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Chipping Away at Vancouver’s Affordable Art Spaces

A recent spat between a billionaire and renovicted artists reveals two very different cultural views of the city.

Dorothy Woodend 22 Aug

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture editor. Reach her here.

Artists move into a neighbourhood because it’s cheap. Painters and sculptors need studio space to muck about with clay and paint. Musicians require places to practise where their guitar noodling and drum solos won’t upset the neighbours. Dancers need room so they don’t bonk their heads on the ceiling when jumping around.

These kinds of spaces are increasingly few and far between in Vancouver.

Anyone who has worked in the arts in this city, whether they’re a practising artist, festival organizer, or gallery owner knows that affordable space has long been an issue. But things have reached a strange apotheosis when renovicted artists confront developers on their own doorsteps.

A recent altercation between Chip Wilson and artists who say they’ve been displaced by the billionaire’s recent acquisition of property in Vancouver provided a curious window into two different cultural views of the city.

Wilson, the founder of Lululemon athletica, occasional commentator on the shape and size of women’s bodies, and apparent fan of erections is no stranger to controversy.

Leaving aside the fact that the man is apt to cram his foot in his mouth the moment he speaks, a little snippet captured on Global TV opened up a telling debate about the struggle between the cultural community and wealthy people with ambitions to run the city.

When protesters whose livelihoods had been directly affected asked Wilson about his apparent habit of buying up properties and pricing out artists, the exchange quickly settled into a rote repetition of a wealthy person’s sense of victimization and the age-old notion that if the art created was any good, the artists would be successful and able to stay put.

Wilson and his company Low Tide Properties have reportedly been responsible for a number of different organizations being forced to relocate or shutter their doors in the last two years. It’s not only community arts groups that have been affected, according to the protest organizers, but also non-profits and charities such as the Network of Inner City Community Services Society.

A great many people have had enough. Artists, like everyone else, need to work, pay the bills and find a way to live. The fact that they do so in the teeth of an insanely expensive city like Vancouver is nothing short of heroic, but people get old, worn-out and exhausted. They also get angry.

Nathan Drillot, one of the organizers of the Rave Against Renovictions that took place outside Wilson’s $73.1-million house on Point Grey Road in Vancouver had his own experience with Low Tide Properties.

When Low Tide purchased the building that housed Index, an artist-run studio/performance space located at 1305 Powell St., from the original owner 2.5 years ago, Drillot, who helped run the space, says things began to sour almost immediately. Although Index was small it played a critical role, hosting community events, electronic music shows and DJ performances.

As reported by the Vancouver Sun, Drillot says that Low Tide negotiated a lease but later refused to sign it and served him notice earlier this year. The Sun also reported that the Red Gate Arts Society, formerly located on East Hastings, was evicted by Low Tide last year.

The Index experience was not unusual, Drillot points out. “The original owner wanted to support the arts, but when Low Tide came on board, everything changed. We knew their history of renovicting people, so we were very apprehensive about a company that had paid $10 million for a building.”

“The arts are often the canary in the coal mine,” Drillot says, noting that things are reaching an affordability crisis point when a derelict warehouse on Vancouver’s east side is worth millions of dollars.

Fellow protest organizer Tascha Speck (a volunteer with the Vancouver Tenants Union) was inspired to action after the loss of Index and its sister space Merge. “We’re short on spaces in Vancouver. It was a huge loss to the community.”

Speck says that Wilson has been allowed to act with impunity with little consequences for his actions. Part of her intention in organizing the protest was to make the story public and visible, “to create a larger conversation and bring more marginalized voices to the table.”

There is courage and strength in numbers. But numbers are what the entire thing seems to be about.

Low Tide Properties has set its sights on acquiring $1.5 billion worth of property in Vancouver by 2026. What’s the aim of this concentrated expenditure? As Speck notes during our conversation, Wilson is already a billionaire, and how much money does one person really need?

Jim Carrico, director of the Red Gate Arts Society, has been around for a while and watched this story unfold time and time again. Red Gate, previously renovicted by Low Tide and now located at 1965 Main St. (and also operating the Revue Stage on Granville Island), is “a cultural wildlife refuge,” says Carrico. Its primary mandate is “to provide affordable workspace (studio, rehearsal etc.) for artists and musicians, along with exhibition and performance space.”

Carrico has managed cultural spaces in Vancouver, mostly in the Downtown Eastside, for more than 30 years. Red Gate was among the first organizations in Vancouver to advocate and fight on a political level to protect the important but little recognized ecosystem of affordable cultural spaces.

Despite some support from the city the rents keep going up, hard and fast, thanks in part to rampant speculation. But the worst part is the perception that it’s the artists themselves who are to blame for the situation.

“It’s pretty galling to hear Chip Wilson berate us for ‘not having a product enough people want to buy’ when we’ve been doubling and redoubling our revenues and activities without benefit to ourselves, but 100 per cent to the benefit of property owners, for decades,” Carrico said.

851px version of Photo1.Artists-Against-Chip-Wilson.jpg
‘The arts are often the canary in the coal mine.’ Photo submitted by Tascha Speck.

Artists are often at the vanguard of terraforming tough neighbourhoods into more desirable locales, a form of cultural coral reef, slowly accreting coolness and cachet until bigger fish are attracted — restaurants, coffee bars, boutiques — and then finally the larger predators.

Developers smell profit in the water, boot out the original residents, tear down the cheap old haunts, and build condominiums in their place, some of which make nodding acknowledgment to what preceded them with titles and names carefully chosen by teams of marketing consultants.

As others have noted, many of Low Tide’s recent acquisitions have been on the east side of the city, the only direction in which development can continue to happen. Low Tide’s spending splurge may place them in a decidedly powerful position going forward. The fact that it has reaped the benefits of artists transforming neighbourhoods and repaid them with rental increases and renovictions is simply gross.

As Carrico from Red Gate Arts says, the process is ultimately self-defeating.

“The really pathetic aspect of all of this is that so many hard-nosed business types like Chip Wilson make their fortunes by identifying cultural trends once they have grown to a sufficient size that they form a new economic niche, and targeting their products accordingly, and yet they have absolutely no understanding of how, where, and why these cultural trends come into existence in the first place. So, by eliminating all possibilities for spontaneous experiments and new ideas to take shape, they are also destroying their own future prospects for exploiting these developments, through their own greedy short-sightedness and willful, selfish ignorance.”

Cultural incubators such as Red Gate, Index and Merge create a flourishing ecosystem, and young artists develop their craft and their work there, going on to make great work. It’s small and weird, but critical. It reminds me of Brian Eno’s old quote about the Velvet Underground’s first album selling only 30,000 copies: “Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

So what happens to a city when artists don’t live there anymore? Does it become a barren corporate space where nothing can grow, like a bleached coral reef?

When I asked Carrico about where he sees things going, his answer was grim. “In the absence of a serious and concerted effort by all levels of government, the last vestiges of genuine home-grown emerging and experimental culture will be forced out of the city within a few years. It’s hard to even imagine at this point how the trends might be reversed, short of a major ‘correction’ in the local real estate market and maybe prison terms for money launderers...”

Writing on this topic, I was recently reminded of Dennis Hopper’s acidic take on family values, the film Out of the Blue. It was shot in Vancouver in the early 1980s and is currently being restored to its former glory. One of the most infamous scenes was shot at a Pointed Sticks show at the Viking Hall on East Hastings.

In 2006, the Old Viking Hall was purchased by none other than Chip Wilson.

Maybe one day soon it will host a new condominium development with a name like Punk Place, where units start at $1 million.  [Tyee]

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