There’s nothing quite like the Little Mountain Gallery in Vancouver.
According to the executive director, Brent Constantine, the former garage near the corner of East 26th Avenue and Main Street has been an arts venue in one form or another for more than 20 years.
For the past five years, it’s been a community-programmed and managed comedy venue—with comedians independently running their own shows. They pay $150 or so to rent the space and they collect the door fees and any liquor revenues if they obtain a special-event licence.
“I don’t know any other venue across the country that operates like this,” Constantine said.
But this hallmark of Vancouver—this 2,000-square-foot incubator of comedians in Mount Pleasant—is about to disappear. The Little Mountain Gallery must close by January 1 in advance of the site being redeveloped into rental apartments and ground-floor retail units.
“There was no appeal process because it’s a permitted use,” Constantine said. “They didn’t have to rezone for a higher density.”
He doesn’t blame the building owner, who provided space for comedians for so many years. But the timing isn’t ideal, coming in the midst of a pandemic as real-estate prices are skyrocketing.
The volunteers who manage Little Mountain Gallery figured that they had a couple of years to find alternative space when Matthew Cheng Architect Inc. filed a development-permit application with the city in 2019. But then COVID-19 hit and entertainment venues closed en masse.
“We lost about a year and a half with the pandemic,” Constantine said. “We’ve been back open since July. But right as things started to open again, we got an eviction notice.”
In the meantime, three-time Canadian Comedy Award winner and Vancouver resident Graham Clark is planning a 24-hour standup-comedy marathon at the Little Mountain Gallery on December 17 and 18 to raise money for a new venue. (This week’s Georgia Straight features Clark on the cover.)
Constantine appreciates Clark for stepping up on behalf of comedy in Vancouver.
In the meantime, the comedians who operate the venue have been looking for other spaces, but it’s a complicated endeavour.
According to Constantine, it’s expensive to hire an architect and a building-code consultant, which is necessary to obtain a green light from local officials for a new leased location.
“If you’re not able to survive for six months to a year before you’re able to get those permits and those approvals from the city—even if you have the money to do it—it’s a daunting process,” he said.
Other complications include bringing space in a heritage building up to the building code’s standards and adding bathroom facilities because a comedy club brings increased occupancy.
Constantine acknowledged that the city makes funding available for renovations to venues. However, the deadlines for applying don’t always align with lining up a new tenancy.
“If you don’t have that space, you’re not going to be able to get that money that you need,” Constantine said. “So it’s very tough.”
The Straight asked him if a developer might want to create space for a new Little Mountain Gallery as a community-amenity contribution to the city in return for higher density. Constantine replied that it takes at least five years from the time a proposal is made until the rezoning is approved and the building is completed.
“Even if people are interested in that—and they are, in theory—it’s really a long-term project beyond the scope of what we need right now,” Constantine said.
The comedy ecosystem includes the corporate clubs, some of which have shut down due to the pandemic, he noted. In addition, there are comedy shows in bars, restaurants, and cafes.
The Toast Collective has been another venue that offered space to artists. However, it’s also shutting down on January 1 because the rent is going up and its building at 648 Kingsway is for sale.
Constantine said that he thinks it’s really important that spaces like Little Mountain Gallery exist that can reflect, grow, and enhance the arts in Vancouver.
He described comedy in all of its forms—sketch, standup, improv, and so on—as a “very underserved discipline” in the arts.
“This is the last full-time space [for comedy] that exists right now and it’s going away in January,” Constantine said. “What does that say about this city? I think we’re losing something really important.”