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.

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Once you've found VHS – which hosts public open houses every Tuesday evening (not to mention an upcoming "egg drop" event and open houseMay 26, 45 W. Hastings St) – the location seems obvious and intuitive; it's finding it that first time that's the hardest. On a deeper level, the same could be said of much of the city's creative scene.

Elusive to discover; rewarding once found.

As property values skyrocket higher than any other city in the country (second place worldwide), Vancouver's artists are facing stark choices about their future. Many find day jobs, paint and create in their bedrooms, or gradually drift to the suburbs. But an increasing number are leaving the city in what Red Gate's founder, Jim Carrico, describes as a “steady migration of artists.” They're going to Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, even Berlin, Germany.

“The shortage isn't of expensive space!” Carrico says, laughing sardonically as he describes Red Gate's Kafkaesque quest navigating city permits, applications and bureaucracies, both before their eviction and now in the search for a new home. “There's lot of expensive space around.

“There just isn't much affordable space. . . It's an unsustainable bubble at this point, I don't think anybody can disagree with that. When median prices in Vancouver are more than twice as any other city in Canada, and yet median salaries are lower.”

Unaffordable rent. As the cost of land goes up, the rental costs do too, as does the cost of living overall. But, with the exception of celebrated painters, dancers and performers, the average artist lives relatively close to (or below) poverty, struggling to make ends meet, let alone sustain a creative practice.

Fostering an arts culture of experimentation

Kate Armstrong photo by David P. Ball

“This is a great arts city – the community here is amazing,” says Kate Armstrong, Executive Director of Western Front gallery (303 East 8th Ave). “We have an amazing group of artists, curators, and a fantastic artist-run culture. There's lots of energy, lots of ideas, and a lot of innovation.

“Having said all that, it's a huge challenge to be in this real estate climate trying to do cultural projects. It's really difficult for culture to compete on an open market. It's an industry that needs institutional supports. . . The price of rent here for commercial spaces and artist studio spaces are high. That makes it difficult, and draws people away from this city. They look at other cities, where rents are lower, and see it would be easier to sustain a practice there.”

For Armstrong, whose own upcoming exhibit explores narrative links between cyberspace and geography – opening May 11 at UNIT/PITT Projects (15 East Pender St.) – the problem isn't simply affordable rent. It's also about how the city nurtures and supports its artists. Ten years ago, she moved here from New York City.

“In New York, they recognize (art is) a major part of life and they put value to it, even just in the sense of commercial value in connection with a tourist industry,” she says, sipping a mint tea. “They recognize arts and culture as a major part of why people travel there. They also manage to foster a culture where there's experimentation.”

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