Vancouver's arts and culture bleeding out in “steady migration", warn city creatives

Underneath the vibrant, diverse surface of a thriving arts and culture scene, Vancouver faces a loss of its brightest painters, dancers, designers, makers and performers to greener pastures. VO investigates how rising real estate prices are crunching our city's artists.

Vancouver arts and culture bleeding out of Vancouver. What will artists do? Photos by David P. Ball

One of Vancouver's most creative and unique spaces is so obscure it takes a Youtube video to find it: through an alley, behind the blackbird-painted door across from some dumpsters, and up a creaky wood staircase.

Press the buzzer outside Vancouver Hack Space (VHS) – a creative hub housing a regular assemblage of craft makers, computer nerds, amateur philosophers and more – and one of the members will turn a crank outside the second floor window, lowering the door key on a thin metal wire. Inside, the lights are controlled by red-green-blue sliders (which are wired to, and blink, when the toilet flushes, incidentally).

One member made their own 3D printer out of aluminum and plastic joiners sculpted on the lab's other 3D printer – that one made of plywood. I'm offered a mason jar of frothy home-brew as a member explains how VHS fits into a world-wide network of “hack spaces.” A large fibre-optic sign reads “BYTES,” a memento from the long-retired Science World cafe.

VHS is both a space and a community. Created several years ago as a creative social network, collective studio and maker-space, today it spans 60 paying members. It's beginning to outgrow the long, narrow room it's occupied for several years in the Downtown Eastside.

“It's like a brain gym,” says VHS member Emily Smith, “and is really a gem in Vancouver.

“However, I'm concerned that if spaces like this continue to get shut down . . . Vancouver will lose this vibrant, expanding community.”

Indeed, although VHS seems financially stable – possibly due to its fervent do-it-yourself ethos – other spaces like it are being pushed away: The Red Gate artist collective was evicted from its Hastings and Cambie three-story arts headquarters in October – and is still searching for a new space – and the Vancouver Community Lab is having to leave their Great Northern Way location later this year (525 Great Northern Way, Building 3, Unit 105).

Add to that the oft-mourned closure of the debt-riddled Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company just shy of it's 50th birthday, and the departure of rising star dancer Joshua Beamish to New York, citing a lack of support, and you get a picture of a troubled arts community across all the disciplines.

Part of the problem, says Smith, who co-founded Vancouver's wildly successful Mini Maker Faire (June 23-24, PNE) – modelled after a similar event in San Francisco – is that the city's creative communities too rarely work together, cross-pollinate or even communicate with one another.

“A lot of these groups exist, they're just in marginalized spaces,” she explains. “They need more support – more visibility and more awareness of what they're doing. Rather than talk about a problem, I'm talking about solutions. This is what people are forced to do – to separate from their creative community and start their own communities and projects.”

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Cost of rent and real estate in Van City ruinous

It is distressing  for the arts and for small businesses and non-profits who are trying to provide services and eke out a living in this city.

Organizations trying to run small cafes, art spaces, performing spaces or just sell some basic items in their neighbourhood can bearly or no longer afford to do so in what use to be known as one of the most progressive neighbourhoods in the country.

As gentrification explodes on the downtown east side and the Bob Rennies of this world buy up more and more land for "development", all the while keeping his eyes open for the Tate Modern, of course, further east  Commercial Drive is moving away from small family businesses and co ops to big business franchises and too expensive rents.  

City Hall, wake up--make Vancouver the most liveable and affordable green city in the world--before its too late! 

i lived in Van for a year and

i lived in Van for a year and it didnt really seem there was much going on. I wondered what happened to all the art students once they graduated. I studied in London then after my year back went to Berlin where i move between London and Berlin. There are huge opportunities here; you can make anything happen. Even if London is expensive there is so much open-ness to art.  I was thinking of a move to Van - getting away from the big city - but I am scared by the inertia and invisibility of the city's artistic energy.

I left...

I moved to Canada in the early 90's full of hope and optimism, and put in 20 years as a very active artist in Vancouver working with many arts organisations and doing solo work, as well as teaching workshops to other artists, with some success. However I have finally thrown in the towel and moved back to Europe. I haven't felt so excited in years. Unless Vancouver (both government and the general public) decides that art is worth supporting, I won't be back in a hurry. Not looking back...

ps... rent in England is half (seriously!) what I paid in Vancouver, and my food bill is a third (it really is!)... and I get paid higher fees for my artworks. Can't beat it, plus there is so much interest in the arts here from the public. I feel respected... just had to add that...  it makes a difference to feel that you are culturally valued.


gentrification ARGUMENT?

Rennie: "That gentrification argument went away long ago in Toronto"

"gentrification argument"? HAHAHAHA... oh right, it's an "argument"... hey, listen all you displaced arguers, go take your argument somewhere else