Whither Whistler arts and culture?
Culture is busting out everywhere, but trying to find a place to house it is another story
By Christopher Woodall
Art, for some people, is little more than a nickname for 'Arthur.'
And culture is that blue stuff at the bottom of a long-neglected beer bottle, right?
But for the practitioners, dabblers and voyeurs of the arts — as well as for the several sanctioned groups who create or monitor them — Whistler is at that magical stage of maturity where its arts and culture scene needs to be something more than an ad hoc curiosity in a bustling ski village.
A terribly thick-fingered survey of the artistic-minded in Whistler reveals two streams of thought:
1) That this town needs a physical place where arts and culture can thrive and that such a place will prove to be an important value-added draw for visitors to Whistler; and
2) That if thought One is going to happen, it'll happen without gobs of public funding and will happen only when the creeks feeding stream One get together to create one purpose, one goal toward building one facility.
At the adele-campbell Fine Art Gallery, glasses of white Peller Estates make the rounds among the curious and potential buyers at the opening night for septuagenarian artist Keith C. Smith. His style is Group of Seven-ish, but there are a couple of pieces trying for something different.
Acoustic guitarist Joe Salay is adding musical ambience to the opening, as he does at all the adele-campbell openings. Canapés disappearing down throats include strawberries dipped 'toe first' in milk chocolate, toonie-sized quiche pies, a rainbow-coloured cheese dip and an antipasto perched on credit cards of melba toast.
Real credit cards have been used for other means: seven of Smith's works already have the red dot that says "Sold!" before the first day is done.
Gallery business is good. Whistler has evolved enough that the galleries can count on the kind of visitor who'll buy art pieces into the $10,000 and more range, says co-owner Paula Campbell. That evolution has occurred in just the past two-three years, she says.
"We have a very international clientele. Galleries aren't dependent on the local economy for sales."
Because a decision to invest several thousands in a painting or sculpture has to be made jointly by husband and wife, or whatever partner situation it is, offering expensive art at a resort of Whistler's calibre works well, Campbell says.
But what about the locals? Shouldn't a Whistler gallery make an effort to promote worthy local artists?
"That's a tough call, because there's no question there are a lot of very talented people here," Campbell admits. But a gallery is a business like any other in the village and has to make money.
"I don't want to slit my throat (by dissing made-in-Whistler art), but when we're being charged $6,000 a month rent we have to sell artists that command large prices and have an overall stable of artists whose work moves out on a fairly regular basis," Campbell says.
Having said that, Campbell is committed to improving Whistler's art and culture scene where she can. She currently wears a variety of arts hats, including being vice-president of the Whistler Arts Council, a member of the art in public places committee, and a member of the Whistler Galleries Association.
The art in public places committee is in its infancy, having started in January. "We're still getting our feet wet creating a mandate how to select places for display and how to select the art that will go on display," she says.
The committee's existence, however, is more proof of Whistler's maturity as a community. "It's very exciting. Whistler is at that point where it's time to look beyond to the next benchmark of Whistler's journey as a community," Campbell says.
As more visitors with plump wallets come to Whistler, more galleries spring up featuring prominent artists. This in turn has created a demand by renowned artists to be seen on Whistler's gallery walls.
"We get five to six inquiries a week from artists wanting to show here. It wasn't that way before," Campbell explains.
The mountain resort setting impresses, too.
"We get artists coming up here who say, 'wow!', they can't believe how well the village has developed," Campbell says. "Other than the (snow)boarder dudes, a lot of people coming here are sophisticated enough to want the restaurants and activities that round out the place."
Across town at the Bear Foot Bistro, André St. Jacques is introducing a visiting American to an aromatic collection of Cuban stogies, while in a corner of the restaurant, an artist is whacking the bejesus out of a grey/red chunk of clay the size of a 14" TV.
On other days, the bistro may have an artist working with oils or pen and ink, or maybe its Pemberton's Michelle Ness weaving her native beading or dream catchers.
Weaving visual art with fine dining makes for a complete aesthetic experience for the visitor, says St. Jacques. "I'm combining culinary art with creative art. Not many people get to see the artist in action and this is a way for the artist to have a venue to see their art and to be seen making it."
The idea of local artists on public display in a restaurant came from St. Jacques's time with the Matisse Restaurant and Bar in Toronto.
"When we opened two years ago, we had murals all over the ceiling, the walls and the floor, but the artists were a little bit behind when we wanted to open. We opened and had the artists come in anyway. We started to realize that people were fascinated to see the artists finish off their work," he recalls.
When he opened the Bear Foot Bistro, he set aside space for an artist work area. "There aren't a lot of places a local artist can show themselves. We're not concerned to have the best artists, but by promoting Whistler artists we'll get better artists coming to Whistler."
Is this a direction for Whistler's beaneries to take?
