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Not Juliet's balcony: an interview with Justin Muir of Balcone

Justin Muir, Executive Director of Balcone

It may not have the glam or the budget of some of the bigger arts organizations in Vancouver, but Balcone has quality artists and the potential to be a huge success. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Justin Muir, Balcone's executive director, is an intelligent  businessman disguised as a hipster.

What is Balcone?

Balcone (Italian for balcony) is a nonprofit society based in Vancouver. It presents contemporary art projects in a variety of situations and spaces.

How did it begin?

In 2006, a group of six people comprised of emerging artists, budding curators and art historians came together in Vancouver to form something unlike what was/is traditionally seen in the art world. With the help of these five board members and Justin as the witness, Justin was able to realize his vision of presenting nomadic contemporary art projects throughout the city. 

Why the name?

Not quite a gallery, artist-run centre or an exhibition space, the name needed to convey the unconventional and flexible model that these six people had created. Originally, the balcone (pronounced balcony) acted as a gallery in Italian theatres. The balcony was traditionally a space for viewing and to be viewed, making it neither private nor public, which made it the perfect name for this organization. That, and the domain name was available.

Who runs the show?

With no permanent location, Justin operates with mobile offices, flexible programs, and a fierce and unique business sense that has made him invaluable to this organization's sustainable growth. His supporting board members and volunteers continue to advance towards Balcone’s long-term goals of being an organization that is in it for the long haul.

Why go mobile?

Apart from the obvious financial restraints such as staffing, rent and additional expenses incurred when in a static location, there are many benefits from not calling any one place home. No fixed address means being able to, “continually re-invent ourselves and engage with diverse communities,” said Justin. Present for only a short period of time, Balcone is able to develop a new audience, move to another location and bring that audience with it.

With the help of word-of-mouth and a team of volunteers, spaces are scouted for potential project spaces. “An empty space is a liability,” said Justin, reinforcing the fact that they often restore spaces and leave them in a better condition than how they were when they took possession. (And yes, they can issue tax receipts).

How do you raise your money?

It has taken direct calls upon individuals and organizations to donate money and goods such as wall paint, alcohol for openings and printing services to get Balcone to where it is today. People and companies are also able to donate through After years of applying at all three levels of government (and being rejected), Balcone has just received its first provincial grant.

Gone are the days when you could rely on the public sector to start your organization. Need is only a part of the criteria when asking for a government grant – they want to give it to organizations who can prove that they will be fiscally responsible with the money they’re getting. That being said, no art organization should rely too heavily on the public sector. A healthy structure is made up of a diverse range of revenue sources,” stated Justin, an obvious realist and business-minded leader.

How do you measure success?

Balcone measures its success both quantitatively and qualitatively. Website traffic, attendance numbers, press coverage and money raised tell only part of the story, as Balcone is very concerned about positive community feedback.

After being around for just over five years, Justin did not expect Balcone to be an over-night success. “Baby steps got us to where we are now, and we got a lot of flack for the first few years because a lot of people felt we weren’t doing enough… ten to twenty years down the road, I want this to be a meaningful asset for the community, and I know that when new art spaces take on more than they can handle they sacrifice sustainability.”

What’s coming up in 2011?

With projects planned for spring and summer, Balcone is focused on its upcoming fundraiser at 2233 Granville Street – scheduled to open Thursday, February 3, 2011 and will make up the first-ever painting exhibition Balcone has hosted.

To get involved or donate to Balcone, check out their website or email [email protected].

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