It is often said that prosperity leads to productivity, but in the case of the art scene in Vancouver, the alternative might be closer to reality.
One of my biggest artistic inspirations, Keith Haring, famously claimed that “art is for everybody.” On the nights where I have frequented the Downtown East Side of Vancouver - the “poorest postal code in Canada” as it’s so endearingly been dubbed - to do wheatpasting, I’ve met people living down there who were ecstatic to see art being placed in their community, and the prospect of new life being born into the decaying streets they fall asleep on. Where the stigma of the disfranchised might make an artist naturally wary of anyone approaching them on those streets at night, some of the friendliest and biggest-hearted individuals I’ve ever had a conversation happened to sleep in a shelter nightly on East Hastings and Gore ave, and I’ve felt safer working down there than I’ve ever felt putting work up on Granville street around the same time of night.
There’s no denying Vancouver is a difficult city to live in - especially for students and those only newly entering the workforce. With the average house price outside the city resting around $700,500, and rental prices around $2,500/mo for two bedrooms, those living as students or working full time at entry level positions can easily feel suffocated in a city where living paycheck to paycheck isn’t a choice, but the only option to get by. Most forms of entertainment in this city, other than hiking or camping, require disposable incomes that the average young person doesn’t have. This makes for an environment where young creatives are forced to build their own spaces to share their work with each other, and a city where when up-and-coming talent is given visibility creates a space where young artists who struggle to survive are given a reason to stay and, eventually, have their work become a part of its growing artistic identity, as well. And an environment where creatives are forced to create in order to stay sane, naturally, breeds a wealth of talent.
According to a study done by the Ontario Arts Council in 2005, British Columbia, and more specifically Vancouver, has the highest density of artists per capita than any other community or province in Canada, with 1.1% of the labour force involved in the arts. For comparison, no other province is above 1% and the Canadian average is 0.8%. Though this study is over a decade old, we can only assume this number has remained constant or increased in the last 10 years with the rise in population. However, one would never guess this based on the stunning invisibility of public art in any part of the city - including the parts of town considered “artsier” than others, like Commercial drive or Main Street.
It would be unfair to say that Vancouver doesn’t try to support public art - the city has a plan for $1.8m to be implemented into public works by 2018. But public art culture requires accessibility and an overall mentality shift before it can become an integral part to the diversity and character of the Vancouver cityscape, and right now, one could argue Vancouver is going through it’s “teenage years” - if Expo 86 is viewed as the introduction of Vancouver to the world stage, then it’s arguable that this city is barely 30 years old, leaving a long way to go to develop a distinct character and aesthetic that cities like Toronto and Montreal have developed over a longer period of time. Combine this with the increasing pressure of the real estate market forcing the city to maintain a classy and spotless image, and it’s obvious why the city is partial to keeping the art it does choose to have on display safe, non-controversial, and non-threatening.
However, all of this changed this past summer as Vancouver hosted its first foray into a major public art festival in the history of the city - the Vancouver Mural festival, taking after cities like Montreal, who’ve hosted their version of the event (MURAL) three years in a row, with increasing attendance and bigger artist lineups every year, and Toronto with its city-funded mural program StreetArtToronto (StART) which uses public art as a means to revitalize neighborhoods and prevent vandalism. Not only was the lineup of the Vancouver Mural festival artists stylistically diverse, but the backgrounds of everyone involved spanned across practices, maintained gender representation, and varied between local and international talents. The experience of watching the murals develop over the week leading up to the festival and the variety of mural locations across Mount Pleasant - some towering over 50’ high, others unassumingly and cheekily placed in parking lots - made the final result of over 40 permanent art additions to the city all that more inspiring for the local art community.
Historically, the local art scene in Vancouver is rife with class divides - those who can afford to rent out a gallery space are the ones lucky enough to showcase their work, and even then, that’s if they can find a gallery that caters to the type of work they produce. On the opposite side of the scale, some of the cities greatest talents are only capable of showcasing at underground, or alternative, “low-brow” spaces such as in the Lower East Side, where the upper-echelon of art appreciating Vancouverites rarely venture, and therefore miss out. But maybe it’s this class divide that’s the very fuel that drives the underground scene, and that growing tension between communities and affordable housing is the backbone that supports the alternative art landscape.
I moved here just over 2 years ago to start earning my BFA at Emily Carr, focusing in illustration. I’ve been drawing since as early as I can remember. When my parents bought their first computer at the end of the 90’s, I have vague memories of scribbling in MS Paint before I could even see over the keyboard, which eventually led to me stumbling into digital illustration as the focus of my practice. Drawing monsters and animals has always been my thing, though. Growing up, I never understood Vancouver as any sort of art hub or destination for creatives, always picturing Montreal or Toronto as the cities with more going on, not only artistically but also just from a general standpoint. Despite this, because of my early artistic skills, my parents had it grounded in their minds that I was going to Emily Carr before I had even finished grade 6. I moved to Vancouver and entered EC with very little concept of the local art scene, and learned early on that a lot of the focus EC’s identity has is on the conceptual and contemporary. The school’s galleries rotate through various shows on a weekly or biweekly basis, each one showcasing an array of minimalist sculpture, or thoughtful installations, or elevated and dialogue-provoking photography. Among this, the school’s small but hearty Illustration department houses a notably talented alumni and a community for those of us that, for the most part, don’t have a lot of sociopolitical discourse or intention behind our work and honestly just like to draw cool stuff. However, the moments when this type of work gets given gallery space for a week seem to be few and far between. Coupling this with the apparent lack of public art in the city, and a prospecting young artist in Vancouver can be easily discouraged.
Events like Vancouver Mural Festival are a step in the right direction in terms of showcasing the city’s talents to perhaps the unaware Vancouverite, as well as allowing universal access to art for those who might not otherwise venture to galleries or stuffy, wine-fueled art openings to get a taste for the local talent living among them. Murals are the key to an artistic renaissance in a city that needs to do justice to its statistically ripe art communities, as well as the solution to revitalizing the landscapes of the city that have been disenfranchised by empty storefronts and soulless, forgotten alleyways. And it’s clear that the public perception of this rise in local art has been overwhelmingly positive - already since the mural festival, an entire alley between Granville and Seymour has been painted yellow and pink, and transformed into a vibrant and lively gathering place from its previously shady and potentially dangerous Iteration. Owned by the neighboring Odyssey bar, its the first in a proposed project backed by the city to transform three total laneways - the next being between Robson and Smithe - into public entertainment spaces. If the project is successful enough, it could result in an entire network of vibrant, interconnected laneways cutting through the center of the city.
Until recently, it was easy for artists in Vancouver to be cynical about their work, and succumb to the ever-present pressure that their practice isn’t enough to keep them alive in a city where it seems like real estate is all that’s valued and anyone from a lower-income class didn’t belong. Now, it’s becoming apparent that the creatives working out of their closet-sized basements in the edgier parts of town are the lifeline to Vancouver’s cultural identity.
Not only did Keith Haring believe art is for everybody, but he believed that its up to artists to make something that doesn’t just cater to those with the money to see it in galleries. Vancouver seems like it’s on the right track to making itself an artistic destination for everyone that gets to visit, even if the art they get to experience is just what they happen to see while walking down the street.
About Paige Bowman:
Paige is a freelance visual artist and Emily Carr student based in Vancouver, BC. Her work has been featured by Adobe Creative Cloud and recently participated in the Vancouver Mural Festival. You can find more of Paige's work here.