"I'm going to be very honest and say that I'm so new to the community I'm reluctant to say too much, but I'd like to see other restaurants do something similar," St. Jacques says. "I listen to artists a lot and some feel the community is not creating enough awareness, there's not a lot of mediums to promote themselves."
A Harbourfront-style venue would be a step in the right direction, St. Jacques says. The Toronto lake-side facility has open workshops where artists in a variety of disciplines interact with the general public as they create their pieces, in some cases offering workshops for adults and children.
"I would really like to see something like that offering classes in glass blowing, pottery, etc., in Whistler," the restaurateur says. "I just don't know if Whistler is big enough to support it."
Thinking even bigger, St. Jacques looks at the Banff School of Fine Art. "It would be great to have a Whistler Centre of Fine Arts. Having a local gallery is not enough. People like to see artists working and perhaps participate with them."
And such a facility would be one more reason for people to come to Whistler, especially during the off seasons, St. Jacques says.
As four white swans ballet across Alpha Lake, painter Isobel MacLaurin watches them from her home and expresses her support for a Harbourfront-style setting.
"We're all proud of our place, but where can anybody see anything except in private galleries," she says.
An interactive venue would not only help enthuse the "common man" about the craft of the day, but having a crafts studio or dance studio would get children started early to think about the arts, MacLaurin says.
"Teaching children is so important," she says, recalling a visit to the National Gallery in Ottawa where she bumped into a "young man" who remembered her teaching him how to draw racoon faces some 10 years ago.
Although some painters are reluctant to be seen as they work, "I love to share what I'm doing," MacLaurin says. "I like to have people ask me questions and get excited about my work."
Whistler is heading in the right direction in its development of an arts and culture identity, she says, as evidenced by the topic being raised at the town meetings and by the various arts groups getting together to map an arts and culture future for the community.
"We're starting to think of the community as a whole and the community's interpretation of what they would like in public art," MacLaurin says. "I think this is a marvellous time to be here (as an artist). Things are really happening. We haven't got buildings, but we're all talking together... that's the thing."
Another factor in Whistler's arts and culture scene is its library and museum. The two are plotting a future together in a more permanent building than the borrowed wooden structures now housing them on Main Street.
The fact that their current "new" quarters — the library moved from its municipal hall dungeon and the museum from its Siberian gulag across from Function Junction — have resulted in lottery-winnings sized attendance numbers that bottomlines for Dan Greene the need for a serious locale.
Greene chairs the joint library/museum building committee and doesn't mince his thoughts about the state of Whistler's library.
"We're long past the point where we need a new facility," Greene says. "We're way under the provincial average of books per capita and the municipality's percentage share of the operating costs is one of the lowest in the province.
"Squamish has 2.5 times our budget per capita and is open 41 hours a week. Whistler's library — at 28 hours a week — has lagged behind substantially."
Although Greene says Whistler's library has an "exceptionally good collection" of books, such as it is, the quantity of books needs to be increased.
The building committee has its eyes on "Lot 21," a clod of real estate adjacent to the current library/museum location. But to get there, it'll take "a whole lot o' spending money to do it right."
If regular fund raising is any indication, that money will come in quickly. At $4 a person on average, the Whistler library pulls in nearly twice the level of donations, among B.C. libraries, than the next nearest community, Cranbrook, says Greene.
The municipality is a bit of a cheapskate, though. "The municipality gives us about 45 per cent of our operations money and that would be one of the lowest (levels) in British Columbia," Greene says.
"I think the community deserves a lot better service than it's getting. We have the highest tax revenue per resident of any municipality in B.C., and we have the highest education per resident in B.C., but we have relatively poor library service," Greene says.
Greene sits as first-vice-president of the B.C. Library Trustees Association, so he knows what he's yakking about when he sparks off about provincial statistics.
This fall the joint building committee will launch a fund-raising drive toward a new home. Keeping in line with the "community use" zoning of the future home, Greene says other tenants could include provincial or municipal agencies or health professionals, all of whom could underwrite the cost to run the building through their rents.
In any case, the new building desired by the library/museum committee has to be accessible and visible. Greene's worst fear is that if the committee can't generate the monies it needs to build on Lot 21, the municipality will shunt the library, at least, into the new high school.
"We dodged that one (in previous discussions)," Greene says. "Being in the high school is the death knell for a public library."
Speaking for the museum, board member Tom Horler says the move from Function Junction alone resulted in a 300 per cent increase in visits. An increased marketing presence reaching into the business community also raised the museum's profile.
Businesses can borrow museum photographs and other archival materials to dress up store interiors. As well, the museum is open for receptions by tour companies, who use the facility for "welcome to Whistler nights" for their groups, Horler says.
For the locals, the museum is rotating its displays in the Rainbow Room "so there's always a reason for the locals to visit the museum again," Horler says. A display exploring the history and development of snowboards is a recent example.
