Little Mountain Gallery finds new lease on life in Gastown

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      At 110 Water Street, there’s a large white development application sign posted to the building. A message, scrawled in black sharpie, reads “the land was never yours,” followed by “sorry [smiley face].” 

      Paper signs peek out of various windows to let people know this is the new home of Little Mountain Gallery, which had been producing local comedy at its original location on East 26th Avenue since 2016, when current executive director Brent Constantine took over.

      Lately, Constantine has overseen Little Mountain’s move to 110 Water Street, and the impending renovations that have resulted in the big white sign. Those renovations, he’s quick to point out, are a massive, painful thorn in the ass.

      “It’s an insane thing that I'm not sure why I've done it. And even how I've convinced a lot of other people to come along for my delusion,” he says.

      Little Mountain’s original location, nestled on East 26th Avenue, around the corner from Main Street, provided the only dose of regular entertainment in an otherwise quiet neighbourhood. It was one of the few consistent comedy rooms in Vancouver, alongside the Comedy Mix and Yuk Yuk’s.

      Now, with those other two rooms closed for good, Little Mountain is all that’s left. Initially opened as an art space, it ran comfortably for over two decades, until the building was sold off to developers. Even before that happened, the comedy rooms had been selling out, and the organization had been looking to move for years.

      And then COVID happened, and everything stalled. Little Mountain survived through it all, to “do a run of whatever that was” after the initial lockdown ended, but they were evicted in January 2022.  

      “When you've been in there for a long time and you shut down, there are always stories about these places—Little Mountain included—where people are like, ‘Well, it's the market dictating that you've failed as a business,’” Constantine says. “But it's not really the case when you've been there for two decades. It's kind of a failure of the real estate market. We operated, we were very successful, and we'll be successful again. It's just finding that space and setting up and redesigning.”
      Which brings us back to that development application sign. 

      Little Mountain secured the space through a partnership with Community Impact Real Estate Society, a subsidiary of BC Housing that has a mandate to fill the agency’s buildings with service organizations or revenue-generating tenants. It’s a perfect fit—BC Housing gets an arts organization in its portfolio, and Little Mountain gets to operate in a high-foot-traffic neighborhood at sub-market rent. Except now, the space needs renovations in order to operate at full capactiy, and the work is currently caught up in the City of Vancouver’s permitting process.

      Which—tangent alert!—leads to one of the unfortunate realities of art spaces in Vancouver. With few exceptions, organizations like Little Mountain are moving into found space—nail salons, storefronts, warehouses—that aren't up to code to operate as theatre or performance spaces. That means arts orgs are on the hook for city-required, extensive (and expensive) renovations to old buildings. When you’re a not-for-profit arts organization operating on not-for-profit arts budgets, things get dicey. 

      “The city doesn't want to shut down art spaces that are operating, but just the bureaucracy that exists and the limitations and administration makes it almost impossible,” Constantine says.

      Because the space isn’t fully built out yet, Constantine says it’s hard to say what exactly the programming will look like for the spring. But the gallery is bringing back some of the improv group and standup shows it’s known for, including performances by local stalwart Graham Clark and Juno winner Jacob Samuel. The plan is to run shows on weekends until construction is complete, then offer programming all week.

      “Community space is so important, and I think that any discipline needs to have a community space,” Constantine says. ”Comedy is really overlooked as an artistic discipline, but… it's so important to have a space that's dedicated full-time to maintaining the art form.” 

      The closing of Yuk Yuk’s and the Comedy Mix has actually created an opportunity for enterprising comics and promoters to develop their own rooms, in bars or empty retail spaces to revitalize the scene and cultivate local talent. But as Constantine says, this is dependent on the whims of bar managers and property owners. There’s no room for comics to come together, to see each other night after night, and to develop that camaraderie that Vancouver has a long tradition of—and that other comedy cities benefit from. 

      “We're underserved. I'll say we're underserved for comedy,” Constantine says.

      This is exactly what Little Mountain is trying to solve, in its own volunteer-based, not-for-profit way. The venue will be a home for everything comedy-related—standup shows, improv performances, and other “weird stuff and alternative programming,” much of it self-produced.

      “The barrier to entry is very low,” Constantine says. “Before people would say, ‘Oh man, they're so exclusive. I don't know how to book a show with Little Mountain.’ Literally, all you need to do is email me and then I check if you are a neo-Nazi. And if you're not, you can do a show. That's really all it is.”