Vancouver Mass Exodus
Artists are leaving Vancouver and it’s not just to escape Olympic madness. Robert Dayton examines the reasons why
My bags were packed.
I had to leave Vancouver. I wasn’t just hitting the wall, the wall was now hitting back. I couldn’t do it anymore. I had been creating art, music and writing for 16 years in Vancouver hoping to make some sort of break-through, but the DIY nonchalance was smothering me. I loved Vancouver, but in the last couple of years things seemed to be declining. At first I asked myself, “Is it just me?” until I noticed that others around me were asking the same thing. Some had moved, and various artists, writers and musicians had fled Vancouver. But why?
My theory was strengthened as I arrived, fresh from the airport in the autumn of 2008, at The Gladstone Hotel in Toronto where writer Lee Henderson was launching his new book The Man Game. As part of This is Not A Reading Series, which promotes small press books through anything but traditional readings, Henderson invited a collection of artists who had recently vacated Vancouver to help launch his book. Accompanied by Jason Mclean, Keith Jones, Shay Semple, Marc Bell, Dan Siney and-at the very last minute-me, Henderson celebrated his book of fiction that maps out Van-city through the sport of naked wrestling. It was as much celebration as it was frustration.
“By my observation, [Vancouver] has been hemorrhaging artists monthly. Like an open wound, artists who have contributed to the cultural character of the city are flowing away, disgusted by what has taken over the body politic of the city,” Henderson told me. “My hope in moving there was that Vancouver offered a place to live and have a sustainable art practice. [However] the infrastructure of the city isn’t supporting artists very well.”
Henderson thinks the 2010 Olympics are part of the problem. From his perspective there were better things the City could be spending its money on than the Olympics and condo development (a “big, fun parade party”, for example), but the main problem stands that the City doesn’t know how to handle its artists. “I love Vancouver, I moved there because its artists were the best, its music was the best, its ocean and mountains, its spooky climate, its weirdoes… the fact that the City’s infrastructure doesn’t know how to handle that is part of the charm, I guess,” he says.
Despite all the evidence I was seeing and hearing, I wanted to find some hard statistics that the Vancouver artist exodus was real. Unfortunately, the last census from 2006 is much too out of date. Both Richard Newirth, Director of Public Art, Planning and Cultural Services for the City of Vancouver, and Jeremy Long, the executive director of the BC Arts Council, were surprised when I brought up a possible Vancouver arts exodus. “I don’t really know what you’re talking about,” responded Long. He did state that, according to the Media Arts program, there was a whole new batch of media artists that have moved to the West Coast but was unable to get me any exact names by deadline. Nor did any of the new artists that found me through City Hall respond to my interviews. Long further stated, “The request for funding [from artists] continues to go up. The visual arts relationship between Berlin and Vancouver is well documented over the last couple of decades. There has been a steady back-and-forth my whole career.”
Jonathan Middleton, a Vancouver based artist and Director of the Or Gallery says, “I think there is a lot of back and forth, which is actually quite healthy. I don’t think artists should stay put.” Instant Coffee, an arts collective that formed in Toronto and branched out to Vancouver in 2004, also believes that the idea of such an exodus is pure hogwash. Instant Coffee mentioned that in recent times artists Samuel Roy Bois, Kika Thorne, Christine D’Onofrio, Allison Hrabluik and Andrew Pommier have all moved to Vancouver from such places as Montreal, Brussels and Toronto.
Maybe artists aren’t leaving Vancouver en masse; yet almost everyday that I walk down the streets of Toronto I encounter an artist fresh from Vancouver. I hear about artists leaving Vancouver to got to Berlin, New York City, Montreal, Toronto, places where opportunities may better present themselves. I am told that this is natural, and after the recent Gordon Campbell-led cuts to the arts, I can only imagine there will be more departures. From my findings, these artists are usually in their late 20s or older, an age where it seems that many artists would have given a city a fair shot and need to look elsewhere. Will they return?
Vancouver painter and illustrator Mark Pilon was so frustrated by the departure of artists that he wrote a blog entitled “Time to stop Vancouver’s exodus of artists before it’s too late” for the Georgia Straight’s website, where he works as a designer. Pilon recently had a show of 101 Paintings in Chicago and for five years ran a commercial gallery called Moonbase with his wife Jodi. In response to those in the public sector who do not believe that there is an arts exodus he stated, “There are a lot of us who are flying under the arts radar. I have never applied for any sort of arts grants or have had anything to do with the institutional arts or artist-run centres in the city. Moonbase was completely independent. So, if anything, artists like myself are not even in their scopes. They really don’t even know that people like me exist. It’s always been like that and that’s part of the problem.” He feels that art is like a treasure hunt, with most galleries located off the beaten path. However, he’s sure the majority of people have no idea what art events are happening in their city unless they make an effort to find it. “I think galleries that have a sense of retail might invite a person into an exhibition who would not normally do so. Most of the galleries I’ve been showing at in the US are based on that premise and seem to do well without funding. Unless a gallery space is affordable or in a high traffic area there is no hope for something like that getting off the ground here without government assistance.”
Artist Jessica Eaton left Vancouver two years ago to live in Toronto. I spoke with her before her recent move to Montreal. “Vancouver just doesn’t have enough opportunities.” She says since the handful of commercial galleries that exist seem to have only taken five or six people in the last 11 years, there isn’t much to do besides look elsewhere. “There is a huge focus in Vancouver on hyper-academic contextualized work, which is great to be aware of, to experience and to have a feel for. It also can be like a horrible fucking cloud to try to make work under, especially if you’re not interested in playing that game.”
