This is the second of a two-part feature. Last week, we lifted the lid on this thing called cultural tourism at Whistler — place-based cultural tourism, to be exact — what it is, and why it's important.
This week we'll look at the "how" of it — how cultural tourism is unfolding, how to keep it on track, how it can result in more visitors than ever coming to soak it all up, keeping the economy humming and creating even more of the unique local vibe that makes Whistler, Whistler.
Thrilling, amazing, a game-changer — these were the kinds of reactions last week to the news that talks are underway for an 2,500-square-metre art museum at Whistler as a permanent home for the extraordinary private art collection of Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa. A collection described by the Vancouver Art Gallery as the most important private collection of B.C. art. A collection which includes hundreds of works by some of the world's top artists, from Emily Carr (Audain has the largest private collection of her work), to Jeff Wall, Brian Jungen and Andy Warhol. A collection whose depth and breadth was on fine display last year when the VAG staged a major exhibition based on it.
If the art museum goes ahead as planned — and there's no reason to think it won't — it will make Whistler a gold star on the cultural tourism map, much as the McMichael Canadian Art Collection has made Kleinburg, Ontario. Or as the Maeght Foundation has done for the France's Saint Paul de Vence, which Audain and his wife visited years ago and inspired them to choose the same kind of beautiful forested setting that Whistler could offer for their collection.
All this on the heels of a commitment from the provincial government that secures for Whistler $34 million in Resort Municipality Initiative funding over five years. These are monies that must be used to support tourism, and Whistler in the past has put them to good use, in part, for cultural initiatives like festivals and street entertainment (to the tune of $340,000 this year alone); operating Olympic Plaza which, since the Games, has been "furnished" with amenities like a fire pit and playground that have made it a magnet for something fundamental to place-based tourism — just hanging out; and, most importantly, the development this year of a community-based cultural plan.
Between the two announcements, cultural tourism at Whistler couldn't have dreamt up a better week if it had its own imagination.
"What (the art museum) will do for us is develop a bit of a cultural precinct, so we'll have Millennium Place with its theatre and public gallery, and immediately across the street will be the art museum, then around the corner is the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre," says Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who has long been a champion of the arts at Whistler and made developing a cultural plan part of her election platform.
"There's no question that there will be people who come to Whistler for the sole purpose of seeing this museum, but there will also be our usual visitors who will be staggered when they come here and see this world-class collection of art. Then for those of us who live here, just imagine — get up Sunday morning, have a coffee, read the paper, go see Emily Carr. It's just mind boggling!" she adds.
Then there are all the activities associated with this kind of Class A art museum — workshops and opportunities for kids as well as touring exhibitions that previously would have passed Whistler by since no appropriate facility existed. (Everything from proper lighting to climate-controlled conditions must be provided for top-flight exhibitions.)
Another bonus: Since an art museum had been on Whistler's to-do list for cultural tourism, now that that's taken care of (the Audain Foundation is to pay for the building; RMOW is to donate the site), funds that would have otherwise gone towards that are now freed up for other initiatives.
As for the RMI funding, it's the first time such a long-term commitment has been made. While the Economic Partnership Initiative Committee will recommend how the monies will be spent, "cultural tourism will absolutely be part of the mix," says Wilhelm-Morden.
"Previously we had to apply for the RMI monies every year, so now we have a five-year deal we can count on," she adds. "The planning horizon has always been very short-term in the past, but now we can take a longer view and be more strategic."
many pieces in the cultural tourism mix
Place-based cultural tourism is all about a unique sense of place; it's also much greater than the sum of its parts. That means that as critical as they are, it takes many more pieces beyond a Class A art museum and steady funding to make it all happen.
One such piece is the Alliance for Cultural Tourism (ACT), a group of like-minded people — some independent individuals, some part of larger stakeholder groups like Whistler Blackcomb — who are committed to advancing place-based cultural tourism as spelled out in Steven Thorn's report, A Tapestry of Place (see Part One Pique Oct, 4 for details).