"The promotion of the museum is a terrific way to promote Whistler resort as a whole," Horler says.
"We have to make sure Whistler never becomes an industrial ski experience where visitors are herded into lines to go skiing and that's all there is," Horler explains, quoting advice from Ed Pitoniak, former editor in chief of SKI Magazine, who told Whistler business people last fall to be sure to promote the valley’s history.
Next door to the museum, Anne Popma reflects on the maturing relationship that the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts has with the community.
"The fact that we had so much support in finding a new home (out from its bunker-like digs in the convention centre) indicates that not only does the Whistler Centre have friends in the community, but that they feel there's a role for the Whistler Centre to play in the community," the Whistler Centre president says.
Popma senses an awakening desire in Whistler to see the arts and cultural activities become a more visible part of the community. "As we see all the development around us, people are searching somewhat for a cultural hub — some kind of place that makes a statement about the cultural values of this community where the arts can flourish."
There's a desire to see other kinds of things to do in the community, not only for the people who are here, but for the people who might come here if there was another reason to come here, says Popma.
But there's a "funny conundrum" at work that is expressed in a desire to maintain the smallness and intimacy of the community, yet grow to a size where the community can build the facilities that will attract more artists and other visitors, Popma says.
"They would be a wonderful counterpoint to the tremendous recreational amenities that we already have," Popma says. "Whistler has turned a corner in its maturity, but until we build the cultural depth here we will be missing a piece that other resorts have."
There are three potential sites for the kind of facilities — especially a live theatre and series of artists' spaces — that Popma envisions: Lot 1 in Village North, the original site for the arena and community pool; a five-acre Crown land site on the Benchlands across Blackcomb Way from the Intrawest Resort and Club that has for ages been zoned for cultural use; and the potential reconfiguration of the convention centre, which was approved by the Whistler Resort Association board a month ago.
Cost implications, proximity to parking and being within walking distance of hotels will factor into the final choice.
"The Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts board is interested in being a catalyst for seeing this happen," Popma says, "but it needs to be a community amenity that's accessible to amateur groups, to professional groups, to the schools and other users, including arts groups in Vancouver who would be interested in using a Whistler site for summer stock theatre or satellite jazz concerts."
A 600-seat theatre would be nice. The Whistler Centre has been working with potential user groups to see what size would be appropriate — anything from 100 seats to 1,500 seats — but a consultant indicated the 600-seat size would satisfy Whistler's needs for the next decades. The perfect performing arts theatre would also include an auditorium and "dry space" for rehearsals, etc.
Popma gets a bit cagey when asked to pick "the preferred site."
"The community will decide that, based on the criteria. A limiting factor will be the need for a 'fly tower'," Popma says of the potentially eight-storey structure at the back of a theatre that houses scenery changes and the other machinery of stage craft.
"There isn't another building that high in Whistler Village, so if you try to map that onto any of the three sites, you have to decide what will aesthetically be the most desirable," Popma says.
Once the community picks a final choice for a site — which Popma predicts will happen within the next six months — determining where the money will come from can begin, including going after corporate sponsors in the manner of a GM Place or Ford Theatre in Vancouver.
Based on a construction cost of $10,000 a seat, the final product could carry a $6-million-plus price tag.
"When we have the right plan, and when everything's in place, we will be able to find the private money," Popma says.
As for the Centre for Business and the Arts itself, other strategies in the coming year will see it expand the number of concert series performances, adding a jazz teaching program for its young artist learning program, and moving into Whistler Mountain's mid-station Ski Scamps facility this summer as part of kicking off a larger Young Artists program.
"But growth of the arts in Whistler is going to take partnerships, it's going to take a tremendous amount of work," says Popma, pointing to the 40 volunteers who help sell tickets, raise funds in auctions and do other labour for her group's efforts.
"Obviously the facility is the thing," says Tamsin Miller, series producer of the Whistler Community Arts Council, a group that annually stages several presentations for adults and children, but is rather nomadic in its venues.
"For the next season there will be three productions in the fall, and a Christmas production that may be sponsored by the Chateau Whistler and Whistler Real Estate, and I want to do four (productions) in the spring. I'm in contact with the Delta Hotel and the conference centre" to see what space will be available, Miller explains.
Trying to fit into one date or another in a hotel's schedule is a juggling act that Miller would rather not have to deal with.
"What I'd prefer to do is to have all the performances at the same place, at the same time, on the same day (of the week)," Miller says. "Whistler people are so busy, they need consistency. And so it's really hard if you have the performances at different venues."
Last year "I was in a complete state" trying to scramble for a last minute place to put on her first production when she was bumped from her original site.
"Because Whistler is becoming a year-round enterprise, it's harder and harder for us all to find spots to put things on. It's not just us, it's a common complaint," Miller says.
