Growing a mountain culture
By Stephen Vogler
The Dominant Culture
"Bacteria grow only if their environment is suitable; if it’s not optimal, growth may occur at a lower rate or not at all — or the bacteria may die, depending on species and conditions."
– Introduction to Bacteria, Paul Singleton
Through workshops, surveys and town hall meetings our town planners have determined that culture is the next important element to pursue in Whistler. While few would argue that this is an excellent idea, bringing culture to our community is proving more difficult than slapping together a village or installing a high-speed quad chairlift. It seems that culture can't be offloaded from a truck or flown in by helicopter with all the fanfare of a Hollywood celebrity. Like the bacterial culture described above, it simply needs a suitable environment in which to grow and take on a unique life of its own.
But the kind of environment which will allow a true artistic culture to develop does not exist in Whistler today. The town is famous for its opportunities in recreational sports and money making, and it is around these two pursuits that our culture is currently growing. To take the bacteria analogy one step further, when a particular culture is thriving and multiplying, there are few resources left for any other kind of growth to occur.
Recreating and money-making are thriving to such a degree in Whistler that there is hardly a chance for any other type of culture to gain a foothold. Ours is a culture of consumerism, be it for real estate, McDonald's hamburgers or the ultimate powder run. These days, some people are drawn to Whistler for the sheer money-making possibilities; others are still drawn by the beauty of the place and the chance to play in the outdoors. But when Whistlerites aren't busy getting rich or, alternatively, scraping together a living, they're off pursuing recreational activities with something approaching religious fervour. Tourists arrive with the same zeal in their eye — the difference being that they do their work elsewhere and escape to the mountains at greater expense and for shorter periods of time. Either way, there is very little time or energy left for the pursuit of art.
In this kind of climate, groups like the Whistler Community Arts Council and the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts try to inject some art into our lives. The Arts Council brings some great performances up to Whistler, but as much as they are appreciated by the audiences, when the curtains close and you head for the door, it's easy to forget whether you're in Kalamazoo, Kamloops or Whistler. In terms of a Whistler arts culture, these shows have about as much relevance as the various business conferences that role through town.
The Centre for Business and the Arts also brings internationally acclaimed artists into town for performances and workshops, but these too seem to glance off the regular fabric of the community like meteors skipping off into space. The performances are top notch, the workshops a success, but in the end the whole production feels like it was parachuted in and could have just as easily landed in any other location.
To be fair, the Centre For Business and The Arts has admirable long-term goals for making the arts a more integral part of Whistler life. Some of these goals include creating a theatre and cultural centre, offering degree programs in the arts and staging more arts festivals. But under the current inhospitable climate for the arts, the centre is ready to close its doors in September if new sources of funding can't be found.
While the centre may well find the funding it needs, the approach of lumping the arts together with business has inherent problems of its own. The fact that the centre was created for both of these pursuits (and that business is listed first) is telling about the position the arts occupy in Whistler. While a marriage between business and art is sometimes a necessary evil for funding purposes, an artistic culture will never take on a life of its own if it is piggy-backed on a business organization. Business is alive and well in Whistler. We already have organizations which look out for its well being: the Chamber of Commerce, the Village Merchants Society and even the municipal council, which tends to attract business people and look out for their interests. An arts organization might do more for promoting the arts in Whistler if it were just that: a centre for the arts.
But the prevailing view in town is that developing art and culture is the next important step in marketing the resort to the world. Real estate and recreation have been working well so far, the thinking goes, but by selling some culture we could really get the economic wheels turning. This kind of cultural development will simply use the arts to fuel an already well-established culture of economic growth. In a book entitled Art And Society, Herbert Read responds insightfully to this way of thinking:
"With such a conception of art, we cannot regard the function of the artist as merely the production of objects within the economic field — not, that is to say, as the making of buildings, furniture, utensils and other more or less utilitarian things... Art must be regarded as a necessity like bread and water; but like bread and water, it must be accepted as a matter of course; it must be an integral part of our daily life, and must not be made a fuss of. It should be treated, not as a guest, not even as a paying guest, but as one of the family."
In Whistler, art is being wooed to sit at the economic table like a foreign guest with influential friends. But until our frenzied boom-town economy begins to slow down, conditions will likely remain unsuitable for a true artistic culture to emerge — one that exists on its own terms, independent from resort marketing strategies.
"After a plant or animal dies, bacteria help break down the dead organisms into simple molecules that can be used by living plants and animals."
– The World Book Encyclopedia
The arts often start to thrive in a place once some other, more utilitarian, pursuit has run its course. Vancouver's Granville Island is an excellent example of this. In the 1930s and '40s, its corrugated tin buildings housed industries which helped to keep the war machine supplied and running. The heavy industrial manufacturing carried on for another 10 or 20 years until artists and craftsmen slowly began to move in to the area. The rough-hewn warehouses made excellent studios, workshops and even theatres, and the transition toward an arts-based culture happened gradually and naturally.
If Whistler is ever to go through a similar transition, I think it will require a major shift in the dynamic of the community. If the gods of the ski magazine world chose to shine their light on some other resort, we might discover that there's more to life than a No. 1 rating each September. It might take a big slump in the economy to steer people's focus away from simply surviving in, or cashing in, on the resort, and relieving their resultant stress by madly recreating in their spare time. I know plenty of people with artistic aspirations in Whistler, but most of them are too busy serving cappuccinos and carving up the mountains to ever practice their art.
As long as our speculative real estate market continues to soar, the conditions for an arts culture in Whistler will likely not improve. It's difficult for an artist to survive anywhere, but Whistler's high housing costs make it close to impossible. Unless that economic bubble pops, or at least deflates somewhat, we will continue to be a haven for realtors and a wasteland for artists.
Right now, the current of artistic energy in Whistler lies somewhere below the surface. The place has always attracted vibrant and creative souls from many parts of the world, but the exciting energy (the alternative ideas and ways of living) that began to emerge here 20 or 30 years ago have been all but destroyed by the economic steam roller that has rolled through town. Still, the energy is there, waiting to be picked up by a new generation. If conditions ever improve, it will begin to sprout like grass through cracks in the village cement.
If a culture of the arts ever takes root in Whistler, it will grow naturally from the place through the people who live here. It may have something in common with other cultures around the world, but it will be unique to the energy of this place. It won't have anything to do with flogging the Hollywood art of Tony Curtis in our local galleries. An arts culture which grows out of Whistler might be informed by the rain forest or by the variety of interesting characters who roll through the valley; it might be concerned with the mountains that surround us, but not simply with skiing them.