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Arts in collage

February’s Celebration 2010 showcases Whistler’s arts potential

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A couple of weeks ago the Whistler Arts Council held the second annual Business and the Arts Award luncheon, at the Four Season Resort Whistler. Before presenting the award, which recognizes the invaluable commitment businesses have made to the arts, Whistler Arts Council chair John Hewson asked a question: "Where is the centre of the arts in Canada?" After a well-measured pause, he answered, "Whistler."

This was a "two plus two equals five" answer; a "the world is flat" answer.

But it was also a brave, optimistic and idyllic submission. The scope and role of the arts in Whistler has gained critical momentum over the last five years, thanks to the drive and vision of certain key players. Whistler, both as a resort destination and a community, is finally recognizing that the arts are vital for long term success.

Let’s have a look at where we have come from, where we are and where we might go.

Whistler is not a centre for the arts. People are drawn here for the sports and the fun and the mountains. The natural beauty has shut everyone up for years – awed by it, unless they were doing their art on their own; secluded, intimate, under the radar. But in the last five years, the times, they have been a-changin’.

"When I first arrived (1972) there were only 300 full time residents. The ‘arts’ consisted of dances at the old Mount Whistler Lodge, screenings of films at the Christiana Inn and later at the Keg (when it was in Adventures West)."

— Joan Richoz, Whistler Arts Council board member since its inception in 1982.

"(Arts in Whistler was a)… barren wasteland. When I moved to Whistler you’d be hard pressed to find a Laundromat, let alone an arts scene…

I can remember living here in the ’80s and meeting for the first time someone who had moved to Whistler without an interest in skiing or riding. I thought to myself, that’s seriously twisted – what kind of freak would move here if they don’t ski? In hindsight, it was an early sign of the town shifting, one of the first steps toward being a community that was not solely focused on sports."

— Doug Perry, founder of the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival

"Back then (1988), it was all about skiing for me. The only artistic things I'd really get stoked about were the annual Greg Stump ski movie premieres, the best of Banff Film Fest (later on) and travel slide shows… there wasn't much of a local film scene back then. Just Stumpy and Ace, Christian Begin and Peter Chrzanowski… as I grew up and the skiing stoke wore off, the arts started to mean a bit more to me… I think the artists and designers at Toad Hall are responsible for helping to keep the art scene alive and well (in the late ’80s and early ’90s) Toad Hall was pumping out marketable, creative and visually stunning artwork and it was getting noticed.…"

— Feet Banks, co-founder of the B-Grade Horror Fest and co-founder of Heavy Hitting Films

Artists – especially writers and visual artists – are, by nature of their craft, solitary. There have always been artists in Whistler, the Isobel MacLaurins and later the Vincent and Cheryl Masseys. The arts has always been alive in Whistler, but not high-profile, nor in adequate abundance to have sewn the arts into Whistler’s early and for the most part, current identity.

"The Arts Council had been around for several years prior to my arriving, but they had difficulty generating support for their activities. There were very few local artists, and virtually a non-existent infrastructure to support them."

— Anne Popma, founder of the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts in 1988

A big part of the growth in arts, and in particular the Whistler Arts Council, can be traced back to the Whistler 2002 report, completed in 1998. The report found strong public support for encouraging artistic and cultural programs. Whistler council translated that support for the arts to its Cultural Plan, which included increased funding for the Whistler Arts Council and making it the umbrella organization for arts in Whistler. Instead of a volunteer organization reliant on municipal grants in aid, the Whistler Arts Council secured stable, long-term funding, which allowed it to hire a professional staff while still maintaining its charity status.

Due in part to the Whistler Arts Council, the last five years has seen a surge in the prominence and presence of the arts in Whistler. And look what is going on now:

• Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival

• The Whistler Film Festival

• The B-Grade Horror Fest

• Whistler Arts Council’s Celebration 2010

• Millennium Place and the Whistler Arts Council’s Performance Series

• Short Skirt Theatre

• Bushwoman Productions

• The Writer’s Festival

• Bizarre Bazaar

• Artrageous

• The Whistler Dance Academy

• The Artists Guild

• Stagecraft

• Neil Schell’s acting classes

• The independent filmmakers group

• Children’s Arts Festival

• Missoula Children’s Theatre

• The high school’s annual musicals

• Tuned Women

• Live music

I’m certain I have left a few things out. There is enough artistic expression in Whistler that something could be left off an already impressive list. The present is an exciting time for the arts. Not only because so many people are so amped about what they are doing, but also because there are now resources available to further the arts.

