Maple Syrup Art: Please Don’t Leave—Love, Vancouver’s Art Community

Jason Arkell-Boles // Columnist 

If you participate in the Vancouver art scene, you’ve probably heard somebody mention that they’re “moving to Montreal.” Hey, even I’m guilty of saying it. Just a few months ago, my roommate and I, both  filmmakers, decided that after we get our degrees, we’d want to move to cold, Canadian Paris. It’s hard to deny that moving to Montreal from Vancouver is an intriguing plan for anyone interested in the arts. Cheap rent, a huge creative community, plenty of jobs for young people, tons of art galleries make it a perfect city for up and coming creatives.  

Not long after we made this brash decision, we decided that leaving our friends and the film industry  in Vancouver may not be the best plan for us. But this got me thinking: Vancouver is a huge city, with tons of art schools, creatives, and alternative neighborhoods—all the tools a city needs to become a creative hub. So why then does our art community feel so dull in comparison to that of French Canada?  

With myself and many of my close friends wanting to make a name for ourselves in the art world, I decided to figure out why Vancouver lacks the same artistic environment as other art hubs. What good art is coming out of Vancouver? Where are the scenes? Who’s making waves? What will future art historians write about the city as we live in it today? 

Many would say Vancouver is an “artsy” city; that’s why I moved here from Kelowna to pursue film and photography. Anyone can walk down Commercial Drive or Main Street, see the murals and alternative folk, and sense that something creative is going on. In the past, Vancouver produced some great artists, huge names like photographers Fred Herzog and Jeff Wall, architect Arthur Erickson, and multimedia artist Bill Reid. Even Grimes grew up here, well, before she moved to Montreal. But despite Vancouver’s artistic history, which checks all the same boxes as Montreal’s, finding contemporary art and the innovators of modern Vancouver remains a difficult task. Where are these artists hiding, and which scenes are making the most noise? 

As far as noise is concerned, the easiest scene to get into here and the first I found my way into was the music scene. Through venues such as the Avant-Garden and Red Gate, anyone can get a quick glimpse into the local musicians trying to make a name for themselves.  

These shows are a great way to meet a bunch of local art types. The Red Gate Art Society, in addition to being a music venue, occasionally hosts art shows—giving a platform for artists to show their work publicly. While these spaces provide great exposure for Vancouver artists, they are few in number, and constantly under threat of gentrification and spiking rent prices.  

Outside of the music scene, finding contemporary visual art in Vancouver can be a challenge. My attempts to find local art lead me to events like the Vancouver Art Book Fair at Emily Carr, VanCaf for local comic artists, and CanZine for art zines and books. Although these events are great for discovering new artists, they only occur annually and are always packed, making artist-to-artist mingling a challenge.  

When it comes to finding artists in the area, Instagram (for better or worse) is the most popular way to find other creatives. Whether they be talented painters and illustrators such as my local favorite Julia Majer (@julimajer), or Instagram rogues such as colorful fashion photographer Conor Cunningham (@mescondi) and vintage-inspired high-fashion stylist/designer Carmyn Slater (@uglybeige), there’s certainly no lack of artists creating work in the city. With a huge number of artists working independently online, Vancouver still seems to lack any sort of organized artistic community.  

When thinking of creating communities in the art world, I envision the golden age of New York art in the sixties and seventies. The New York scene gained its infamy through the organized spaces the arts community could call home. Andy Warhol’s The Factory, for example, was a hip hangout spot for local artists and Warhol’s most admired friends and creatives (also a bunch of speed users, but it was the sixties so who could blame them). At The Factory, you had the chance to mingle with all the names in the New York art community, year-round. 

At the moment, Vancouver lacks collaboration in the physical sense. Mending this could involve more local galleries showing Vancouver-made artwork, or more cinema’s showing Canadian short films. Constant art shows and events are what the city needs to take off artistically, not just annual events, which don’t create a lasting platform. Montreal figured out how to make these spaces happen, so why can’t we? 

Like most problems in Vancouver, the root cause is, of course, rent. Let’s not forget that not so long ago, the 333, one of Vancouver’s cornerstone music venues located in the trashiest garage in town, sold for 2.5 million dollars to a condominium developer. Regardless, I’m still optimistic that all of us poor, café-loving, tree-hugging Vancouver creatives can push forward by connecting with new artists in the community and showing each other kindness. 

Through Instagram, Vancouver artists know of each other, but they don’t necessarily know each other. In a city as expensive as Vancouver, artists need to reach out to each other virtually, setting up collaborations, organizing events, or just meeting up for coffee to learn more about each other’s art. Vancouver’s creatives deserve a strong and supportive community to work in, as well as recognition on an international level. This sounds like a daunting task, but we can make this happen. All we have to do is reach out to each other and say hello.  Who knows, if we all start getting to know each other better, maybe we won’t have to move across the country to be heard. 

1 Comment
  1. Great story, thank you! I think enforcing bylaws to include more creative spaces in development projects would definitely help. Historically, artistic communities that are accessible to the public always draw in many other factions and industries. Everyone benefits. People enjoy a night out in a cool, creative environment. Montmartre, Paris was a hip place to be in the earlier 20th century and became globally known as THE creative environment. That model could be built in Vancouver, but building owners and developers must be on board.

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