Sunday, July 25, 2010

An Open Letter to the City of Vancouver

Dear City of Vancouver,

My name is Jesse Scott, a former resident of Vancouver, and from 2004-06, I was one of the Co-producers of The Butchershop, a multi-functional art space that was the predecessor (and previous occupant of 195 E. 26th Avenue) of Little Mountain Studios/Gallery from 2002-2006.

It is with great concern that I am notified about increasing pressure from the City of Vancouver over the operations and legality of LMS. I had hoped that both sides had learned from previous mistakes and were able to step forward together.


First, I would like to provide a history of my civic involvement with the artistic and cultural scene in Vancouver... the ups and downs of my time years there, my hopes and disappointments...

I was, of course, privy to the entire, months-long dialogue between The Butchershop and the CoV in 2005/06 when we were forced to close our doors, after being delivered a $80,000 ultimatum on 'venue enhancements'. That was one of the worst days of my life, seeing something that myself and a dozen very close friends had poured YEARS of our life into, only to see it swept away.

During the 2005 Civic election campaign, Heather Deal, nominee for City Council for Vision Vancouver, visited The Butchershop and held a roundtable with our collective and other members of the community, expressing the importance of ground-level artistic enterprise to the economic and cultural makeup of Vancouver, and that things would 'change'... we believed her… of course, the NPA won that election.

During the 2005 edition of the Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres (PAARC) SWARM Festival, The Butchershop held a series of roundtable discussions with directors, producers, and artists from diverse backgrounds, from former directors of underground spaces that had been shut down by the CoV in the 80s and 90, to members from the Board of Directors of other 'legit' spaces that receive funding from City/Provincial/National Art Councils, to name a few.

During this time we had already begun to be pressured by the CoV, in particular the Zoning office, and categorically shunned by the Office of Cultural Affairs (as we didn't fall into their qualifications of a cultural space), and this was our attempt to decide how to move forward with developing and sustaining a community-orientated, multi-faceted, and accessible/non-commercial arts space, to learn best practices as deciphered from the rich history of our city.

Though we took on this initiative, it wasn't enough... we faced too wide of a divide with the CoV, and we lost the battle.

After The Butchershop was closed, I was one of the core founders of Underground Network of Artist Run Culture (UNARC), alongside members of the Seamrippers, WRKS DVSN, 69 Pender, and other spaces that had been shut down by the CoV around the same time.

During the 2006 edition of SWARM, UNARC held a 'wake' for Artist Run Centres at Main and Broadway, with spaces as old as Misanthropy, the (sugar refinery), and the Church of Pointless Hysteria, contributing poster art to the event; we proceeded to cover the dozen-or-so civic poster poles around that intersection with commissioned posters from 12 closed-down art spaces as a form of cultural protest, and received media coverage in the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail. Out of this press, I was invited to speak at a conference in St. John's, Newfoundland, on the state of artist-run culture, and ground-level strategies.

In 2006-07, I was an active participant in the Creative City Conversation held by the OCA, and met many of it's Officers personally, while continually advocating for the development of a framework for addressing the substantial gaps in dealing with underground/ground-level arts spaces that have merely possessed will and passion, but not the financial and/or organizational wherewithal to achieve long-term sustainability, let alone afford a consultant or qualify for a Canada Council Flying Squad grant.

In 2006, I was contractually employed by Gallery Gachet, and indirectly the Down Town East Side Community Arts Network (DTES CAN), and was privy to some of the cultural mapping of the DTES that they were performing with North Sky Consulting, and had a chance to address NSC about the overlooked and (sometimes intentionally-) hidden spaces, and what this meant for an enterprise such as cultural mapping, which was paving the way for the Provincial Cultural District plans, as well as the CCC.

From 2006-07 I was invited for publishing and spoken engagements by the Centre for Expertise on Culture and Communities (CECC), a project run in part by Simon Fraser University at their Harbourfront Campus; again, I was able to have long, detailed conversations by several cultural planners, architects, and academics as to the importance of recognizing the difficulties of ground-level spaces, and how problematic it was to not have a civic engagement strategy for them, the disastrous history of this neglect, and received overwhelming support and commendations for championing this cause.

I attended several presentations of the 'DeSacco Report', authored by renowned Cultural Economist Luigi DeSacco of Milan, and commissioned by Vancity to address the cultural health of the city (it was found wanting, as you well know), and presented my case at their open meetings.

From 2002-08, I worked for New Forms Festival, and was able to work alongside dozens of venues, producers, and organizations, and gained an appreciation for attempting to do cultural production above ground within Vancouver and Canada.

