Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Olympic Games raise profile of Whistler as cultural destination

Continued funding key to ongoing success

This time last year, Village Stroll was a spectacle to behold, even for jaded locals, who no longer stumble around slack-jawed in awe of Whistler's natural beauty.

From February 12 to 28, a special kind of magic had taken hold in the cobblestone walkways of town, and strangely enough, it wasn't our athletes alone who were responsible for sprinkling around that red and white pixie dust.

It was our artists.

Sea to Sky artists were a central part of Whistler's 2010 Olympic and Paralympic experience: they were painting live and interacting with curious onlookers, providing the soundtrack to the nightly Fire and Ice Remix, performing on the main stage in Village Square, telling stories by the pedestrian bridge and busily engaging visitors in community arts projects. They were there to create colour, atmosphere and character, to share a little piece of Whistler with the world, and to make sure that everyone knew that there is more to this little ski town than just, well, skiing.

"The Games just showed people what was possible and how much culture can affect people in a community, and tourism and atmosphere," said Doti Niedermayer, executive director of the Whistler Arts Council (WAC).

"There were tons of people, including me, who barely went to a sporting event.

"Most of it was in the village, and what was that all about? Well, it was about people and the programming."

Niedermayer arrived in Whistler just one year before the winning bid was announced, and remembers making the trip into the village bright and early, at 7 a.m. to hear the verdict.

"It was that moment; it was very exciting!" she recalls with a smile.

One of the first meetings she had after Whistler won the bid was with The Vancouver Organizing Committee's Burke Taylor.

"We had a three-hour discussion, and I knew then that it was a big deal, because he approached me right away to say, 'This is going to be very important that we work together and that we really create a Cultural Olympiad that catapults our arts organizations forward,'" said Niedermayer.

"We also had a board of directors that was very visionary and who immediately jumped up and said, 'Okay, what are the opportunities? How are we going to use this as a catalyst to move forward the Arts Council and the arts in Whistler, and our artists?'"

Quite early on, WAC decided it would be best to focus on the community's strengths: our painters, visual artists, DJs and writers. They also set to work developing their village animation and street entertainment programs, looking for artists who were talented, dependable and outgoing.

"We really did showcase our very best, so how that translated on the stage was you couldn't tell the difference between the street entertainment from France or the live painter from Pemberton, because they were all high-level professionals," Niedermayer says.

In the end, local artists' Games-time involvement more than lived up to her expectations.

"I knew we absolutely wanted to integrate our artists with the international and the national artists, and I also knew we had some amazing talent in this town, but I think it far surpassed how I envisioned it," she says.

"I think we've done a lot to raise the profile of a number of artists through our shows and the Olympics, when they were programmed. So I think the artists that were ready and able, I think if you asked someone like Vanessa Stark or Chili Thom, they would say, 'Yeah, my life has changed! I'm getting a lot more work.'

"It wasn't just getting a paid gig during the Olympics, it was raising their profile within the community, and I think we've done that. And I think that the ones that really took themselves seriously and wanted to be professional artists got a real boost."


One artists' experience


Stan Matwychuk is just one of the many Sea to Sky artists who got involved in the Games. He's lived in the corridor for almost nine years, working with other local artists and arts groups on community projects and events, and today, helps run the Squamish-based artistic collective, Homebase Studios.

"It took a while to actually make some money doing it," says Matwychuk. "For many years, it was just sort of wanting to be a part of it and contributing time."

That investment paid off during the Olympic Games, when Matwychuk found himself involved in not one, but six separate Games-related arts projects.

"I just started filling out these forms and getting all this information and then all of a sudden I literally had something booked for every day during the Olympics; it was pretty ridiculous!"

He definitely didn't shy away from any Olympic activities: he was involved in the Fire and Ice at Skiers Plaza; live painting and facilitating Whistler's community mural project with another local artist, Vanessa Stark; and coordinating the urban mural graffiti exhibit at two on-site locations on Grouse Mountain.

"They had a pretty big set-up on-mountain, and I was there when Alex Bilodeau won the first gold medal for Canada, and then I was there for when Canada won the gold medal at women's ski cross!" he recalled. "It was wild, just seeing everyone, everything was just vibrating. The air was electric."

He also painted live at Lululemon and with Converse shoes at Showcase, and helped kids make contributions of their Olympic memories to the community's legacy book project.

"It was a matter of me just sort of getting onto every avenue that I had and using the network around me," he says.

One of the career highlights of the Games for Matwychuk was getting a call from CTV, asking him to paint live, on-camera. He ended up spray bombing a truck in the middle of the Village with Lauren Ritz, Darren Camplin and Malik Tour.

"So literally the next day, at 2:30 in the morning, we started painting this huge box truck in the heart of Whistler Village," he recalls. "...We basically just bombed this whole truck in front of live, national television!"

His family on the other side of the country was able to watch him at work, and the project was showcased to millions of viewers at home. And that wasn't the only high-profile event Matwychuk was involved in: he was also part of the team that helped with the snowboarding stunt during the opening ceremonies.

"We rehearsed that small moment on Whistler Blackcomb for the last like eight months before that through the Talent of Nations," Matwychuk said.

He was "creative consultant" for that portion of the opening ceremonies, working with the reputable David Atkins Group to help orchestrate the big moment: an impressive item, indeed, to add to the old CV.

Acting as a technical contractor on a high profile, professional level for a world-class event like the Games was a fantastic experience for the artist.

"It was quite a different avenue to see how creativity can be applied, and then put into action," says Matwychuk.

Those Olympic experiences may have helped Matwychuk and Homebase develop a working relationship with Brand.Live, the Vancouver-based company that organized the two-day Squamish Live festival.

