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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“The Playhouse just fell by wayside,” he says, sadly. “In our city, art's not celebrated. But we can't just sit and complain anymore. We need to look for solutions.”

Rennie – who sits on the North American acquisition board for the UK's esteemed Tate Modern – feels the province in particular needs to step up and increase its funding for the arts, while the city should emphasize smaller arts collaborations and younger artists, rather than focus its resources in the Vancouver Art Gallery. But on the artist-side, real energy and effort is required, particularly because of a paucity of corporate funding – artists could and should be more active in finding sponsors and patrons.

“We're not a head office city,” Rennie laments. “We don't have the corporate philanthropy of the arts that Toronto and New York have. It's a corporate responsibility there.

“I can get the world to move here, but we're going to have to fill in the arts and cultural background for people to stay here.”

Of course, Rennie has his opponents, and he knows it. Though insisting he's not a developer himself, the oft-described “condo king” (he begrudgingly acknowledges the moniker) knows he's a “lightning rod” for community criticism. The attacks come particularly from groups in the Downtown Eastside who argue that rampant condo developments – many of them Rennie's clients – are causing rapid gentrification of a once working-class neighbourhood, and displacing the impoverished residents, including artists.

The hipster-bespectacled art collector and condo marketer – considered a behind-the-scenes powerhouse in city politics – disagrees fundamentally with the anti-poverty activists' analysis of urban social processes.

“That gentrification argument went away long ago in Toronto – ten years ago – but we're still five years away,” he says. At the same time, however, he acknowledges that, unless Vancouver safeguards its arts and cultural communities, which he calls "the fabric of the city," we risk becoming an uninhabitable “resort town.”

 

Artists need a velocity of contact, a critical mass

The fear of a Vancouver becoming a hollow Disneyland of a city is one shared by many artists.

“It's a great point, I totally agree,” Armstrong reflects. “There's a way a city can become so expensive that it (becomes) empty.

“This is such a beautiful city, and it's a huge risk the way real estate is going here. It's becoming a postcard of itself – so smooth that no one can afford to live in it. It risks becoming increasingly one-dimensional. If we really lost our artists – and we do take them for granted – we would feel it in ways that we can't begin to describe.”

The loss of Vancouver's talent to LA, Montreal, New York and Toronto is something that should concern us all, says artist, lawyer and recent independent City Council candidate Sandy Garossino.

“We're draining the lifeblood out of our city with the disappearance of the artists,” she says. “By the time you're at a certain point in your life, you can't afford to live here.

“Artists, as much as they need affordability, they also need each other. They need an environment to bounce ideas – a critical mass, a velocity of contact, a really, really creative environment.”

Garossino rattles off the pros and cons of the various art Meccas on the continent which are pulling some of the city's creatives away: New York City (expensive, but renowned arts scene); Montreal (mind-bogglingly cheap, and a real arts “incubator”); LA (relatively affordable, great community).


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