Vancouver's art scene is in arrested development

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      “So how does Vancouver’s art scene compare to Montreal’s?” I’m several drinks deep when I ask this of Malinka, an artist visiting town from Montreal. “I’m not sure,” she muses. “There’s some really cool stuff here. But it still just feels like a teenager, y’know?”

      I do know, and it’s vindicating to hear someone else say it.

      I moved to Vancouver in June 2020, probably the worst time to discover the city’s cultural scene. But when the city started to cautiously open up, I attended every artsy event I could, eager to discover what Vancouver had to offer.

      Vancouver’s creative culture is incredible. It’s weird, it’s innovative, it’s vibrant. As a theatre kid who grew up south of London then moved to Berlin, it’s safe to say that I’ve seen a lot of art. But in Vancouver there are people making things in ways I have never seen before.

      Too bad the city won’t let them get anywhere.

      There always seems to be new events, new galleries, new parties, but many just burn out—and those that have survived fought tirelessly to do so. I can see why Malinka’s impression was that Vancouver is stuck in a state of arrested development, because with the challenges the creative scene faces, it’s hard for anything to grow up.

      The problem seems to primarily be that of space, which, of course, is also a question of money. Take open mics, for example. Comedy, poetry, music, performance art—anything goes at an open mic event. They are veritable breeding grounds of talent, essential to the development of any city’s creative scene.

      Vancouver doesn’t have any. Or rather, it doesn’t have many. Those that exist are pretty much restricted to comedy (especially now that Cafe Deux Soleils has closed its doors, its popular spoken word open mic shuttered along with it), and they aren’t well attended.

      This is something that surprised comedian and writer Sasha Mark when he came here from Winnipeg—a city with a thriving open mic scene.

      “In all the open mics I’ve done in Vancouver there have been three or four people in the audience, It’s a very, very big difference,” they say.

      So, why don’t open mics exist in Vancouver? The issue, once again, is space plus money. These events aren’t particularly lucrative, usually hosted by venues that don’t charge for use of the space. It’s a mutually beneficial situation, as open mics bring in bar sales to support venues on slow weekday evenings.

      At least, that’s the case in most cities. The open mic scene is what I loved most about Berlin, and it’s how Mark got his start in Winnipeg. But Mark says that Vancouver’s already small open mic scene has shrunk even more. “We lost a lot of open mic spaces during the pandemic. Venues either shut down or they said, ‘We’re struggling, we need to charge for this now.’”

      For a creative scene to develop and thrive, there needs to be space for people to share their art. And this isn’t just a problem of event venues: Vancouver also has many restrictions on how and where you can creatively express yourself.

      Back in Berlin, one of my favourite places to go was Mauerpark, a park in the Prenzlauer Berg district. Every weekend this nondescript expanse of scrub would overflow with musicians, performers, and other artists, all creating art loudly and joyfully, just for the hell of it.

      Such a park does not, and cannot, exist in Vancouver. To play music in a public space, you don’t just need a permit, you must also pay fee for it: an annual permit is $135.44 before tax. Groups of more than three performers are also banned. Paying fees is only viable for buskers—you can’t just create music for free, as the denizens of Berlin’s Mauerpark do. There are some exceptions to the permits, such as sidewalks beside certain SkyTrain stations, but these areas aren’t ideal for recreation. While Berlin’s city ordinances allow performances in designated recreation spaces without needing a permit or fee, Vancouver’s restrictions hardly encourage such free expression.

      And that’s because Vancouver views art not as a social need but a profit venture. You cannot create art for the sake of itself—your art is your business, making money the ultimate outcome. And any effort to sell your art will also come at a price.

      Marcus James Wild, who has been creating art in Vancouver since 1998, bemoans the cost of booths at markets like Car Free Day ($120) and the Khatsahlano Street Party ($250).

      “It’s pricing out the people they’re pretending are part of the community, and all they’re getting are the Telus booths,” he says. Vancouver’s artists are struggling to survive in the margins. Sure, there are grants to be applied for, but who would do that for a simple open mic night? Who would pay a fee just to gather with some pals and play music on a sunny afternoon in the park? It’s no surprise that Vancouver’s art scene feels adolescent, if the cost of growth is so high.

      And what’s really sad about this is that Vancouver is young. Comparatively, its lifespan as a major city has been short. The city itself is still developing—but as vacant lots are eaten up by high-rises for high-earners, artists are being left out in the cold.

      For art to develop, and thrive, it needs space to breathe. Vancouver needs to loosen the reins, before they become a noose.