feature 446 

Housing culture Culture may define a community, but it needs more than a refrigerator to fully develop By Stewart Glen Culture... Please define. A real poser, isn’t it? A riddle wrapped in a conundrum shrouded in enigma and waxed with metaphor. This mysterious, elusive issue requires some immediate attention. Sheriff Barnett has thusly deputized moi. My mission: hit the liquid streets of Whistler and find out if we are doomed to a future of getting our culture from the dairy case of Nesters. Drawing some prominent locals into informal discussions on the subject of culture, I have attempted to ascertain what Whistler’s cultural destiny might be. First stop, Intrawest's Hugh Smythe. Mr. Smythe states that "culture is not recreational but it revolves around the arts, the senses and the mind. A well balanced community needs a strong cultural component to broaden its horizons, its collective thought process." Mr. Smythe also notes that "people choose their respective communities based on that community’s cultural awareness. Similar communities such as Vail and Aspen developed the cultural aspect symbiotically with their recreational pursuits." In Aspen’s case, cultural festivals became the primary attraction after the silver ran out. Taking these thoughts down the hall to Ed Pitoniak, vice president of idea and product acceleration for Intrawest, I strove to discover what the future could bring from the greatest resort builders of modern times. Indeed, Intrawest has a new buzzword that it is looking to apply across the board: "animation." Intrawest hopes to create for its guests "a feeling that is richly sensational and emotional, that will delight all five senses. In providing a variety of experiences we want to achieve an animating spirit and presence." Pitoniak likens the experience to that of going to a party where every detail has been well considered, the lighting, the music, the menu, the entertainment, the conversation... everything. One possibility Intrawest is considering is the building of a multi-use evening facility somewhere mid-mountain. Drawing on the successes of Squaw Valley's High Camp and Vail's Adventure Ridge, such a facility might allow guests to ride a free heated gondola to the midstation venue to enjoy night skiing, skating, tubing, broom ball, dining, tennis, bungee jumping, swimming... you get the idea. One can only hope that some sort of cultural attraction would be part of the plans. Would something like this be an economic viability? In the September ’96 issue of Ski Area Management, Architect Henrik Bull writes: "In the future, this question may be as irrelevant as asking whether snowmaking and grooming make money. Today they are as necessary as lifts and daylodges to attract skiers." A strange Kinsellian voice is calling... "If you build it, they will come." Charged with applying the philosophy is Mike Varrin, general manager of Merlin's and The Wiz. Varrin has distinguished himself as an innovative programmer, as the 300 locals who were part of a certain evening of hypnotism two winters ago will testify. This one, however is a daunting task. Not only does Mike have to figure out how to animate the guests’ total experience, but he is endeavouring to develop new human resource training techniques that will apply the new philosophy to customer service staff. His task would be somewhat simpler if an Adventure Ridge-type facility already existed. However, it is only an idea at present. More to the point, Mike must use existing properties to achieve this Herculean task. It was my feeling that Intrawest would be open to any innovative, creative ideas the community might have knocking about. With this juicy tidbit buoying my step, I drifted over to muni hall to see what Mayor O’Reilly and Councillor Sloan discovered on their recent tour of like communities. As Mr. O'Reilly repeated at the recent council slide presentation, "Art is the heart of Aspen's uniqueness." Aspen has long been known as a destination for the cultural traveller, but it was the Vail Valley's burgeoning cultural scene Councillor Sloan — who has what might be referred to as the Arts and Culture portfolio — was blown away by. Would you believe that Beaver Creek — slogan: "Our market is not the rich, it’s the filthy rich." — has a new performing arts centre. A philanthropist by the name of Harris donated $3 million and his name to the new $25 million centre. The balance of the funding came from an $18 million endowment campaign. And (horror of horrors) a homeowners tax raised an additional $8 million to get the ball rolling on a very generous operating budget. The new facility boasts a 518-seat theatre, a 2,250 square foot art gallery, an underground skating rink (hmmmm?) and of course, the obligatory transit loop. All this in a resort that already lays claim to the 1,600 seat Ford (Gerald, not Henry) Amphitheatre and the exquisite Ford (Betty, not Gerry) Alpine Gardens. As well, The Vail Valley Foundation hosts Bravo Colorado, an annual music festival with over 60 evenings of programming, and the Vail International Dance Festival with its exclusive North American satellite school for The Bolshoi Ballet Academy of Moscow. Wow. By realizing from the get-go that a cultural foundation was imperative to the resort’s destiny, Vail, Aspen, Taos, et al have been able to attract a demographic of guest that Whistler hasn’t... yet. I refer to the 45 year-plus patron who travels more for cultural enlightenment than physical pleasures. Among such personages lie the aforementioned philanthropist, the guest who has a bigger buck and requires a greater bang for it. