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Artists making a Point

Proposal for community art centre on lakefront municipal land inching forward


Whistler artists are asking the Resort Municipality of Whistler to put its money where its mouth is and support the seeds of an initiative that will improve cultural tourism and give local artists a chance to thrive.

Two weeks ago, 20 artists and supporters gathered at Creekbread to discuss strategies relating to the Point Artist-Run Centre (PARC) on Alta Lake on the site of the former Hostelling International Hostel. The land and its seven buildings is owned by the municipality, but PARC's board wants to lease it and create a locale similar to the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Spearheading the plan is The Point, a non-profit society comprised of local artists intent on developing a more secure and diverse arts community in Whistler.

"It's as grassroots as it gets - we are the ones who know what the creative artists need in this town, and we're the ones with the passion, the know-how and the connections with the artists outside of Whistler, so it's exciting to start something new," said writer Stephen Vogler, who has lived on the land in question for 17 years.

"The (Whistler) Arts Council has been around for 27 years and they do a great job with what they do - bringing a lot of art and performances into Whistler but this is sort of coming from the creators themselves. When the community gets to a certain point of maturity, I think the artists need to take a bit more autonomy and start building it for themselves."

Currently, the property is used by the Whistler Sailing Association and the houses are rented. The area is slated to become part of the Resort Municipality of Whistler's parks system and for now council hasn't received any other proposals for alternative use.

Before any decisions can be made the RMOW's Park Master Plan, which was last modified in 1996, has to be updated to better define the community and the resort's current needs. A building assessment has been done and upgrades are necessary, but for now the RMOW is focusing on bringing forward a balanced budget.

"We're certainly entertaining any proposals that are put forward and for now we're waiting to find out what the long term plan for the property is," said Jan Jansen, the RMOW's general manager of resort experience.

"We've got some budget challenges and we can't grow those challenges so it's no different than any municipal property, we need to look at it carefully and make sure that we're not creating a greater problem than we already have."

To develop their vision, PARC would need to upgrade the six houses and main lodge on the property, with renovations running from minimal to extensive. The land would remain open to the public and the buildings used for workspaces, galleries, performances, education and artists-in-residence. Income generated from various festivals, a café and rental space would keep the centre in the black.

"That's an important thing for the community, to have that conversation going on between the artists and the public. I think it would be a very popular place for people to go to but the park would be experienced more through the lens of the arts," continued Vogler. "Ultimately we'd like to lease it for a dollar per year, that would be the ideal situation, but whatever the arrangement is, the goal is to make it self-sustaining."

This early in the process, supporters are still hashing out how to prove the viability of an arts centre away from the village. One of the short-term ideas being considered is a summer arts festival to show the municipality that the demand for cultural tourism and support for local arts is there.

Metal artist Christina Nick, who sits on The Point's board of directors, says the prohibitive prices of studio space makes Whistler a difficult place to do business. She moved to Squamish when she couldn't find a reasonably priced space to work, though she would prefer to live and work in Whistler.

"I feel like I can't come back, it's as if the doors are closed to me now. I have a real connection to this place," said Nick, a former director of the Whistler Arts Council who started Whistler's Artrageous in 1992.

"I'm unable to come back here and work so it's definitely frustrating for me and that's why The Point would be important to me, because I could live and work - I could be one of their artists in residents, which would make my day."

Nick said she'd like to see the RMOW get behind the rhetoric that promotes Whistler's cultural scene. Without some kind of improved commitment from the municipality, she feels it will be an impossible place for artists to live and work.

"Ever since I've been here the municipality has touted Whistler as a cultural place but the reality for artists is that there is not really a cultural community because there is nowhere for artists to get together to exchange ideas, to work in an open studio type of atmosphere," she said. "Either way they have to pay for that property. We're not going to be a huge drain financially. We won't be making them gobs of money but we will be answering the call they have to create a cultural identity. There you go, on a platter."

To get Whistler authorities on board, Point members have to build a business plan, further develop their proposal and submit it to council. A potential obstacle is the perception that PARC will compete with Whistler's carefully crafted village scene, which is designed to allow a free flow of pedestrian traffic and move people out of their cars. Whistler Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Scott Carrell thinks any development surrounding the arts should take place within walking distance of the village.

"The number one rule of selling things is: number one - location, number two - location, and number three - location. And I just think it's too remote of a location," he said.

"I think it's better for those products to be in the village. We need to find ways to keep the community in the village and this would do exactly the opposite."