"But if you talk to John Rae at the municipality, he'll list a whole bunch of things that the municipality is doing to advance place-based cultural tourism (see sidebar), and if you talk to Tourism Whistler, they're doing the same thing, so it's not like ACT is a singular body responsible for moving it forward," says Anne Popma, co-chair of ACT, who's been active in Whistler's arts scene for years, most notably as founder of the former Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts.
"There's also a collective commitment by individual members of the alliance to do what they can within their own organization to make changes."
Right now ACT is working with business owners in Function Junction to enhance its already unique character as a neighbourhood — one that offers a funky, artsy atmosphere and can act as a connector to other unique Whistler neighbourhoods, like Westside Road.
This stems from the Thorn report, which identified the need to nurture distinctive zones or neighbourhoods to build a better sense of place, especially in light of the sometimes sterile atmosphere of the village — something the municipality has already undertaken in the Bridge to Bridge place-making project for the Town Plaza area between the Ted Nebbeling and Sightlines bridges.
Then there's Whistler Museum, which has a big role to play. "Obviously, heritage is a huge part of place-based cultural tourism because we represent the history of this area" says museum executive director Sarah Drewery who, like other stakeholders, also sits on ACT and the steering committee for the community-based cultural plan.
So how do you turn the museum "inside out" and get Whistler's heritage spilling out into the streets? For one, you can do things like the museum has already done, such as hanging pioneer Myrtle Philip's canoe in the public library and commissioning local artist, Christina Nick, to create a sculpture memorializing Whistler icon, Seppo Makinen, who helped log Whistler's first ski runs. Historical images and storyboards could be added to shop window displays, and interpretive signage could be enhanced via digital apps that explain Whistler's stories as you wander the streets and trails.
Whistler Blackcomb is also a key player. From smaller initiatives like signage containing more natural history elements to the giant events already hugely successful due to the mash-up of sports, art and culture — think the World Ski & Snowboard Festival and Crankworx — the mountains are on board with exploring new ways to integrate culture, heritage and natural history into the mountain experience.
"Honestly, we aren't there yet, but it is something we talk a lot about," says Rob McSkimming, VP of business development for Whistler Blackcomb.
"We've worked really closely with Casey (Vanden Heuvel, executive director at the Squamish Lil'wat Centre) and his team to try and bring that element into it and cross-promote. We talk to the museum — could we get some of the museum's exhibits from time to time? Would it make sense for us to have display or theatre-type areas for natural history, ecology, geology, glaciology kinds of presentations? So we're definitely pursuing things along those lines.
"We've certainly been focused on the sports and recreation side of things, but there is opportunity and we're interested in developing more of the educational/arts aspects as well."
As for the Squamish Lil'wat Centre — part of that new cultural precinct described earlier — it's already establishing itself in spades in Whistler's cultural scene, not just as a beautiful facility offering "authentic and potent visitor experiences," as the Thorn report describes, but one bent on keeping culture alive and well by revitalizing traditional arts into brand new forms.
Witness the recent Spirit Within Festival, which saw some pretty hip clothes by Squamish Nation fashion designer Tyler Alan Jacobs; cool work by Squamish Nation graffiti artist Shane Baker, and Haida/Cree singer-songwriter Kristi Lane Sinclair, a multiple nominee in the Aboriginal People's Choice Music Awards.
Then there's the direct economic support and encouragement the centre provides to practicing artists. In the gallery gift shop, for instance, 75 per cent of the sale price goes back to the artists, something unheard of in the gallery world where artists are lucky if the split is 50/50.
"We already know how to do this," the centre's executive director Casey Vanden Heuvel says of cultural tourism. "In fact, I think we've been doing it all along."
Then we have the local accommodations and business sectors, both of which are continuously getting more entwined with cultural tourism.
Hotel managers and marketers understand that it offers new opportunities and new exposure, ones that are not weather-dependent.
According to Tara (Wight) Colpitts, director of sales and marketing for Coast Blackcomb Suites at Whistler — which is currently featuring the work of local artist Lynn Pocklington in its lobby — standing out in the crowd by being able to offer visitors something like a food and wine or spa package is a far better strategy than going head-to-head on pricing.