As for what would fit the bill in a permanent home, "I have very strong personal feelings about what we need in performance space," Miller says. "We definitely need a smallish area for local performances that can handle the 150-250 people attending our performances."
But Miller can think big, too, for more professional acts.
"My personal preference is for a 1,500 seat theatre to be run as its own enterprise during the summer, with full productions with major international performers coming of such calibre that they would draw people in specifically to see them," Miller says.
That would leave the facility available for the remainder of the year for other go-big-or-go-home acts like big bands or large conventions, Miller says.
The demand is there, as indicated by the increasing number of plays the Whistler Community Arts Council puts together, Miller says.
"Until 1993 we did three performances a year and this year we're presenting eight."
Visitors are among the demanding as they look for other things to do once their skiing or snowboarding is done for the day.
"There has to be life above the thighs," Miller says.
Okay, so now that we've splashed around in the First Stream of thought, let's hear from Stream Two:
If a bricks and mortar home for Whistler's arts and culture scene is going to happen, the groups involved won't be able to look at the municipal government for any large wads of cash, says Whistler Mayor Ted Nebbeling.
And despite all the talk from the various arts and culture groups about working together, Nebbeling isn't convinced there is any kind of consensus among that community, nor is there the kind of financial plan and strategy needed to make a facility more than a whistle in the dark. There are too many groups chasing their own dreams and developing what will be conflicting fund-raising efforts to try to make those dreams possible.
"The bottom line is that we are being fund-raised out a little bit in this community," mayor Nebbeling says. "If the cultural facility would be a fund-raised facility on its own and the library/archives facility have a fund-raiser element on its own, I think it could delay the whole thing because they will be in conflict with each other."
The only money that the municipality will have available is a mere $1 million, and that will only show up in 2001.
"That is not money that you can say will build a facility," Nebbeling says. "We'll need a hell of a lot more.
"That's why it's important that these different groups create a vision that will coincide with the others, rather than the potential conflict of individually chasing the almighty dollar," Nebbeling says. "We need an inventory of what the groups want for a facility, what it can accommodate and get everybody to sign to a vision plan.
"What is lacking is a co-ordinated approach towards that vision."
There has to be a definite financial plan, but such a plan doesn't exist. "Nobody knows what a facility like that will cost. Nobody knows what the realities are of fund raising — how much could (realistically) be raised in the next two-three years, for example, and what can we do with that kind of money?," Nebbeling asks.
"There has to be a financial strategy as well, but it doesn't exist. Nobody can tell me what the operations of the facility will be, cost-wise. I do not believe the municipality will go into big debt to make this issue happen because we have a no-debt strategy," he says.
That's not to say the mayor or the municipality are against a cultural facility.
"Arts and education — be it education in the performing arts or in the creative arts — are going to be a very essential part of the whole Whistler structure. We've endorsed that in our Official Community Plan," the mayor says. "Arts and culture are going to be the next economic pillars of Whistler."
Nebbeling sees the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts as the hub of any drive toward a cultural centre. "The role of the municipality is to assist wherever we can to work with the provincial government to apply for lands (such as the Crown land beside Fitzsimmons Creek that is currently zoned for arts and culture use)."
Money for whatever cultural building Whistler decides on is more likely to come from corporate involvement, establishment of charitable foundations, individual donations and the like that have been the trend of the 1990s.
"The reason for that, (the lack of municipal financial help) is that this community decided a couple of years ago that they wanted to spend the money that was available on what I call "muscle facilities:" sports fields and the Meadow Park Sports Centre," Nebbeling explains. "As a consequence of that there has been no money for a cultural facility, but that was the choice of the community and clearly so."
Of course, mayor Ted is making his charge toward being Ted Nebbeling, MLA. Would Whistler have a friend in provincial government should the Liberals win the coming election?
"If you look at the budget right now, there is very little money for culture and I'm sure we're going to continue to do that," Nebbeling says.
"As a provincial government, we will be focusing on giving our kids an education and making sure there's health care for any person who needs it. That's where the spare cash will go, it will not go towards anything else," Nebbeling says.
"I would feel very irresponsible or misleading if I said we'd give money to build these facilities."
As for his preferred site for a cultural centre, Nebbeling notes that something plonked into the Village would cost much more than if placed on the perimeter.
"I'm not saying the cultural facility should go into a residential neighbourhood, but the five acre Fitzsimmons Creek site (across from the Intrawest Resort and Club on Crown land) may make a lot of sense. That means you're going to have a different type of facility than you would in the village; it would most likely be smaller, more intimate because of its setting, and it would most likely be a more community-focused facility, rather than expecting big concerts with someone like Bryan Adams," Nebbeling says.
"A smaller centre that brings a cultural richness to the community should be the primary focus. Visitors will have that benefit, too," Nebbeling says, noting that the arena is a community place that gets a lot of use by many more folks than the locals. "Man, do the visitors enjoy it!"