Maple Ridge sets an artistic challenge 

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The excitement in Yvonne Chui's voice is unmistakable.

Chui is the arts and community connections manager for The District of Maple Ridge, east of Vancouver. The district has revamped its public art program for 2014 to 2016 in a radically creative way and I wanted to know more.

It is growing from one to five opportunities this year, Chui says. This is to support artists of all kinds — visual, performance, writers and musicians — and to fill their community with art, both as a life-enhancing experience and as a learning opportunity.

Their old system: starting in 2000 the district made available one of their properties to an artist or artistic team over a three-year period. The artist could live in the house and work on their creative projects; these projects would be given to the community.

The most recent recipient was ceramicist and fibre artist Kjaer Neletia Pedersen, who used the residency to create a new line of work and experiment with textiles, moving away from pottery but using the patterns, colours and glazes from ceramics.

These residencies have resulted, for example, in the wrought-iron gates made by Colin Southwell that now grace the entrance to the community's main cemetery, and a set of large-scale wood carvings by First Nations master carver Doug Morrison with the involvement of 800 members of the public.

The residency used to only be open to artists from Maple Ridge, but this year applicants can come from anywhere in Canada in order to attract the best possible talent. They will live and work in Haney House. The deadline is Jan. 13.

"We are seeking proposals for exciting projects that promote meaningful exchange between the community and artist(s) and opportunities for the community to engage with the artistic process and production in some capacity," the 2014 call states.

Work is completed on an artistic project for the community, whether it's a sculpture, a painting, a symphony, a play or a dance, in exchange for being granted the space rent-free. The public would benefit also from contact with the artist in the form of open houses, lessons, etc.

Is this program expensive, I ask Chui?

"The beauty of this program is the budget is minimal since the upkeep of the properties was going to be done already," she says.  "The fair market rate for the rent would be offset by the community art engagement and projects.  Since some of these properties are sitting empty or given to a caretaker, there isn't a big cost attached but the gains are bigger.  We have set aside some project material funds per residency, around $5,000 each.  Depending on the potential partners involved, they can also leverage grants and sponsorships for the agreed upon projects." 

Chui says they hope the budgets will grow as the program evolves and demonstrates how it contributes to community vibrancy.

As well, two other calls are about to be sent out for Canadian artists (again, of all persuasions) by the district, with a deadline of Feb. 28; both are new programs.

The first, the Osprey Village Storefront commercial studio residency (a two-year term) will provide a shop setting to work, to teach and to sell. The inspiration, Chui says, comes from the Storefronts Seattle project, which aims to fill empty stores with artistic work.

The second, at Fern House, is open for artistic groups or collectives to set up a studio residency. Again collaboration and interaction with the community is key, she says.

The final calls will be for shorter artistic residencies of between three and six months' duration at Maple Ridge's senior centre and youth centre. This will augment arts programs for these groups and contribute to teens and seniors "building their own vision of an issue or idea."

The first short-term residency call is due to come out in the spring and the second in the fall. The final location is still to be determined.

Interested artists can find out more on the District of Maple Ridge and the Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows Arts Council websites.

These are great innovations that I would love to see considered by any or all of the Sea to Sky regions' local governments.

The Vicious Circle, Whistler's writers' group, already offers a writer-in-residence program each fall, tied in the with annual Readers and Writers Festival, and it makes a difference to new writers.

Of course, the considerations of the Resort Municipality of Whistler are not that of the District of Maple Ridge. And we have a strong public art set-up with over 60 pieces located throughout the resort. Visitors can take a self-guided walking tour thanks to a brochure produced by the RMOW's public art committee.

But Maple Ridge's example could easily take root here, Chui said. And given an interest in setting up an arts incubator here, as outlined in last year's Community Cultural Plan for the resort, there is an apparent desire. I'd like to encourage our policymakers to look at programs like Maple Ridge's artist-in-residencies and see if we can't adapt it here somehow.

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