On the flip side of the coin, Whistler hotels have generously supported local cultural events for years by things like providing largely free accommodations for visiting artists, and offering exposure to local ones in events like ArtWalk.
As for the business community, while it's not fully engaged yet, the business owners who understand what cultural tourism is all about are excited, as is Whistler's Chamber of Commerce.
For instance, of the 800 or so businesses that belong to the chamber, only about 120 attended a luncheon the chamber co-hosted with the arts council to introduce Steven Thorn when he wrapped up his report. But for those who did attend, the reaction was "very positive."
"We've been hearing for some time now, for the last two or three years, but particularly since the Games, that it's time for the business community to look at other ways to ... build on our tourism base and attract more visitors to smooth out the peaks and troughs of the shoulder seasons," says chamber president Fiona Famulak, who is also on the arts council board and part of ACT.
"So at our chamber and our board, we recognize that cultural tourism is an opportunity to do exactly that, and that's the message we've conveyed to our members... that this could be Whistler's next big thing.
"Given that it's a multi-billion dollar industry, if we can tap into even a fraction of that, then it translates into a huge economic benefit to our business community and resort."
Cultural tourism is not a panacea, not a silver bullet, but, as Famulak says, it has all the makings for being Whistler's "next big thing."
Yes, there will be snags — witness the proposed artisan market that got kyboshed this summer after gallery owners worried about competition. (Just ask Whistler Farmer's Market manager, Chris Quinlan, how the market has not hurt neighbouring businesses with similar offerings, but has actually helped them.) But these will be more than offset by the many victories — check out the inventory in this article alone, never mind all the successes of Whistler's film and writers' festivals, ArtWalk, Cornucopia and all the other bright cultural lights that make the resort sparkle.
Overall, though, how genuine place-based cultural tourism eventually unfolds for Whistler pretty much rests in the hands of the entire community. For that reason I give the final word to the one person who is as close to whistler's cultural scene on the ground as anyone, arts council executive director, Doti Niedermayer.
"My wish list, if anything, is that we don't get caught up in recreating what's worked and what's easy — that we also try and do some of the more challenging stuff and push for cultural programs that will be successful but might take longer or might be riskier."
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who founded the Whistler Arts Council 30 years ago. She's been working part-time on a degree in visual fine arts at Emily Carr University of Art and Design for the last 14 years, and plans on graduating before she is 70.
What's muni hall up to on the cultural scene?
Whistler's cultural tourism strategic plan is part of the resort-wide strategy to increase room occupancy to an annual average of 60+ per cent from the current rate of 52 per cent. That kind of economic impact would be impressive. For example, even a 1 per cent increase in occupancy during a typical Whistler summer could result in an additional 10,000 to 12,000 overnight visitors.
Initiatives on the part of muni hall to move cultural tourism forward include:
• Investing in Whistler Olympic Plaza as a major venue for cultural tourism activities
• Investing about $2.7 million annually for the year round festivals, events and animation program, which complements existing sectors and events like Whistler Film Festival, Crankworx, GranFondo and Cornucopia
• Funding Whistler Arts Council ($340,000 for street entertainment, $536,800 fee for service in 2012)
• Funding of Museum Society ($150,000 fee for service in 2012)
• Investment in the community cultural plan being executed by the arts council ($75,000)
• Public art program; parks and trails, complete with a new parks and recreation master plan; interpretive signage.
* Source: RMOW
A caution from the guru himself
From the cultural plan and beefing up festivals and events to the artist-run centre at The Point and enhancing Function Junction's character, every cultural element Whistler is undertaking adds momentum to its new tourism aspirations.
But, cautions consultant Steven Thorne, author of Whistler's place-based cultural tourism strategy, it's really big picture commitments, such as the proposed world-class art museum for the Audain collection and the $34 million in RMI monies (parts of which can be directed to cultural tourism) that will make or break Whistler as a cultural tourism destination.
