, initially accepting 45 children. Four years later, it moved to its permanent home, a former nail factory on Granville Island that underwent two renovations, in 1990 and 2000, as enrollment grew.
“To say that we have long grown out of space in that building is an understatement,” Larocque said. “This is such a huge opportunity for the community. We intend to fill this new space with activity.”
Only six percent of Arts Umbrella’s $8-million operating budget comes from governments, he added. “This is truly an organization that has been built by the community for the community.”
The inside of the new building is spectacular. The theatre features a 1,500-square-foot stage with a sprung floor, enhancing safety for performers. Seating for 132 was created by eliminating a studio directly behind the theatre, lifting the floor, and placing a new audiovisual booth in the rear.
Larocque said that this space could be used by school groups throughout the year as well as by the Vancouver Fringe Festival and Vancouver Writers Festival, which are both based on Granville Island.
“There’s a large screen that drops down,” he noted. “We’ll use it to show student work in the area of animation and in filmmaking, and we’ll have speakers’ series. It’s just such an incredible asset for the community.”
Major changes to the interior
The six dance studios on the fourth floor are equally dazzling. The largest is 2,500 square feet with floor-to-ceiling windows, and each studio has a sprung floor as well as a piano.
Larocque said that as part of the construction project, a column was removed and replaced with a truss, opening up more space and ensuring acoustical buffering. In a theatre rehearsal studio, the roof was raised by three metres.
“This was a major piece of structural engineering,” Larocque said.
That’s not all. There’s a room with many pottery wheels in a ceramics studio. That’s new to Arts Umbrella. As well, students will be able to print graphic novels, something that Larocque described as being as important to them as being able to complete a painting or a piece of choreography.
Plus, in addition to learning about digital photography, there’s a darkroom for students to practise analogue photography.
“You’re not seeing a lot of darkrooms in postsecondary education,” Larocque commented.
Then there are partnerships with Microsoft and Electronic Arts to ensure that students learn a variety of animation skills.
Students come first
The building was originally designed by Patkau Architects. One of its features, which the Arts Umbrella CEO appreciates, is a glass ceiling that automatically opens up if there’s a fire, ensuring that smoke will be released outside.
But as impressive as all these features might be, Larocque remains firmly focused on the experience of students. To enhance their education, there’s a large green room, which enables them to hear a performance as it’s underway so they’ll know when to go on-stage.
In addition, there’s a student lounge with a microwave oven and refrigerator, which is ideal for the dance students who spend half their days at Arts Umbrella and half their days in regular secondary school.
On the main floor, students’ artwork can be displayed so it can be seen by Granville Island visitors walking by the building.
To Larocque, arts education is so much more than learning about performing arts or painting or moviemaking. He thinks that it also helps students build many skills that can enhance their education and help them become better citizens. Foremost among them is empathy.
“It’s life-changing,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to be engaged in art. It’s such a direct thing because it’s coming from within you. It’s the instructor—who is able to unleash that creative spirit—who is so important.”
Alumna praises Larocque
A former Arts Umbrella student and instructor, Kate Henderson, is now the interim curator and visual arts manager at Art Gallery at Evergreen in Coquitlam.
In a phone interview, she told the Straight that Arts Umbrella is where her passion for art began. She started in the dance program before studying painting, drawing, and sculpture. Later, she spent many years at Arts Umbrella as an instructor.
Henderson described Larocque as one of the warmest and most generous people that she’s ever met.
According to her, Larocque always remembers people’s names and enjoys celebrating others’ successes.
“He really cares about children and youth and puts them first,” Henderson said. “This move to the new building is such a huge thing for these students.”