"But the looming question is whether fuel will be added to the fire, or not. I would say Whistler is at a cultural crossroads – the arts can flourish or flatten. There are strong signs that it will flourish, but much depends on whether the community and its stakeholders will spin its tires or get traction"

— Doug Perry

This month, Whistler enjoys a glut of arts events. Celebration 2010, the annual cultural festival supported by the Whistler Arts Council and the 2010 Olympic organizing committee, showcases all artistic pursuits in the month of February. There is ArtWalk, a Cultural Cabaret, Out of Bounds, Brazilian music and Capoeira with Aché Brasil, readings from local and non-local writers, presentations from the museum, the naturalists and the photographic society, Tuned Women, Famous Movie Monologues of Love and Lust, SWARM, Lorne Elliott, a drumming workshop with Pepe Danza, street performers, an artisan market and an adventure film screening by the Whistler Film Festival. All these arts events are happening all over the village. Businesses and local and non-local artists are all participating. So, now, for one month a year, we have an abundance of the arts. This celebration is not only a suggestion of where we could go year-round, but also proof of what we have already achieved.

The maturing population needs more than sports. There is zeal to create, to be entertained and to broaden our horizons. Whistler is the home to many individuals who are now keen to pursue something with the same vim with which they would attack the mountains.

"Part of any sustainable approach to community is offering a variety of experiences and activities. A healthy community rich in opportunities for children, youth, adults and seniors will result in a more permanent community. The arts provides balance to a community built primarily on sport recreation. It enhances the soul of the community and enables our artists to express themselves and reflect ideas and images of the community in their work. Our artists help us tell our story and give us inspiration as to what shape and direction our story can take."

— Maureen Douglas, 2010 Director of Operations and Community Relations, Whistler and Sea to Sky Corridor

"I think that the hunger (for the arts) was always there, but there were not as many individuals around organizing and setting up various art groups. For anything to be established, you need a few individuals who are motivated and prepared to do the hard work it takes to make a group or an event a success"

— Stella Harvey, founder of the Whistler Writing Group (a.k.a the Vicious Circle)

Right now, there is incredible opportunity for the arts. There are healthy grants available specifically for the development of the arts, as a precursor to 2010. This program, however, has potential far beyond 2010. Lori Baxter, manager of the Arts Now program for 2010 LegaciesNow, gave a brilliant presentation a few weeks ago on a few 2010 granting opportunities. The money available is matching funding. This means that artists will need to seek out funding in the same amount, either privately or publicly. Matching funding also promotes a sense of ownership and encourages collaboration and local support of business and government. Arts requires financial assistance and support in order to take root and flourish in a permanent manner.

"As local artists, we are not owed a place in the 2010 Arts program, but with funding, support, and celebration, we have been given the rare opportunity to try."

— Heather Paul, Short Skirt Theatre and RMOW Systems Analyst

As for the present, most of the arts groups are spawning rapidly. The vogue and rapid growth of cultural tourism coupled with the bleak weather in January strengthen the case for alternatives to athletic activities. It was fascinating to observe what transpired as a result of the poor conditions. The Westin Resort and Spa hired local character Michele Bush to run a hilarious bingo tournament in the afternoons. Tourism Whistler held a couple of free movies, dream catcher workshops and fairy face painting afternoons at the Telus Conference Centre. The Whistler Arts Council and Millennium Place had a sold-out Monday night jazz concert; unprecedented for both jazz and Monday shows in general. The resort and community had to throw together events to appease locals and visitors. Many people are hopeful this season will encourage businesses to invest in the arts so future alternatives to the mountain will be readily available, not just thrown together when the weather goes bad.

Sandra Kochan, director of the Okanagan Cultural Corridor gave a talk at the Business and the Arts Award luncheon on cultural tourism and the Okanagan Cultural Corridor. Cultural tourism is on a strong steady rise. Individuals are looking for experiences and stories and history, more than sports holidays. They are mostly baby-boomers, they have money to spend and they are educated. They are seeking something meaningful in travel, and a "power-rest." This trend will continue and Whistler needs to change gears in order to remain a premier destination. Key points in the presentation were teamwork, marketing and partnerships.

The Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival attracts people to Whistler. The Whistler Film Festival is gaining momentum and is also attracting international attention. Whistler is diversifying not from a need to attract tourists, but from a need to evolve this town into a well-rounded, and satisfying place to live and learn.

"I think the arts can help support vacationers’ choice in selecting Whistler. It may never be the sole determination for coming here, but by increasing visitors’ awareness of what we have to offer it can significantly influence their decision to come here and their length of stay."

— Maureen Douglas

"Whistler cannot expect to retain viable businesses if we depend on skiing only. Businesses are now aware that they need to diversify in order to remain competitive. They are looking at growing the arts from a business perspective rather than a philosophical one."

— Joan Richoz

The success and growth of the arts depends on the creation of events that have a mind to go further. The Whistler Film Festival is a strong example of this. Over the last three years, it has grown responsibly and relentlessly. There are intermittent screenings at the Rainbow Theatre and also the summer showings at Lost Lake. Momentum is maintained. To influence and expand the community, there needs to be more consistent arts activities. This continuum does not necessarily have to be from the self-same group. Once the B-Grade Horror Fest is done, minds turn to the Filmmakers’ Showdown. The baton-passing from one group’s event to another marks the ability of Whistler to feed the people what they want and to share responsibility for creating meaningful avenues for artistic expression. There needs to be arts activity in the present that is part of a trajectory, to connect the dots, to become embedded in Whistler’s identity.

