May 31, 2012 Features & Images » Feature Story

Imagine a world without art 

Celebrating 30 years of Whistler Arts Council doing the opposite

Imagine a world without art. Really.

Stop and think: what would life be like with no music; no songs or stories; no poetry, no paintings. No graffiti, no tattoos, no puppets or plays. No photography or symphonies; no anime or animation. No fairy houses in your garden. No cool art on your snowboard or skateboard.

Even this newsmagazine combines many arts — literary, visual, graphic, digital — so it wouldn't be here either. At least not in the form it's in.

But this is too depressing! So grab a glass, pour your best tipple and toast the Whistler Arts Council as it celebrates 30 years of doing just the opposite — growing, sponsoring, developing, enhancing and generally adding arts and culture in their myriad forms deep into the heart of Whistler.

It was a dark and stormy night... Honestly, it was! A grim January night, 1982, and thanks to a pineapple express, rain — not snow — was pelting the windows of the Whistler Question office in Village Square.

I'd come to Whistler as a reporter for the Question and ended up buying the newspaper. Part of that meant sitting at my desk piddling away at something or other hours after everyone else had gone home. It struck me that night that no matter how special Whistler was, I so missed the arts that had always been part of my life.

It also struck me that an arts council — a good, inspired one that embraced the community and had the community embrace it — would be just what the doctor ordered for injecting arts and culture into this amazing place called Whistler. A good arts council could help amuse, entertain, challenge; give artists a place and a voice, and maybe even a little income. It could also give visitors pleasure and enjoyment, and help counter the empty hotel rooms, the empty bar stools that make running a business a challenge in any resort town where vagaries like the weather can make or break dreams.

Not that there were no signs of art. There were, albeit fleeting ones. After all, hippie jocks — the "hippie" part threading from the hipsters and beats, the beats from the bohemians, and on through the epochs of modernism — were the rightful colonizers of contemporary, post-Rainbow Lodge Whistler, channeling the spiritualism and "otherness" inherent in mountain places.

In the 1960s and '70s, ski bum/artists would be working away in their little cabins and squats painting, potting, carving, writing — doing their own thing. Jenny and Nello Busdon would put together a drama group that did live theatre. Little restaurants would display local art, maybe even Whistler's first nude study, Chris Speedie's infamous Toad Hall photo featuring a row of 20-something skiers — some upside down, all cheerfully naked.

But the efforts weren't sustained.

Maybe an arts council could help. And 30 years later, I'd have to say it has — in glorious, multi-hued spades.

So what is an arts council — what does it do?

"That's a very large question, but essentially an arts council is to promote and expand the availability of the arts in a given community," says Jeremy Long, former executive director for British Columbia Arts Council who also ran his own theatre company, the popular Tamanhous Theatre.

According to Long, outside of major cities community arts councils play two key roles. They're the main contacts for touring groups like Tamanhous. They also extend art throughout the province while keeping larger umbrella cultural organizations like BC Arts Council — the provincial funding agency for the arts — in touch with what's happening on the ground, ensuring support for the arts gets to where it belongs.

But there are arts councils and there are arts councils. In some cases, they become little fiefdoms — insular and defensive.

"What happens sometimes is a very small group of people take control and they cease to be open, and that's when they run into trouble," Long says.

But Whistler Arts Council (WAC) is the polar opposite.

"In my opinion, it's definitely one of the best and that comes down to the people involved," he says.

Ask three key Whistlerites — mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden; Barrett Fisher, president and CEO of Tourism Whistler; and John Rae, who handles strategic alliances for the municipality — what makes Whistler Arts Council such a positive partner to work with, and they all say "the people."

You can count my vote there, too. Building a community is an exercise in creativity. Much like good theatre, timing is everything. Whistler circa 1982 was virtually a blank slate — a tabula rasa, as they say in cultural theory. Everything needed to be done. Certainly the arts council could have foundered, but it not only stuck — it flourished. And all because of the people.

Starting with no money but a handful of determined, starry-eyed souls who first gathered in a meeting room donated by the Delta Hotel (hotels, restaurants and other businesses have been generous partners in the arts council's success, donating everything from free rooms and dinner for touring dancers to paints for children's workshops), Whistler Arts Council has evolved into a dynamo.