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the economic and spiritual benefits of a resort with high culture as one of its commodities. Why is it not working in Whistler? For an answer to this, I called on the various existing arts groups currently involved in Whistler’s cultural destiny. First stop, the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts... No answer. The Centre has closed. Too bad! I was curious about their association with tobacco sponsorships... but that’s for another article. Down to fashionable Function Junction to track down Whistler Players’ head thespian Linda Marshall to discover what’s on tap for this season. "Unfortunately," Miss Marshall bemoans, "due to a lack of an operable venue, The Players are not planning anything for the upcoming season." Back uptown to the over-crowded stacks at the Whistler Public Library and an interview with noted bibliophile Joan Richoz. As chair of the Whistler Community Arts Council, Joan and friends have indeed been bringing quality entertainment to Whistler for many years, and continue to expand their programming. The WCAC has a variety of nine events planned for this season. Surely we want more. Joan informs me that without a venue, a visionary and vast amounts of funding, Whistler will idle in its cultural complacency. All right, I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist. Whistler needs a venue. What about the Gondola Barn? Mr. Smythe? "Great idea, unfortunately, the real estate value of the site has forced us into deciding to remove the structure next season. If Whistler is to pursue a cultural agenda, it must have champions, not only corporate and philanthropic sponsors, but visionaries through which the community may express itself. That said, Art cannot be solely reliant on outside funding. Art has a responsibility to support itself." Ouch! Art supporting itself. I’m conjuring up images of Ichi-ban, The Musical and The PB&J Art Gallery. However, he’s right. With decreasing funding from the public sector and corporate traps such as Bill C71, funding for the arts is getting harder and harder to find. But I firmly believe that art in Whistler can indeed find support. Whistler has what I refer to as Trapped Audience Syndrome. Think of the resort as a big cruise ship. The "cruiser" of the high seas has a veritable cornucopia of culture to chose from. If Whistler had continuous cultural activities to offer its guests, they would support said activities simply due to a lack of interesting options for an evening’s entertainment. But without a venue and an artistic visionary to pursue a cultural mandate, Whistler will wallow in cultural obscurity. Back to the muni. Mr. O’Reilly, Whistler wants and needs a venue for its cultural destiny to actualize. Is the muni planning anything? " Council has, for the past eight months, been working on a five-year plan for the community. It differs from the OCP in as much as the OCP is a guideline for growth, this is a blueprint for the future. We hope to complete the study very soon." This, along with the much vaunted, long awaited Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts’ study should provide some interesting reading. But what about the doing, the creating, the self actualizing of the community and the local artist. What can be done now? Is there no one in this valley who can soothe the savage beast that is my artistic soul? Enter the voice of reason, the calm in the eye of the tempest, the guru of Whistler festivals, Maureen Douglas, of the Whistler Resort Association’s Festivals department. "If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. Artists have to find ways to prove themselves. Don’t complain about what you don’t have. Do something with what you do have. Grassroots beginnings, then grow and blossom. Whistler is like a gifted child with unlimited possibilities, just get out there and do it. How can you make concessions with nothing to concede? A logical progression would be to meet with all artists in Whistler and find out their needs. Draft a proposal and take it to the big three (Intrawest, RMOW, WRA) and get a commitment of support, then market the opportunities, all the opportunities, to the community." There it is in a nutshell. Whistler needs the support of Whistler. Will you be satisfied to be known solely as the raddest ski resort at the end of the gnarliest highway in North America, or do you want Whistler to also be known as a cultural Mecca for the cream of Canadian artists playing on the world’s stage? One is only limited by one’s imagination. Come on Whistler... Imagine! Are there champions in our valley who will stand up and actively support a cultural destiny? If so, get together and do something, anything, just take action... save the gondola barn, write letters to the editor, show the powers that be that it really does matter. PARTICIPATE. It is clear that the wise path to our future must be culturally motivated, if not for the sake of the extra (empty) restaurant seats and hotel rooms, for our soul. What is the definition of community? A community defines itself by its culture. What is the definition of culture? Community.


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