"To be able to work with those big companies has really opened my eyes to what's really out there, and if you see something, you really have to reach out and grab it."

While Matwychuk clearly gained an impressive list of professional contacts and experiences from the Games, he believes that the biggest artistic legacy for the community is really the only tangible one: the new Whistler Celebration Plaza. The site, which is currently under construction and should be complete by summer, will boast a covered amphitheatre, great lawn area, and a large-scale sculpture installation from First Nations artist, Susan Point.

"Even when I talk to people who haven't been to the corridor, they're like, 'hey, let's go to Whistler! The Olympics were there!'" says Matwychuk.

He adds that people will probably come to get their photo taken at the rings, get a coffee and walk the plaza, reliving the Games through the interactive sculptures that are scheduled to be installed.

"At the end of the day - I hate to use the word 'legacy' because it's just been too touted and cliché - but it's that long term benefit on-site in Whistler to give people the excuse to check the town out," he says.


Defining our artistic legacies


In Niedermayer's opinion, Whistler's true artistic legacy lies in the relationships that were created between all of the key agencies in the resort: the Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Whistler, the RMOW, Whistler Arts Council and Whistler Blackcomb.

"It was an opportunity to sit in a room and work as partners and really build a trust with one another," she says.

"Suddenly, it's like, 'Wow, the Arts Council is delivering on something very big,' and I think that credibility and that trust and that relationship that we created across Whistler, that's the legacy for me!"

Niedermayer has been immersed in Whistler's art scene since she took the helm at WAC back in 2002. When she first arrived in the community, she immediately noticed that everything arts-related was volunteer-run, and that those volunteers had set a solid foundation "for someone to come in and take it to the next level."

And take it to the next level, WAC did.

"The arts weren't really at the top of anybody's mind," says Niedermayer.

"The RMOW had the vision and had seen with an arts plan that there was a future in cultural tourism, because they looked at their competitors in Aspen and Vale and Banff - so they had looked outside - but the rest of the community... Tourism Whistler was like, 'We don't have any product,' other than TWSSF, and the mountain was like, 'What are you talking about?'"

"And that's where we started."

Those attitudes (especially within the "big three" - Tourism Whistler, Whistler Blackcomb, and the RMOW) have changed pretty drastically in the past few years, during the lead-up to the Games. In addition, we now have surveys that show that visitors feel arts and culture is an important component.

"People have said, 'It is important. We do feel that that's important, coming here, that there's something to do besides hurl myself off a mountain when I'm 60, or 55, or five years old!'" says Niedermayer.

Of course, we can't forget the RMOW's Cultural Tourism study, commissioned through federal funds provided by Whistler's designation as a Cultural Capital of Canada in 2009. But much like Highway 99, those are spin-offs that aren't technically part of our "Games' legacy."

"Perhaps the fact that Whistler was going to host the Games had something to do with the fact that we were designated a Cultural Capital in 2009," Niedermayer muses, thoughtfully. "However, we actually had a really good proposal, a really strong application, and a lot of people put a lot of time and effort into that. I'm thinking that even if we took away the Olympics, we still had a solid proposal."

She's confident that the Games gave our arts and culture sector a definite boost, even allowing them to develop their relationships with federal and provincial government agencies, and other key groups.

"I think the Olympics was a catalyst," says Niedermayer.

"It wasn't the sole reason or the only thing, but the Olympics moved us forward faster."

They're already seeing more interest from touring artists and groups who are interested in coming to Whistler, and she expects that will only continue to grow when Whistler Celebration Plaza is up and running. And in a very general sense, the Games-time programming has also created a greater cultural appetite within the community.

Adds Niedermayer: "People that came out have incredible memories and I think that they did get a spirit."


Where do we go from here?


Whistler's artistic community saw a huge influx of funding from all levels of government in the years leading up to and during the Olympics. Unfortunately, we aren't as flush in the post-Olympic period.

"I think what's hardest is living in a new reality, afterwards, when the money is gone!" Niedermayer laughs. "We had the talent, we had the ideas, we definitely made some mistakes along the way, but I'll tell you, those funding partners were very forgiving of our mistakes."

One such project was our ill-fated aerial dance project, which had to be scrapped when organizers realized we didn't have a building that was tall enough to make the performance a success. As Niedermayer points out, they were commissioning new works, and sometimes, new works just don't work out.

"It's not like we didn't try, so our efforts were 100 per cent," she says.

While most of the funds that were allocated to Whistler's arts programming had to be used for the Games themselves, Niedermayer sees another potential return on the Games-time performance.

"I think how we made sure that there was a legacy in our delivery and in the awareness, and I think that we are in a different world, where some of the funds may not be there - provincial funds and probably even federal and gaming, for sure, has not been there - but I think we've opened other doors."

One of those "doors" leads to a brand-new festival, events and animation strategy, developed in conjunction with the RMOW and Tourism Whistler, which could potentially see $2.685 million allocated annually for five years from the Resort Municipality Initiative funds for festivals, events and animation. That, coupled with the Cultural Tourism study, could spell success for Whistler's arts and culture community.

"I'm very optimistic, we just need to absolutely stay on track," she pauses. "And a report is as strong as the people that implement it. It's a report, it's a piece of paper: you can put it on your shelf, you can burn it."

Now, they need to focus on moving their agenda forward and ticking action items off their list, and they have only a few more years to capitalize on their Olympic momentum.

"It's not just the Olympics, it's also building Whistler as a cultural tourism destination, long-term," says Niedermayer.

"People do travel for culture, so regardless of whether you were a host of the Olympics or not, its tapping into that broader market."