In 2011 alone, some 72,000 people attended WAC-produced events, and that doesn't include the village street entertainment it also organizes.

These days the arts council operates with an annual budget of $1.4 million, 40 per cent of which are grants; nine full-time talented employees; a powerhouse board of directors; and more than 250 active members. It runs numerous arts-based spaces, including Maurice Young Millennium Place, and organizes a roster of festivals and events that makes larger centres enviously green, or some such colour. (See Putting art into Whistler's heART.)

Since the Resort Municipality of Whistler designated it as the community's umbrella arts organization in the 2001 Whistler Arts Plan, the arts council has taken the leading role in arts advocacy and community cultural development while working with key players like the municipality and Tourism Whistler as well as other local arts and cultural organizations. It's newest role: leading the community's comprehensive cultural plan.

"Whistler is a model for arts councils because we've been so successful in building partnerships," says Joan Richoz, the arts council's dynamic chair, who first got involved in 1983 doing calligraphy for Children's Art Festival posters. Later, she picked up the torch to build and run Whistler's library — a concept first bounced around the arts council table — and served on Arts BC's board, currently as president.

"One of the biggest challenges that arts organizations and, really, any organization has is creating those partnerships, especially in small towns where there is often so much competition and territorialism."

Partnerships — and future success — have been further solidified by including important stakeholders as directors. This includes Tourism Whistler's Barrett Fisher as well as Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who, after years of involvement with the arts council and its events, including as a previous director, appointed herself to the board even after she was elected mayor.

"It's important to me to be there," she said by phone while attending a mayoral conference in Penticton. "I think culture is really coming into the mainstream in Whistler. We've seen with the economic recession that we need to do some economic diversification and I see cultural tourism as doing that."

Cultural tourism is definitely on the radar screen, which has further implications for WAC.

"It [cultural tourism] is an important piece in the overall fabric of what we promote," says Fisher. "Whistler has been known as a sport tourism destination, but more and more feedback that comes from our guests highlights the importance of the cultural component... Certainly the arts council can take a leadership role in all this."

A concerted team effort between the municipality and the arts council was instrumental to Whistler's designation as a Cultural Capital of Canada in 2009. But it was the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games that really put the arts council — and many local artists — front and centre.

After seven years of successfully producing Celebration 2010 each February to herald the winter Olympics, the arts council entered a whole new league as co-producer of Whistler Live! — a $7-million program of live events featuring five per cent First Nations and 20 per cent local artists that was the cultural showpiece of the Olympics at Whistler.

"That was a key moment for the key players in the community. Not the community itself, but the people with power and money recognized that the arts council was a strategic partner and delivers on professional programming.

"We are going to do this event — it looks good, it's awesome. Boom! We're done," says the arts council's executive director of 10 years, Doti Niedermayer. She, too, has been instrumental in pushing the arts council from its grassroots foundation to new professional heights by harnessing her storied background with the likes of West Kootenay Regional Arts Council, Theatre BC and Artropolis.

All this in 30 years, and more, from the people — the creative, generous, open-minded, talented, dedicated, sometimes-outrageous arts council people, who, until the late 1990s when the first paid staff person was hired, were strictly volunteers.

Did I mention hard-working? Volunteers have had to build stages for performances, then take them down at the end of the night; hang art and lighting; sell tickets; silkscreen posters; serve wine; greet guests; then pick up garbage and mop the floors at the end of the show.

"I remember we'd all take a phone list and we'd each call 20 people to remind them to come out to events," says Tamsin Miller. She brought her storied past with a big theatrical agency in London, England, to the Performance Series for 11 years, twice earning the honour as "presenter of the year" from the BC Touring Council.

Besides performing artists of all stripes, from Day One the arts council also supported visual artists by exhibiting their work and selling it. In fact, the first arts council initiative in 1982, only one month after starting up, was a show and sale featuring 17 local artists.

Local artist and DJ, Chili Thom, who now enjoys an international following, credits his breakthrough to the arts council's annual art exhibit and extravaganza, ARTrageous.

"I began painting in 1998... then I had my first big break at ARTrageous in 2001. I sold a massive piece and got put on the radar of the art scene in Whistler after that," he says. Now he's been a member of the arts council for 12 years, and "can't say enough about all the hard work and opportunities they have created for artists in this town."