His report, called A Tapestry of Place, identified a number of weaknesses that Whistler will have to tackle moving forward with cultural tourism. The first and possibly biggest one is that for most Whistlerites, culture is not a core value.
"That's not my opinion," noted Thorne by phone from his home in Waterloo, Ontario. "That's an opinion I encountered on the part of several key stakeholders.
"To the extent that's true, and cultural tourism is only seen only through the lens of economic development, then provided Whistler is thriving as a ski destination ... it's unlikely there will be the long-term commitment that's required to develop the cultural capacity of the community and to capitalize on cultural tourism."
The allegory he uses is a reversal of situation — one that illustrates how the level of investment and infrastructure Whistler will need to really capitalize on cultural tourism is parallel to the commitments in terms of strategic planning, human resources and the millions of dollars of investment that built Whistler as a world-class ski destination in the first place.
"Let's say you are in Stratford, Ontario, which is one of the great cultural destinations in Canada, and let's say by some fluke there was a mountain on the outskirts that you could develop as a ski resort," he says. "If Stratford is happy the way it is, with a robust cultural tourism economy, why would it make all those investments, which are considerable, to create the infrastructure to capitalize on a ski mountain...?"
Unless the key players at Whistler — and that means all the stakeholders, from business and hotel owners to the "Big Three" (the RMOW, Whistler Blackcomb and Tourism Whistler) see culture as a core value and make deep, on-going commitments to it, it will be business as usual.
On the larger tourism scale, Thorne notes that when it comes to the number of international visitors, Canada has slipped from 7th to 15th place in the world. And in terms of cultural tourism, the nation as a whole has much work to do.
"We are known primarily for our scenery and nature-based tourism experiences," he says. "With the exception of Quebec, which Americans know as a cultural destination, Canada simply isn't on the cultural tourism map." By contrast, Europe and the U.K. as well as most of Asia and the U.S. are well established in the field.
As for the best way to learn about place-based cultural tourism, Thorne advises Whistler's movers and shakers to experience the real thing first-hand. The finest examples on the international cultural tourism radar screen as equally satisfying mountain sports and cultural destinations are St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Park City, Utah.
I can hear the suitcases being packed already.
My Whistler will look like this...
At the same time these initiatives are happening, a steering committee has been struck by Whistler Arts Council to shepherd Whistler's first community-based comprehensive cultural plan — a vital lynchpin for Whistler's cultural tourism strategy as identified by the Thorn report.
The 10-year community-based cultural plan will identify important issues then recommend how to address them in terms of physical assets, program delivery, administration and finance. Delivery date: spring 2013.
Outcomes from both plans will co-mingle economic and social benefits, but "the fundamental difference between the two is the Thorn report has more of a cultural tourism focus and the economic argument, and this (community-based cultural) plan, which flows out of the Thorn report, is all about community cultural assets, so it has more of a social benefit focus," says Brian Johnston. He founded PERC (Professional Environmental Recreation Consultants Inc.), which has been hired to help develop the community cultural plan.
A key part will be community consultation. "Individuals have needs that aren't always represented by the organized interests in a community. For example, if we talk to a bunch of organizations about special events there might be a need for new special events to fill in between the existing ones. The organizations won't be telling us about those, the community will be," he says.
"So we need the community to tell us what they want to see, what they like to attend, what they like to participate in, what kind of skills they would like to develop."
In short, you'll be putting in your two cents' worth to say, "My Whistler would look like this..."
What can you do?
Given all these efforts — and good reasons — to push cultural tourism at Whistler, what can you do? Lots! Join a group like the Village Host Volunteer Program so you can show and tell guests what you love about Whistler. Follow your bliss and join the museum, the writers' festival, the arts council or one of the dozens of groups that turn your crank and add to the cultural mash-up. And when you see the ads from PERC asking for your input on Whistler's cultural plan, show up with bells and whistles and lots of good ideas, no matter what your artistic stripes are, or aren't. After all, what you're building is yours.
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