Vancouver arts scene remembers Duncan Low as a visionary who transformed The Cultch

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      Former Vancouver East Cultural Centre powerhouse Duncan Low is being remembered as an impassioned West Coast arts titan after his passing on November 18. 

      Famous for running The Cultch for a decade starting in 1996, the Nottingham, England-born Low died suddenly on November 18 at his home in Oak Bay on Vancouver Island. Among his many achievements in the Vancouver arts scene was helping orchestrate funding for a massive renovation of the Historic Theatre in 2008. 

      In a release announcing his death, current Cultch executive director Heather Redfern cited Low as a quick thinker whose adventurous programming helped transform the theatre. 

      “Duncan was a strategist, he always thought outside the box, creating win/win propositions for artists, the public and the city,” Redfern wrote. “He worked tirelessly to raise the money and build the networks necessary to move The Cultch from an arts organisation that was in debt and occupying a crumbling building, to a thriving and vital institution. He managed to do all of this by raging against the system, charming everyone who could help his cause and laughing to the point of crying whenever possible.”

      She continued with, “Duncan was very very funny. He approached fundraising for the building like it was a political campaign. When The Cultch renovation was shortlisted for the $1,000,000 Vancity Award in 2002, Duncan stood in front of the bank’s branches shaking hands with their customers handing out buttons and pamphlets encouraging them to vote for the theatre to win the award. His efforts resulted in a significant increase in voters for Vancity and a million dollars for a fundraising campaign that continued through 2008.”

      In addition to setting up a Youth Program at The Cultch that remains a vital part of the theatre’s work today, Low helped create the Alcan Performing Arts Award. The $60,000 prize is given out to artists who often push boundaries with their work, with past winners including now-internationally-famous choreographer Crystal Pite’s dance company Kidd Pivot. 

      Overseas, Low’s achievements included helping to found the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival. Locally, he was an early champion of companies like Electric Company, which remembered him on Facebook with: “Duncan adopted Electric Company as one of several resident arts organizations at The Cultch as he recognized the extraordinary value of a place to call home. Between 2000 and 2007 we ran our operation out of the Green House next door to The Cultch. In that period, we made three shows for the VECC including Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, which was achieved with the support of the Alcan Performing Arts Award—one of Duncan’s visionary partnerships, which altered the face of Vancouver performance. His adventurous spirit and aesthetic sophistication set a new bar for curation and program.”

      All such initiatives came, Redfern said, from a place of loving both art and artists. 

      “His eye was impeccable,” she said. “He programmed an emerging choreographer named Crystal Pite and invited a guy that did puppet shows for adults, Ronnie Burkett, to perform each year in Vancouver. He fell in love with intimate theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe and raised the funds to do a festival of installation theatre in Vancouver. He was a visionary.”

      Low is survived by his partner Janet and brother Steve, as well as the Vancouver arts community.