Eastside Culture Crawl’s resilience reflected in its glorious 25-year history

Even though it receives no federal funding, it has become a landmark event on Vancouver's artistic calendar

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      For many years, Esther Rausenberg has been a pillar of the Vancouver art community. As one of the founders of the Eastside Culture Crawl, she has helped countless artists show their work to thousands and thousands of residents every year. In 2019, 23,000 visitors went through the Parker Street Studios alone.

      This has helped artists forge connections with patrons—as well as lifelong friendships—and earn a living. In the process, the Eastside Culture Crawl has helped turn East Vancouver into a vibrant national centre for visual arts, crafts, and design.

      So it might come as a surprise to some that the Eastside Culture Crawl, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, doesn’t receive any federal funding.

      “We have had very, very minimal support from government funding bodies—like, we get zero from the Canadian government,” Rausenberg told the Straight in a phone interview. “Zero. Zero.”

      She thinks it comes down to a very Eurocentric definition of what the visual arts are all about to qualify for federal funding.

      Rausenberg acknowledged that things have improved with the B.C. Arts Council, noting that B.C.'s arts minister, Melanie Mark, is from East Vancouver and understands the festival.

      But the Eastside Culture Crawl organizer noted that there's still an imbalance when it comes to visual arts in comparison to other art forms with some funding organizations.

      “The way that the visual arts are supported and seen always has to be mediated through the eyes of a curator,” Rausenberg explained. “And so visual artists can’t self-represent their own work and can’t curate their own work.”

      The Eastside Culture Crawl breaks through that model by offering a way for artists to get their work in the hands of patrons by creating opportunities for buyers to visit their studios. This year, more than 400 artists will be participating in the two major events: a by-appointment-only preview weekend from November 12 to 14 and an open-studio component from November 18 to 21.

      Rausenberg said that although artists cannot obtain government funding through self-representation, this option is available to artists in other areas.

      “If I’m a dancer or a choreographer, I can do that,” she declared. “If I am a theatre director, I can do that. If I’m a writer, I can do that.

      “I put my own work out there, and if it sticks and somebody is interested in that, I can promote it,” Rausenberg continued. “I don’t do all of that if I’m a visual artist; it has to go through a gatekeeper like a private gallery or a public gallery.”

      She doesn’t think that’s fair to people who make their livelihood in the visual arts.

      Amanda Siebert

      Rausenberg's near-namesake launched passion for art

      After getting that off her chest, Rausenberg had many other interesting things to say, including how she became interested in art. She was actually not exposed to it as a child. Her father had escaped Yugoslavia and had no interest in this area.

      But a life-changing event came with the visit of a famous artist to Vancouver in the 1970s. Milton Ernest “Robert” Rauschenberg had a show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. According to Rausenberg, that elicited the interest of her father, whose name was originally Rauschenberger but had been anglicized to Rausenberg. Her dad decided to go to the VAG to see if he could meet the artist.

      The two did end up talking, and Rausenberg’s dad returned with one of Rauschenberg’s catalogues.

      “That was my first real exposure to contemporary art,” Rausenberg revealed. “I was like, ‘Wow, what is this?’ It was really bizarre.”

      That triggered a greater interest in visual art, leading her to study photography at Britannia secondary. Rausenberg went on to take video, film, sound, and contemporary-dance courses at Simon Fraser, eventually finding a job at the Firehall Arts Centre.

      In 1980, Rausenberg met her partner, visual artist Richard Tetrault, and the rest is history.

      Another of her colourful stories concerns how the crow came to become the mascot of the Eastside Culture Crawl. It was Richard’s idea.

      “He’s the crow man,” Rausenberg said with a chuckle. “Richard was painting crows way before the Crawl.”

      In the early days, they actually had a cricket as the mascot for one year.

      “Then at one point—you know, us being kind of irreverent East Siders—we thought maybe we should do a cockroach, ha, ha, ha,” she said. “We didn’t think it would go over well with the public.”

      Back in the early days, Rausenberg conceded that the Eastside Culture Crawl was a bit of a free-for-all, open to whoever opened their doors with whatever they might be selling. Nowadays, the curated catalogue reveals how professional it has become over 25 years.

      “I’m so excited about the quality of the work and how far we’ve come in regards to that,” Rausenberg said. “Having said that, I’m very supportive of the fact that we are so embracing of the art form and that we don’t make judgements as we embrace emerging-to-established artists.

      “We really do provide opportunities for artists to develop their art practice. I think that’s a really important function of the Crawl.”