"I no longer feel isolated in my own pursuit or the pursuit of those things that interest writers"

— Stella Harvey

As for the future, there is massive potential. There has to be funding for the arts, there has to be teamwork and support. More people need to step up to bat, awareness of the presence of the arts in Whistler has to be increased.

"People are looking for a more diversified experience, whether they are visitors or locals. There’s only so much skiing and après you can take before you look for other experiences. I think it’s also a case of ‘If you build it they will come.’ The more arts experiences offered in Whistler, the more the local community will realize it’s an active option and will seek it out."

— Maureen Douglas

Two and a half years ago, the Whistler Arts Council hired Doti Niedermayer as executive director. Now, the Whistler Arts Council has two more-than-full-time staff. They have accelerated the visibility of the arts in Whistler. This was a crucial and conscientious step for the role of the arts in Whistler. Newly relocated to the building formerly used by the Whistler Housing Authority (prior to the WHA the building was briefly home to the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts), the future of the Whistler Arts Council is busy, but incredibly exciting.

"(When she first arrived), there was an established arts community, but it was not visible. It was more hidden than most communities you visit."

— Doti Niedermayer, Whistler Arts Council Executive Director

There is a lot of talent here. Many seem to check their talent at the door for their first few years in Whistler. But now there is more going on, more exposure and more information. It seems there is more artistic talent here than before, but actually there are just more avenues for showcasing work, with Millennium Place, the B-Grade Horror Fest, and other festivals and exhibitions.

"Sticking with film, The WSSF Filmmaker showdown is perhaps the premier event for local filmmakers. It's a real contest and it's really hard to do well in – and it's been won by local filmmakers all three years in a row. First the Mirrorball crew, then Ace, then Lauren Graham. I think it's a real testament to the creativity and skill of our filmmaking community that locals beat out the Americans and the city film students every year."

— Feet Banks

There are so many possibilities for the future of arts. Whistler may not be ready for a full-fledged arts school, but it is hungry for workshops, and programs that contribute to artistic experience. Future initiatives could include arts programs to both attract an increasingly artistic crew to Whistler and also to educate and enhance the present community. There is a demand for professional teachers. Talented individuals currently have to go to the city to find high-calibre teachers. We are losing some of these people.

"People always talk about the Banff Centre. I think there is a possibility that we can create something similar, but even better and of course unique to Whistler. We have artists living here who can give masters classes, we can bring in artists from around B.C. to showcase their talents to people from around the world."

— Joan Richoz

Another trend in the artistic development of Whistler is that we are starting to see more groups working together and drawing from one another’s skill sets. The Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival has Words and Stories, an event that showcases come of the valley’s most accomplished writers. This course bodes well for the festival, broadening the scope of attractions, and also in creating events that expose and celebrate the wealth of Whistler’s talent pool. There is a lot of room to develop this type of initiative.

"I want to bring together the local spirit of Short Skirt and the raw potential of the little high school in Alpine… It’s this support from the parents, and the possibilities I learn from the students, that I want to carry over into Short Skirt, the Whistler Arts Council, Millennium Place, and beyond."

— Heather Paul

"It’s a whole different world today. Whistler is on a rising arc of cultural and artistic growth. The town is maturing. The music scene is strengthening, the film scene is broadening, the television scene is gaining momentum, the photographic scene is red hot and the writing talent runs deep. Whistler is a magnet for seriously talented and creative people."

— Doug Perry

Money is always a factor in determining the viability of the arts, both in the production and attendance of arts events. For the performing arts, Millennium Place and the Whistler Arts Council have put a youth program in place, where up to 10 youth can purchase Performance Series events for $2 a show. There are also volunteer opportunities for most arts events, to offer financially challenged individuals the chance to attend events for free. At the same time, certain events have, by Whistler standards, high ticket prices, such as the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival’s showdowns. These events are sold out, which indicates that it may be attitude, not simply pricing, that influences a potential audience.

Arts in Whistler is at a turning point. The responsibility is on this community to opt to continue to work hard to develop the arts and to take advantage of the wealth of funding opportunities as well as the talent pool, or not. It may take a long time for arts to become top of mind, but the seeds have been planted, and are being sown. The possibilities are limitless. It is an exciting and crucial time and we need to work together to support the expansion of the definition of why it is that we live here, and why people come to visit. Whistler will never be the centre of the arts in Canada. But we can endeavour to redefine the Whistler experience, and our evaluation of this experience, for ourselves, the community and for visitors.

"When people younger than me are pulling off creative, amazing shit that no one else is even fathoming, let alone pulling off, that's my idea of a healthy art community."

— Feet Banks

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