Strict by-laws for nightlife, high cost of living, and little support for arts and culture have all factored prominently into Vancouver's prickly reputation for artists of all varieties. Its music scene in particular has had to maintain a largely underground presence, constantly dodging the watchful eye of the city's law enforcement. Today, however, that's beginning to change, thanks to a new pilot program designed to bring DIY events to the surface.
Over the past two years, the Vancouver City Council has been testing the waters of an initiative that allows arts organizations to hold up to three licensed events per month in unconventional spaces—anything from industrial warehouses to garages and parking lots. This means that areas throughout the city that would otherwise remain vacant can now be utilized for pop-up performances encompassing music, theatre, or anything in-between.
Near the end of 2015, city councillors unanimously passed a motion to make the program permanent.
"It shows that they're willing to take these steps with us. They want this to progress," says Ana Rose Carrico—co-director of the Red Gate Arts Society, a local community arts space that often hosts underground music. In addition to being one of the few organizations within Vancouver that runs under the new program, they also worked closely with the city council to set the plan into action.
Matt Troy, director of the Vancouver Art and Leisure Society, an artist-run co-op that also operates within the program's framework, says, "We're going to have to work with the fire [department] and all of these [institutional] bodies that were previously used to shut us down. They are now being made available to us as best as possible. [The program] is still going to come with some restrictions, but it does bring these events into a somewhat legal, permitted, and sanctioned activity."
"Right now, I think our biggest problem is mitigating the insane costs of being an artist in Vancouver," remarks Carrico. "It's a big hurdle for a lot of people whether or not they are an artist."
In a city known for its yoga addicts and green initiative enthusiasts, little support has previously been afforded to its progressive arts scene. By legalizing the use of alternative spaces within the city, artists will have more opportunities to survive, despite the odds.
City councillor Heather Deal, who initiated the pilot program, says, "We have enormous stats [showing] that we have some of the highest per capita artists in Vancouver of anywhere in Canada, even though we are so expensive. So, our artists are managing to be here and survive here, and we want to do everything we can to make that affordable and viable for them."
Although some of the media's focus on the new program has been skewed towards the city's electronic music scene—CBC ran with "EDM warehouse raves legalized in Vancouver" in December—directors of alternative spaces are quick to point out that the new policy means much more.
"It's not just a rave law that's been passed, per-se. It's just specifically about underground venues," explains Carrico. "That can be punk shows or experimental noise shows. It's things that are happening outside of the normal licensed venues."
"Using the words 'rave' and 'EDM' are words that are for the masses," says Troy. "It's not really seeking the nuance of the situation. There's a lot more than electronic dance music or raving."
Yet despite its generallyl positive response, the budding program hasn't come without a new set of challenges. Shortly after the unanimous vote supporting the program, owner of the Odyssey nightclub, Bijan Ahmadian, sent private investigators into a Halloween event at the Vancouver Art and Leisure Centre. A scandal broke out when footage of the party was leaked to a local news source The Province, and Ahmadian raised concerns over the possibility of dangerous and illegal activity at these pop-up events.
The video had a rippling affect on many others in the community. "It really highlighted how vulnerable we are, and that if someone does decide that they have a problem with us that they're really coming from a position of strength," reflects Carrico. "No other venues except for these alternative art spaces are in such danger."
"If people want to stigmatize this around drugs or illegal activity, I think that's so antiquated," adds Troy. "Statistically, we have no fights and we don't require police or emergency presence for overdoses. We have a really good record as a community for being responsible."
In spite of the hurdles and challenges, the directors of underground spaces have not let it dampen their spirits. "It's gaining momentum," affirms Carrico. "They realize that the more venues that we have like this, the better. There's enough demand that we're not in competition with each other and we don't have to be."
"I think that this program will have a stake at shaping Vancouver's future as far as creative expression," says Troy. "It supports their artistic pursuits and provides legal channels for their art form."
Over at city hall, councillor Deal sees this as an opportunity, not only for the artists of Vancouver, but for the city as a whole. "I love that they are bringing together a diversity of creative minds," she says. "In my mind, we will not survive the next 50 years as a growing city if we don't have creative minds here. Creativity is how to mitigate challenges that come our way, and we need brains that know how to think that way."
Although only a handful of organizations have taken advantage of the new license, Deal encourages the city's artists to utilize the program in whatever way they can: "If they see a cool space that they think may be good for an art show, a theatre production, a clown workshop, or whatever, there's a way to do that."
Hollie is on