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A deeper arts role for John Rae

Whistler's new manager of cultural planning and development sets out his plans

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In late January, John Rae, the Resort Municipality of Whistler's (RMOW) manager of strategic alliances, changed positions.

More specifically, he augmented much of what he was already doing by taking on the newly created position of manager, cultural planning and development.

"I had a lot of the arts portfolio on my desk because I was working very closely with Arts Whistler and others. We realized that we had moved the arts from being a little tactical exercise to something that is actually a key corporate strategy (for the RMOW)," Rae explains.

"Cultural tourism is a difficult-to-define proposition, and we realized we didn't have someone assigned to it. If we are serious about this, we want to have someone getting up every day with that on the centre of their desk."

The new position is described as leading "the process of advancing Whistler's cultural tourism initiative by working with stakeholders to build capacity in the arts and heritage within the resort community, and by providing opportunities for visitors to experience the uniqueness of Whistler in its entirety."

This means liaising with community stakeholders, Arts Whistler, other RMOW departments, and external organizations to implement recommendations from Whistler's two hallowed arts and culture documents of the future — Whistler's Cultural Tourism Development Strategy (CTDS) and Whistler's Community Cultural Plan (WCCP).

It's a huge job.

Rae spent the first 25 years of his career in advertising and marketing in Toronto. He was drawn to B.C. first by a work assignment, then he was enticed to move to Whistler in 1999 to help with the nascent World Ski and Snowboard Festival.

"It was a very exciting time. I felt very privileged," Rae recalls.

"I got to know this place in 1998 to shoot a commercial and I thought, 'Wow, what a marvellous place. These people are so fortunate to live and work here."

Not long after, hearing a client talking about breaking out of comfort zones led Rae to look at Whistler with different eyes, as a potential home, and he accepted an offer to join what eventually became Resort Communications Group as a partner.

He joined the RMOW in 2002 with the role of developing sources of non-traditional revenue, which evolved into creating entrepreneurial government policy, purchasing the www.whistler.com domain on behalf of the community, and pursuing Whistler's bid as Cultural Capital of Canada in 2009.

"Arts and culture in Whistler at the time was part of something bigger (in terms of his daily work). I had the good fortune to have great working relationships with the Whistler Arts Council, the museum, and any other organization, large or small, that was working in the arts and heritage," Rae says.

"I came to understand it more deeply over the last several years. I largely learned on the job."

Part of this was seeking to create a cultural tourism development strategy and Community Cultural Plan, now in the middle of being implemented, which are considered key to the continued success of the resort.

"(We wanted to see) how we could maybe grow our business through offerings beyond our outdoor recreation product," Rae explains. "Cultural tourism isn't just arts tourism. Cultural tourism is everything we are as a community."

Fast forward to now, with the new position coming out of the need to bring the work of retiring community cultural officer Anne Popma back in-house. Her position was created in 2014 as an answer to the need to place a liaison officer between the various arts authorities and public and private stakeholders. 

Popma's position was part time; Rae now folds her workload into his full-time role.

So what else does he plan to do?

How does exploring a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation sound?"I thought, we're so incredibly unique I bet we could be one for all the reasons that we would champion ourselves. We're an Olympic site, we have incredible biodiversity, our landscape, ancestral lands of two First Nations — there is uniqueness here," Rae says.

He'd also like to explore the idea of a global geopark based on the region's unique topography. There is only one other like it in B.C., at Tumbler Ridge.

And then there is Rae's hope to establish an artist-in-residence program.

"I've been exploring what is being done across the province (Victoria, Richmond, Wells), but we're thinking an artist-in-residence shouldn't be limited to just the arts. There could a curator- or biologist-in-residence, anyone who could help us have a deeper understanding of who we are as a community," he says.

He adds: "We want to be sure we get it right for the community first. We want to be sure there is an ethical, thoughtful and strategic approach to all of the investments we make on behalf of the community.

"One of the great personal hopes I have is that in 15 years' time, the entire community will be individually and collectively curating the entire destination, a community as knowledgeable about winter sports as they are about our biodiversity, or human heritage, or arts."

Community pride will make this succeed, he adds.

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