From 2005-08, I co-ran another space, the memelab, and along with UNARC, we held an open-format potluck/roundtable series, entitled 'The Tipping Point', which garnered immense interest from diverse communities; a frequent guest was, of course, a sense of growing frustration at the inaccessibility of the CoV, due to bureaucracy, cryptic language, archaic laws, and, of course, fear of reprisal. We attempted to map out possible strategic paths for spaces to choose various levels of organization and legality. Some participants were able to secure funding. Some chose a viable business model, and have thrived. Some suffered from burnout, lack of funds, and organizational overhead. Some vanished, yet again.

In 2008, the memelab produced a project, named, in jest at the OCA, the 'Creative City Conversation' (first imagined as a noise band) aimed at forming a conversation-in-action, where the CCC of the OCA had let us down. We invited several artists who re-imagined the city and its spaces, with both hope and nostalgia.


In 2008, I moved to Toronto; after years of investment in the artistic/cultural scene of Vancouver, I had become frustrated and jaded. During my time in Toronto, I had the opportunity to present work at the City-funded and -produced 'Nuit Blanche' Festival, and, while not perfect, I found their Cultural Affairs Department to be energetic, accessible, and understanding. I currently live and work in Berlin, Germany and Trondheim, Norway.


I realize rather that I am subject to the angle that I experienced their personnel and policies of the CoV from. I have spoken with many of your staff personally, and have found them to be open, with the best of the city at heart. But as Government, you play a game where you dictate the rules, and few others can play this game, without resources at hand, without a particular logic...

Again, I know first-hand the infrastructural issues that 195 E. 26th Ave faces. I lived that struggle. I talked to those people whole lived on that street, and surrounding businesses. I continually asked our patrons mind our neighbours. I dealt with police, and building inspectors. And I understand the trepidation of a gallery owner who is about to receive a visit from you. But let's make a framework where they don't have to be afraid, to hide facts, thoughts, or even dreams about how they can run their business.

I am not advocating for overlooking or abolishing zoning, health, or fire regulations. I am not asking you to look the other way. I am asking that - after decades of heavy-handed dealings with under-powered arts spaces - that you approach this open-handed and open-minded. Find a way through; there has been too much damage already.

I am asking that you engage in a recorded, open, and published conversation with the organizers at LMS. The entire city would benefit from a transparent, documented process.

We need to know what you say, how you think. We need to see your case, point-by-point, and have time to analyze the details and consequences. We need to understand the paradigms that you are operating under. We need to see you are not just committed to high-profile, mega-projects (not that I don't love W2).

You need to understand the limitations we throw ourselves against, the divide between our languages, organizational capacity, and the unique challenges we face. You need to understand our culture, and that we do this for love, not profit, that we don't have investors or patrons, and we do this while holding down other jobs or careers. You need to understand how much we want this, and how tired we are.

Other cultural producers, artists, and citizens need to see both of our points, to understand the scope and arrangement of this problem. For it is one that has reached a breaking point in Vancouver, after decades... Keith Wallace wrote 'A Particular History of ARC's in Vancouver' in the 90s, and that was already an old story...

Vancouver has for too long been subject to a reputation as 'No-Fun City', something that Vision Vancouver and the current administration has pledged to address. For over a decade, the artistic community has been subject to an intense form of 'brain-drain' to other, more permissive cities, within Canada and abroad.

Vision, the OCA, the zoning department, etc. all need to come forward with a single voice. For too long have different arms of the Civic structure played good-cop, bad-cop with us.

The Butchershop was a vitally important platform for the artistic community of Vancouver, and it is solely missed worldwide, by artists, musicians, theatre performers, and more. As is Seamrippers. As is WRKS DVSN. As is 69 Pender. As is The Underwear Farm. As is The Meatball. As is Misanthropy. As is Local 156. As is The Church of Pointless Hysteria. As is the Lux Theatre. As is the (sugar refinery). As is… well, that's just off the top of my head, but there's more…. as Little Mountain would be, should you we both not learn from our mistakes.

Let's fix this now.


Jesse Scott

Former-resident, City of Vancouver

Artist, Curator, Organizer, Writer

Trondheim, Norway

July 25th, 2010


Jah Goink said...

Thank you Jesse. That was beautifully, succintly put (and very, SORELY needed for a long time)

Kajin Goh
a Friend of LMG, Vancouver

Jah Goink said...

PS. & kudos for the situationist banner ;)

Jesse.Scott said...