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A political take on the arts

Municipal candidates show up to talk shop with local arts, culture and heritage community members

Community members were given their first glimpse of the people running for positions on Whistler council and the school board at an all-candidates meeting on Tuesday night, courtesy of a group of arts, culture and heritage organizations.

The two-hour discussion was hosted by six key community groups: the Whistler Arts Council, Whistler Museum and Archives Society, Whistler Public Library, Whistler Film Festival Society, MY Millennium Place, and the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre. The evening was moderated by Maureen Douglas.

Douglas kicked the meeting off with a quick rundown of some of the highlights that have taken place in the local arts, culture and heritage sector over the past three years, including the completion of the new library, the opening of the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre, and the recent findings of an economic impact study, which show that the arts contribute a gross of $26 million to the local economy.

“There’s a lot going on, it’s a viable and meaningful economic driver, and there’s lots to talk about today,” she said.

The groups hosted a similar session during the municipal elections back in 2005, and Doti Niedermayer, executive director of WAC, said she was pleased with the attendance, both from candidates and members of the local arts community at this second meeting.

“It was a really good opportunity to get to meet the people running during the election, and hear their standpoint, and put a face to a name,” she said.

The economy definitely was a hot-button issue with many of the council and mayoral candidates who spoke at the meeting. The phrase, “heads in beds” was bandied about often, with the idea that arts and culture are an extremely viable — and increasing — tourism draw.

Kristi Wells pointed out that Whistler’s recreational reputation will stand on its own, and encapsulated the concept of diversifying our tourism base with a simple statement: “Arts, culture and heritage does mean business.”

Niedermayer agreed that arts were a valuable economic generator, and had the potential to do more for the community.

“Cultural tourism absolutely, it does generate tourism and it generates the economy, so in that respect, you can look at it like an investment,” she said.

But at the same time, she said there are other considerations to be made, besides the financial bottom line, when it comes to developing the local arts and cultural sector.

“I don’t think you can treat arts as a business, because you’re not selling widgets,” she added. “It is about building community and creating a culture and keeping a culture.”

Niedermayer was also impressed by the frank discussion generated at the meeting.

“I don’t see these meetings necessarily as committing to funding the cultural sector and making promises that I think, once you’re elected you can’t keep,” she said, adding that she understands the current global economic situation will definitely have an impact on the sector.

“I guess what I was really pleased about was the honesty of the people that were here tonight and for not making promises, and I thought that was really great,” she said.

This realistic approach to arts funding was best summarized by incumbent school board trustee, Chris Vernon-Jarvis, who matter-of-factly stated that, when it comes down to the board deciding whether to fix a toilet or fund an art project, the toilet will be fixed, every time.

While there certainly were no earth-shattering proposals made to cut or drastically increase funding to the sector during the meeting, candidates touched on a number of key issues that have been repeatedly identified by members of the artistic and cultural communities.

The underutilization of MY Millennium Place was another issue repeatedly brought up at the meeting, both by candidates and members of the audience, who had an opportunity to ask questions.

“It’s good that we’re talking about it, because I think it’s an issue for the cultural community and I appreciated the comments and the questions,” Niedermayer said.

Dennis Marriott, general manager of MY Millennium Place, echoed the sentiment that all discussion is positive.

“That’s what Millennium Place is about. It’s a meeting place where we share and celebrate our differences, share opinions, and gather, just like this,” he said after the meeting, gesturing to the candidates and community members gathered in the lobby.

Audience members also raised a number of concerns about the Whistler Museum, and funding opportunities after the 2010 Olympic Games.