Eaton sees the exodus as a very real thing. The people she knows who stayed in Vancouver and are doing well are those who are pushing for artist-run centres. But one of the biggest problems for artists, says Eaton, is that there are not enough bars for live music in the city. “You need to have dive bars. In Toronto, it’s amazing, there’s a real social element. In Vancouver they’re not just empty because people are in the alley, it’s empty because Vancouver is not a boozy town. If they’re not shooting up, they are in Whistler skiing. A lot happens in the bar. Things happen, ideas come up.”
Eaton used to run the door at the now-defunct Sugar Refinery, a licensed restaurant and live music venue that also showed art and had book launches. She believes the City of Vancouver was behind its closure. According to Eaton, the City took away their kitchen, started enforcing the room capacity (which started comfortably at 75 people and was chopped to 45) and heavily policed bylaws. “Once they started coming in and head counting we couldn’t pay a band touring from the States.” One of the biggest downfalls to Vancouver, says Eaton, is liquor licensing and weird rules. “You can try to [open a bar] in Vancouver but it’s all red tape, specifications, and Grandfather licenses. It’s a nightmare.”
Some live music venues had to go completely underground to get around licensing problems, and by being underground it has created a rather interesting music scene. One space, 1067, specializes in quality improv jazz and The Solder and Sons bookstore occasionally plays host to experimental music concerts. These events are completely DIY. “I miss the music scene in Vancouver, it’s a bit special in that respect,” says Eaton, looking wistful.
The west coast “Psychedooolia” drawing, collage, comics, and mail art movement made up a loose scene in Vancouver, and the physical epicentre of this scene was Lucky’s Comics, a shop with an art gallery in back, which was made possible through the retail space in front. Until recently Lief Hall was the curator, and she also sang for the band Mutators. She has definitely noticed artists leaving Vancouver to establish art careers elsewhere.
“The art and music community here definitely has a DIY attitude, which I like. People do things here because they love to do them, no other reason, and the outcome is incredible,” she says. Speaking about the underground punk no-wave scene in Vancouver, Hall says that Vancouver’s unfortunately now defunct venue the Emergency Room (ER), was pivotal because it was run by people who actually played in the venue and were part of the scene, including her band. “I still think the ER is the best venue I have played and a lot of out-of-town bands who played ER said the same thing,” she says.
Artist and Mutators drummer Justin Gradin, who started the now defunct Emergency Room, hoped that more venues like the ER would pop up after it started because of the response it got, but it didn’t happen.
“At the shows I have done, everyone has been very responsive and supportive, because all these people where waiting for something like this for so long,” he says. “I am bummed at the way ER turned near the end, because it needed a bigger explosion, and the city wouldn’t allow it. I think there are so many good bands in Vancouver because it is miserable, and there is nothing else to do. As far as the industry… I have no idea, they seem to have no clue Vancouver exists.” Since the end of venues such as the ER and Sugar Refinery, other important venues such as The Cobalt and Richards on Richards have closed their doors.
Two days before I left Vancouver, I was in Victory Square Park for the live music “Block Party,” a free event hosted every year by The Only, a Vancouver online magazine (which itself didn’t take place in 2009 because many of the organizers had left Vancouver.) There I was randomly approached for an interview by Melissa James, a filmmaker working on a documentary called No Fun City about Vancouver’s threatened arts community and the lack of music venues. When I asked her what caused her to make this documentary she replied, “When I moved here I was very surprised by how conservative it actually is. I often say it’s like the movie Footloose but the bad guys won.” As James started going out to hear bands and getting more involved she realized that there is a great culture in Vancouver, but it’s under threat. “After a time, I guess people feel like they are powerless and that the best solution would be to relocate. Which is a shame.” In the time she has lived in Vancouver she feels the exodus is down to the small-town quality of the city, which causes artistic types to follow the regular pattern of leaving for bigger cities that have more to offer its artists. In her research for her documentary, which she started in an effort to increase people’s awareness of the problem and to stand up for the arts community in Vancouver, James has come to the conclusion that the lack of venues and artistic opportunity in Vancouver is an intentional situation created by the City in order to keep things under control. “I think the drugs and homelessness problem in Vancouver is so overwhelming that the City’s answer is to isolate that neighbourhood and keep the rest of the population in ‘safe’ areas where they can have a modicum of controlled fun. It definitely makes Vancouver feel like a sterile cultureless place from an outsider’s perspective.”
Despite all of Vancouver’s problems, Henderson still feels Vancouver is the best city in Canada. So he holds out hope that there will be a change. “So long as nobody’s messing with my recession, the city is going to improve by a great deal,” he says. “The Olympics has looted the budget of the city, and we’re in bad debt. Everything is about to get very cheap again, is my hope. Artists live in a perpetual recession. The only time we really do well is when things are cheap, and it’s finally a chance to get a leg up.”
For me, it is time to come to terms with Vancouver. I have to live in the now and not dwell on the past, to move on to what will hopefully be greener pastures. This piece reads like an obsession with something fatalistic, yet I wouldn’t write it if I didn’t care. I have a mild hope for Vancouver. If it blossoms, I could be back.