Arts council initiatives have also given a boost to seasoned local artists like painter Isobel MacLaurin and artist-potter Vincent Massey, whose distinctive work has graced Whistler and beyond for a combined total of 80 years.

"It was grand!" says MacLaurin, who's been painting from the family cabin on the shores of Alta Lake since the '60s. "Always I've sold several [paintings] at each show. It gives me a lovely satisfaction that someone loves what I have done enough to buy it," she says.

"For me it's exposure — that I am a local artist and I have my home-based gallery here," says Massey, who's been involved with the arts council for years, including selling his unique stoneware at Bizarre Bazaar. He also teaches adult classes, which have recently "exploded."

"I teach at least one workshop a month year-round now and a lot of that has come out of the arts council," he says. "So that's one really great thing the arts council has done for me as an artist, and for a lot of other people as well."

Another important arts council role has been the distribution of member group grants on behalf of BC Arts Council to groups such as Whistler Readers and Writers Festival. It also gives out bursaries for summer art camps and art awards to local elementary and high school grads.

Nineteen-year-old Devin White — who at age 16 was the youngest participant ever in ArtWalk — is on his way this fall to BCIT's graphic design and web layout program. Last year he was honoured with the award for best art student graduating from Whistler Secondary School.

"I was happy — I was very surprised," he says about receiving the award. "There are tons of good artists in the school, and it was always fun to be in the art room with them, creating," he says.

Enriching young people's development through the arts has always been a primary arts council goal. Witness its first signature festival — the Children's Art Festival with its popular hands-on workshops.

"Early creative development is a key part of a child's development and the entire community plays a part in enhancing those opportunities," says Sharon Broatch Myrtle Philip Community School principal and a very active supporter of the arts and arts council since arriving in Whistler in the early '80s.

In fact it was a Myrtle Phillip School teacher, Margaret Long, who brought the idea of a kids' festival focused on hands-on visual, literary and performing arts workshops to the arts council table.

"My daughter Heather was three and I'd been looking at the Vancouver Children's Festival. At the time it wasn't really hands-on — it was all about performances and I thought, we could do one where the focus was on the kids doing things, rather than just watching."

Thirty years and thousands of happy kids later, the festival is still going strong, ironically now attracting families from the Lower Mainland.

Here's the coda: Like most creative ventures, the arts council is a work in progress.

What will it look like 30 years from now — what will it be doing? Who knows? Given it's based on the arts, though, its only limitation is the human imagination.

No doubt the people involved in the arts council will continue to be its biggest asset, and I say thank goodness they continue to dream.

Richoz imagines the day when Whistler will have its own public art gallery; Niedermayer dreams of a time when the community fully understands the importance of arts and culture.

Maybe their dreams will also come true... one dark and stormy night.

What does the arts council mean to you?

"WAC has introduced an important element into the culture of Whistler. Born as a resort valuing mostly sports and lifestyle, the arts council has been integral to developing a respect for and a love of art in the community — community being the important word here. Whistlerites now see the value of celebrating and honouring our art and culture, and the mind-stretching shift in how we perceive others and ourselves is a gift for which we can all be thankful. Happy birthday, WAC! Continue on your wac-ky ways!"

— Leanna Rathkelly, professional photographer and former arts council board member, exhibitor and long-time volunteer as teacher, ticket taker, cleaner-upper, and general helper

"I love playing Whistler! In small towns, you always have a lot of locals but Whistler has an international audience — it's nice. Lovely theatre, too. And the Whistler Arts Council is really one of the best from our point of view. They do what they say they are going to do, and do it efficiently with lots of keenness there."

— Lorne Elliott, Canada's best-loved comedian who's played Whistler's Performance Series many times

"I just love entertainment, period. It makes me laugh, or there's music, and they [the arts council] usually have a really good selection. I grew up with all that with my parents back home in Toronto. We did the symphony, the ballet, the art gallery — all that sort of stuff so I just keep that going! I enjoy the arts so I gladly go and buy tickets and help them out. If nobody goes, they aren't going to come back."

— Lesley Byford, Peak Performance massage therapist

"That grant money has made a huge difference in terms of the workshops that we could put on. Basically, the group grants make it possible for us to charge less so the workshops are more accessible to way more people who want to do them."

