The 10 biggest arts stories of 2015, from a wooden tower to a new opera fest

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      Of all the major announcements on the Vancouver arts scene in 2015, perhaps none of them drew the attention that a Twitter image of a tall, unusual-looking wooden-block tower garnered in September. Below is that big unveiling, along with a stunning opera announcement, and some of the other big cultural news that got the city buzzing this year.

      1. Vancouver Art Gallery’s New Conceptual Design Images of the proposal for the new downtown landmark instantly went viral when they were unveiled on September 29. Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron revealed concept drawings of a wood-clad highrise that would stand out daringly amid Vancouver’s glass-and-steel towers. The reaction was immediate: some, including artist Jeff Wall, loved the way it played with the West Coast heritage of its site, while others complained it looked like a stack of blocks. Equally attention-getting were the development’s covered, open courtyards for public walkways and special events, as well as a sunken garden featuring shade-loving, rain-forest trees and plants. (You can check out the plans at an exhibit at the VAG till January 24.)

      Vancouver Opera's James Wright announced a move to a festival format, after his own departure.

      2. Vancouver Opera Turns to Festival Format On a serene June morning, Vancouver Opera held a surprise press conference to announce it was abandoning a full-season format. Instead, after the end of the 2015-16 season, the 55-year-old institution, which is the second-biggest opera company in the country, will switch to a spring-festival format in 2017. “The leadership came to the conclusion that anything using the old model simply wasn’t working and was not getting the numbers we needed,” general director James Wright told the Straight. “There is not an opera company in North America that is not concerned about sales. We are being as forward thinking as possible.” At the April event, Wright said the new Vancouver Opera Festival will showcase innovation, animating the Queen Elizabeth Theatre’s lobby and plaza spaces, and holding programming for young people and families, workshops and forums, cultural concerts, and free events—all aimed at bringing new audiences out to opera. Among the immediate opponents to the plan was Vancouver Symphony Orchestra maestro Bramwell Tovey, who tweeted “It’s terrible news. Vancouver to be the only major Cdn city without an opera season.” In other big opera news earlier in the year, Wright had announced he’ll retire at the end of the current season.

      It's not every day we see a shiny new stage in this city: In this case, the BMO Theatre Centre opened its doors in Olympic Village.
      Amanda Siebert photo

      3. The Opening of the BMO Theatre Centre It’s not often you see glitzy new theatre digs open in town, but that’s just what we got when the 48,000-square-foot Olympic Village space threw open the doors this fall. Designed by Proscenium Architecture & Interiors, its top-floor offices are occupied by the Arts Club Theatre and Bard on the Beach, with the 240-seat Goldcorp Stage on the main floor. Rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, and the Bard costume shop: they’re all here in a hub that looks as sleek as all the buildings around it.

      Under the bridge: Rodney Graham's proposed chandelier installation gets the okay from city council.

      4. Rodney Graham’s Torqued Chandelier Vancouver city council finally gave the thumbs up to the Vancouver art star’s spinning, five-metre, 18th-century-style lighting to be suspended beneath the Granville Bridge. It will hang above Beach Avenue adjacent to Vancouver House, Westbank Projects’ twisting 52-storey tower designed by starchitect Bjarke Ingels.

      Swanky new digs for Presentation House Gallery: ground breaks on the new Polygon Gallery early in 2016.

      5. The Polygon Gallery Ready to Break Ground A facility that will become a new, contemporary glass beacon on the North Van waterfront got the $2.5 million it needed from the federal government to get underway. (Ottawa said it would match $2.5-million contributions from the City of North Vancouver and the B.C. government in July. Polygon Homes Ltd. donated $2 million, which was matched by a family foundation created by the company’s chairman, Michael Audain.) The architectural showpiece is designed by Patkau Architects and will be visible from Vancouver beside Lonsdale Quay Market. It will house  the photo-centred Presentation House Gallery--a new purpose-built facility it welcomes after spending more than 30 years in the small quarters of a shared heritage building. Shovels hit dirt early in 2016.

      Kelly Tweeddale takes the helm at the VSO.

      6. Kelly Tweeddale Takes Over as President of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra  As executive director of the Seattle Opera, the respected arts administrator put that Pacific Northwest city on the map, making it an international destination for Richard Wagner's works and more. Let’s hope she can make similar magic happen here in Vancouver.

      New Liberal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly is making arts groups jolly with her promises.

      7. The Election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals The party has promised to double annual funding to the Canada Council for the Arts, from $180 million to $360 million. Just one day after the new cabinet was sworn in, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly gave assurances that these weren’t empty pledges. In an interview with CBC, she said that “reinvesting” in the arts and in the Crown broadcaster “will be fundamental”. In April, arts groups had bemoaned the lack of funding they received under the Harper Conservatives’ budget. “We felt like our sector, over the years of austerity, has taken cut after cut, and we were hopeful that this year, we might have a different result,” Kate Cornell, a spokesperson for the Canadian Arts Coalition and the executive director of the Canadian Dance Assembly, told the Straight. “So we’re just in general disappointed.”

      Shared spaces: The Post at 750 proves smaller arts groups can work together to escape the cliche of cramped,  back-alley digs.

      8. The Post at 750 Cultural Hub Opens  Four arts groups celebrated the opening of a new hub in the old CBC building. The 8,500-square-foot facility at 750 Hamilton Street is shared by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Touchstone Theatre, Music on Main, and the DOXA Documentary Film Festival. Run cooperatively, it’s a new model of what cultural players can do when they combine forces, and includes studio spaces and “hot desks” that can be rented out. The sleek new space flies in the face of the idea that smaller arts groups have to operate and rehearse out of dark, cold back-alley hovels or dingy, cramped back rooms. “Having a place that’s sort of thoughtfully prepared that is thinking: what can this do for the arts for the next 30 years, in downtown Vancouver—it’s a real thrill,” Music on Main’s David Pay told the Straight.

      France Pellas in À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou.

      9. Théâtre la Seizième Dominates the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards The June ceremony found the city’s French-language company making an unprecedented showing. In the large-theatre competition, la Seizième’s mounting of Michel Tremblay’s À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou took a whopping six prizes, including outstanding production. In the Theatre for Young Audiences category, la Seizième received another two Jessies for its production of Selfie. You might think it came out of nowhere, but the theatre was founded in 1974. The awards, and tours outside of B.C., are a sign of how artistic and general director Craig Holzschuh is asserting Théâtre la Seizième’s place as a centre for dramaturgy and creation.

      Judith Marcuse is helping found the new Arts for Social Change masters in education at SFU.

      10. New Masters in Education in Arts for Social Change at SFU Launching in September 2016, the interdisciplinary, two-year program is the first of its kind in Canada and a sign of Vancouver’s strength and history in arts activism. Seven years in the making, it’s the vision of Judith Marcuse, the long-time local dance artist who’s a prominent leader in the field of art for social change in Canada.