'Whistler doesn't want to recreate an urban cultural experience' 

Arts Whistler's new executive director Maureen Douglas talks about her vision for the future

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO - CREATIVE NATURE Maureen Douglas, executive director of Arts Whistler, at the recent rebranding and renaming of the Whistler Arts Council.
  • File Photo
  • CREATIVE NATURE Maureen Douglas, executive director of Arts Whistler, at the recent rebranding and renaming of the Whistler Arts Council.

When Arts Whistler (AW) appointed Maureen Douglas its new executive director, it was not bringing in an outsider.

Douglas was the former communications and community relations director at the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic Winter and Paralympic Games (VANOC) and previously spent almost a decade at Tourism Whistler as director of festivals and events.

In February, she began overseeing Arts Whistler following the departure of longtime head Doti Niedermayer.

Douglas had no intention of doing more than acting as caretaker until a new executive director was found, but as AW's board chairman Heather Paul says, "Mo fell in love with the job."

Pique caught up with Douglas as she made her new role official.

Pique: Congratulations on your appointment. Feeling good?

Maureen Douglas: My colleague Andrea Mueller observed that I had been in several meetings talking about the future and changes (before her appointment). Andrea thought 'What is she doing? What is she talking about? She's going to change everything and then leave!' After the announcement, I was talking to her about something that looks forward into the future and I realized 'Wow, I am going to be here to do this.' It felt different. When you live with somebody and then get married, does it feel different? It kind of does.

Pique: Was there a moment you became emotionally invested? Or was it gradual?

MD: I think it was in the first few weeks. Doti left just as we were starting a new five-year plan. We knew we were opening a door on the next chapter. Being able to be part of that for a few months was exciting. And then the Canadian Heritage funding came through ($489,500 to go towards the development of cultural itineraries in Whistler) and that was even more exciting. Like anything in arts and culture, it can't be more fun than when you have the resources you need to fulfill the goals and the vision. We're in that place right now.

One of the things we'll work on is how we expand the arts but also help it be stronger and more resilient in terms of revenue. There are other pockets of money, like Heritage Canada's. Our development officer is finding new opportunities that we can take a look at, both for Arts Whistler and the wider community.

It is fun to be a part of something that doesn't just strengthen what we're doing, but shares resources and intelligence with other folks who don't have the same time.

I've been excited about this, and every day for me was about how much more I could do before I go, for a long time — and then it became, 'How much more can I do if I stay?'

Pique: What's next?

MD: Fall For Arts is next. We're joking that we have ski season, we have summer season, and we're going to have Fall For Arts. It's culture season in Whistler in the fall, and what a perfect time. A lot of what we do is not weather dependent, but you can still have an amazing experience.

We will have the opportunity for people to move around and then get inside. They can check out venues along the Cultural Connector (the new Whistler path connecting key arts venues) and also take in ArtWalk. Visitors can be part of all the festivals that happen — from things like the beer festival, where we want to inject arts and crafts (as in beer).

Whistler is such a sports and recreation and adrenalin-filled community. But it's almost as scary that first time you put a touch of paint to canvas as it is being at the top of your first black diamond (run). For a lot of people, the arts is kind of scary.

Fall For Arts invites people into these great programs. There's Cornucopia, the Writers' Festival... and we'll end off that season with the Whistler Film Festival and Bizarre Bazaar. There are so many things for people to take in.

During the weekends when there currently isn't programming, there will be a lot of opportunities to get your hands dirty.

As well, we want to inject more arts and culture in a participatory sense to other festivals as well.

Pique: Cultural tourism is becoming more important to Whistler. The commitment at the political level is stronger than it ever has been. What are your thoughts?

MD: The timing is so right. The arrival of the Audain helped a lot of people whose context of arts and culture might not be the same as someone who is working in the industry. For many, they're seeing this amazing art museum and incredible collection and they get the importance of that.

Suddenly, it provides more context for what Arts Whistler does or what the Point (Artist-Run Centre) does, or what the festivals, Whistler Museum and Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre do.

Whistler doesn't want to recreate an urban cultural experience because we're not an urban experience. What is going to make Whistler's cultural product that much more unique, as well, is having it reflect who we are and where we are.

Fall For Arts allows Tourism Whistler to sink its teeth into it, too, as a promotion. There is the content they need to promote, and (it has) to be tangible for the people who want to come here.

It also allows people who are doing great work at the grassroots level to be part of that experience. The Point has a couple of events that are happening through Fall For Arts as well. It's a chance to get our experiences in front of more eyes.

Planting the seed through the market dollars Tourism Whistler has through the Heritage Canada grant and how they leveraged it with Destination BC and Destination Canada (raising more funding support from those bodies), is going to make a strong impression that there is this whole other sector to discover in Whistler.

Between (Whislter Blackcomb's) Renaissance project and the Vail Resorts purchase of Whistler Blackcomb (Holdings) and this — cultural strength building in Whistler — we're on the radar in terms of what is new and fresh. We never stay the same too long and that will serve this community far into its future.

Pique: In your work with VANOC and Tourism Whistler you've established strong connections with federal, provincial and local governments. How do you see using that?

MD: There is something about that project — the Winter Games — you end up with great relationships. Happy ones built out of success. So when I call folks from the federal government or within sectors like Canadian Heritage, they are so friendly and positive. They want to help.

Whistler has a reputation for meeting and exceeding commitments we make. We do what we say we're going to do. So they invest in us with faith and trust. There is a certain amount of freedom for us to fulfill what is going to be best for the resort, and ensure that everyone involved has been successful. That kind of trust, to have built that over the course of my career, will absolutely be helpful.

Pique: What do you see as the challenges with the job?

MD: Funding will always be a challenge in the arts. We want to be more ambitious with what we do both in grants and sponsorships. It is simply a reality of the world and needs to be part of a solid growth plan.

The last six or seven months has been a time of transition in Arts Whistler — a bit of growth, a bit of change, a bit of maternity leave. Some job changes have been due to great things like promotions... We wanted to be open longer and we needed to add a front-of-house person so we could do that. One person went across the street to the Audain.

In terms of other challenges, I'm really a glass-full kind of person and I really do see them as opportunities. The spirit of collaboration is something people are really into here. We may be limited by time. We're all full on, but when we do collaborate you see magic. A lot will happen in the coming years.

Pique: At Arts Whistler's AGM earlier this year, some people complained about your 'corporate approach.' What do you say to that?

MD: There has been a little push back on the idea that one of the things we wanted to be was a sort of 'chamber of commerce' for the arts. The way I interpret that is that chambers of commerce are there to help small business, build capacity and be more successful on their own by having a sort of co-operative with shared knowledge and resources.

There are a lot of artists out there who are incredibly talented but the business side... they'd like to earn their living through their art but they're not sure where to start. We want to support those skills. Artists have been asking for those tools.

I'm not a corporate person, but we are in the business of arts and culture. The arts council is in the delivery of arts and to get a bit bigger, you have to get in the business of arts and culture to maintain staying in that business.



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