— Laurie MacCallum, co-founder of Whistler Pottery Club, which has received four member group grants distributed by WAC

"During the summer I'm part of the Whistler Farmer's Market. Their primary audience is tourists; secondary audience, for the artisans anyway, is locals. Bizarre Bazaar is exactly the reverse. A lot of locals will have been coming by my table all summer long, but they'll come to Bizarre Bazaar to talk about what I do and they'll buy something that perhaps they've had their eye on. So it's a terrific way to connect."

— Linda Davies, glass bead maker & jeweller extraordinaire who's been selling her wares for years at Bizarre Bazaar

"The festival is organized by a few volunteers. Alone and even with a clear and unwavering vision, we would never have been able to grow the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival without the assistance and support of groups like the Whistler Arts Council."

— Stella Harvey, founder, Whistler Writers Group & director, Whistler Readers and Writers Festival

 

A day in the life of the arts council: Behind the scenes at ArtWalk

"First we do the call for entry and receive all those submissions, then we jury the artists. Usually we get 80 to 100 submissions for ArtWalk and we have to boil that down. A jury does the first run. From there it goes through to the venues. Usually we have 40 to 50 venues all over Whistler and, basically, we go around on foot to all of them to discuss ArtWalk and see if they'd like to participate. They get to select the artists. Depending on the genre or type of artwork they want, we send them jpegs from anywhere from four to 15 artists. Once we get all the images back, we work with a designer to create the brochure — we print 6,000 each year. Then we have the opening night reception. We hire musicians, there's roving entertainment, and we definitely like to promote the visual arts so we do artists' demonstrations. We have to set up all the tents, all the technical requirements, and all the tents and easels for the artists. We also have to do bios and labels for every single artist and every single art piece. We also work with the library, the museum and the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, who put on activities as well, and we have to make sure everything is coordinated and running on time. The Function Junction Block pARTy is a little more eclectic — there we have a little more flexibility. Also, the guided tours get organized and this year we're delivering little red flags for each venue, plus we have to deliver all the water and wine for the reception. We also handle all the art sales for the artists — so that means processing the sales, packaging the artwork if it needs to be shipped and delivering it on time."

— Andrea Mueller, artist & Whistler Arts Council visual arts programmer

Three good reasons to grow arts & culture

Sea to Sky corridor's cultural sector generates $16.5 million annually, employs 650 people and spends $12.2 million locally.

— Economic Impact Assessment and Strategy for Arts, Culture & Heritage

Eighty-five per cent of parents believe their children's creativity is improved by arts programs.

— Ipsos-Reid Research for the Department of Canadian Heritage, 2002

Twice as many Canadians attend live arts events, as do sporting events.

— Statistics Canada

Putting art into Whistler's heART

From teaching kids how to dance or draw a raccoon at the Children's Art Festival to the annual extravaganza, ARTageous, WAC's signature events are stars. For more details visit www.artswhistler.com.

ARTrageous

One month after starting up in 1982, Whistler Arts Council staged its first event — an art exhibit and sale featuring 17 local artists. ARTrageous builds on that with flair.

Whistler Children's Art Festival

Whistler's longest running festival features artists and performers sharing their skills with kids and families in hands-on workshops and free performances.

Performance Series

In 1983, the arts council organized its first performance featuring Karen Jamieson and the Terminal City Dance Company. Always affordable, the series has grown to 8–12 presentations annually.

Bizarre Bazaar

The best pre-Christmas bazaar you've ever seen, with 100+ artists and artisans from the corridor.

ArtWalk

This free summer exhibit of more than 50 local artists is staged in unexpected venues throughout the village and Function Junction. Grab your map for a self-guided tour!

Out of Bounds: Tales from the Backcountry

Sport meets art and pros meet amateur photographers in this photo exhibit and competition featuring skiing and snowboarding in B.C.'s backcountry.

Whistler Art Workshops on the Lake

These popular visual art workshops taught by professional artists from across Canada are held in a heritage house on beautiful Alta Lake.

Sound exciting? It is! Want to get involved? You can! Dial up 604-935-8410 or visit artswhistler.com and become one of those amazing people who make Whistler Arts Council tick.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who has worked on a variety of arts and cultural initiatives in B.C. centres, large and small, over the past 40 years.

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