4 min

Do we need an art plan for Vancouver’s West End?

Queer community has always been deeply interconnected with West End art scene

Avril Orloff created this visual summary of suggestions made at the West End Art Plan’s first workshop in February. Credit: Avril Orloff

I recently had an awkward conversation on the Robson Street bus about an emerging West End Art Plan. A fellow West Ender expressed the view that, while she was sure that “queer art” would be represented in everything the plan proposed, she personally didn’t care for art that felt it needed “labels.” 

“Why should it be ‘queer art’ when art is just art and all art should be valued?”

Well, that’s not an uncommon view outside our community. We’ve all encountered it from time to time, and we’ve all learned by rote the counter argument around heterosexual artistic expression being so omnipresent that nobody even notices.

Queer Arts Festival artistic director SD Holman perhaps had the best response to this sort of soft bigotry in a recent interview, saying (tongue firmly in cheek): “We aren’t opposed to heterosexual art in our community, as long as they don’t flaunt it!”

“No guy-on-girl hand-holding or kissing, no . . .”  — at which point the conversation dissolved into laughter.

Of course art by any minority artists is going to reflect the lives and experiences and dreams, fantasies and fears of those artists. In the West End the queer community and a vibrant art scene have always been deeply interconnected.

“It would take a very concerted effort to deliberately exclude queer arts and artists to have us not involved in any planning for the West End,” Holman also noted.

The West End Art Plan had its beginnings seven years ago when West End resident Satomi Hirano saw something in a report about the arts in Vancouver that stuck with her.

“All the amenities for the arts were in the East Side,” she recalls. “There was hardly anything on the West Side and here I am living in the West End.”

So when Hirano attended one of the open house events leading up to the November 2013 adoption of the West End Community Plan, a 30-year master plan for the neighbourhood, she stood up to ask a question that launched a passionate community conversation.

“What is being done to support arts and culture in the West End?”

Her question caught the ear of Stephen Regan, executive director of the West End Business Improvement Association, who offered to help her open a dialogue with West End businesses and residents about what could be done to support the arts in the area.

After all, the West End is one of Vancouver’s most artful neighbourhoods, with some 4,000 of its 45,000 residents employed in the arts, culture and heritage sector.

Hirano then contacted West End resident John Hewson, who had served for eight years on the Whistler Arts Council, and the pair co-founded WEArts, which describes itself on its website as “a grassroots community group established in 2013, committed to building a strong arts presence and sustainable creative economy in the West End.”

With grants from Gordon Neighbourhood House and the Vancouver Foundation, WEArts has led several arts projects and, since February, has hosted three community forums facilitated by Art For Social Change’s Judith Marcuse. Participants discussed the possibilities for a West End community richer than ever in cultural and artistic endeavours, venues and activities.

The final outcome of these consultations will be a West End Art Plan, to be presented to Vancouver city council this month to hopefully help inform the implementation of the West End Community Plan approved in 2013.

Among the more than 300 individual West Enders who have participated in the process, high priority has been given to the need for a dedicated arts centre (with longing eyes cast in the direction of the vacant Gabriola Mansion on Davie Street), more local business support in the form of pop-up galleries in vacant retail storefronts, greater use of public spaces such as the soon-to-be permanent Bute Street Plaza and the Alexandra Park Bandstand, and affordable studio, rehearsal, and live-work spaces for artists.

The queer community has been well represented throughout the process, with the organizing team meetings taking place directly across the hall from the Queer Arts Festival (QAF) office in Gordon Neighbourhood House, and that group has been involved from the very beginning.

“They were holding their initial meetings in a room right across the hall from our offices in Gordon House”, recalls the festival’s director of operations, Rachel Iwassa, “and one of the first things they did was pop in to see us, tell us what they were up to, and invite us to join the team.”

Since then almost every queer-identified cultural and business organization with a West End presence has had a hand in the process. In addition to Holman, Iwassa, and Landon Krentz of QAF, the Vancouver Pride Society, OUTtv, the Vancouver Men’s Chorus, the LOUD Foundation, and community leaders such as Barb Snelgrove and MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert have all engaged in the discussions.

If adopted to help inform the overall West End Community Plan, there will be a lot more work to be done in making the plan’s vision a reality. From big picture work with city council and various civic government departments to make the necessary event and activity permits and zoning applications happen, to getting individual West End businesses and community organizations all on the same page, and hands-on community organizing to provide the catalyst for numerous initiatives, WEArts seems poised to provide the leadership the community will need.

If the West End Art Plan is embraced, and I hope it will be, it will be a clear signal from city council that the City of Vancouver is ready and willing to work with the community to fill in the spaces between the mushrooming towers of glass and steel with vibrant cultural expressions. 

Clearly the queer community will be in the thick of those expressions, as it always has been where art, business, and life in the West End intersect.