Arts event crawls east

BY SARAH BERMAN, OPENFILE

It’s studio-hopping season again. For three days, the Eastside Culture Crawl will see hundreds of local artists open their creative spaces to the public.

“I always get a little nervous,” says artist Andrea Armstrong in her Victoria Drive studio. Armstrong grins as she points to the painting she’s most excited to share. But she’s also brimming with anticipation for the rest of the celebratory annual event. “I’m looking forward to seeing a photography project at the UGM [Union Gospel Mission] and a couple artists at Parker Studios.”

Each year the Crawl, which kicks off tomorrow, serves as a snapshot of East Vancouver’s arts community. And while that community continues to find creative ways to thrive, there are a few changes afoot. Armstrong’s studio space at Victoria and Powell, for instance, was not within the festival boundaries until last year. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” she says of her first time participating in the Culture Crawl. “My expectations were low because it was our first time and we were on the extreme boundary.”

Lucky for Armstrong, 750 people came through to visit the three artists who share her studio building in 2010. This year, she’s hoping to expand on the commissions and connections she made. Artists like her are finding success outside the event’s traditional epicentre in Strathcona. With property values soaring in more central areas, many artists are looking to migrate further east.

2008 Eastside Culture Crawl

Eastside Culture Crawl, 2008

It’s a subtle trend that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the event’s executive director, Jeffrey Boone. “Art practices are generally not business models that can compete with other sorts of business—particularly in the climate we have in Vancouver with such pressures on real estate,” says Boone. “There certainly has been a bit of a shift with property being bought and no longer being used as studio space.”

For some, this shift has not been kind. Artists at the Georgia Jackson studio were given two months to leave when the landlord decided to sell the building. “We had to be out of the studio by June,” artist Rocio Graham explains. “In the summer I could not find suitable and affordable studio space, so I packed all my stuff in a container and put it in storage.”

Graham, who is now living in Mexico, says her livelihood took a hit because of the move. “The Crawl is very important for me as I make a big percentage of my sales at the Crawl,” she says. “This year, without the Crawl, I have reduced my annual sales by 40 per cent.”

2011 Eastside Culture Crawl

Eastside Culture Crawl, 2011

For the collective of artists who once called 901 Main their home, Graham’s story sounds all too familiar. But having successfully relocated to an affordable 5,000 square foot studio at McLean and Powell, their story is one of new opportunity in the face of Vancouver’s changing landscape.

“The weakness at 901 was that we didn’t have a lease,” explains artist and veteran Culture Crawler Eri Ishii. “We weren’t a legal entity so we didn’t have any rights.”

Ishii helped form a co-op that allowed the artists broker deals with both developers and city council. “You can’t be a victim,” says Ishii. “You can’t complain and say ‘all the studio space is too expensive.’ You have to take action.”

Ishii learned that artists can build a healthier creative community by working collectively. “There’s power in numbers. And also if you set your mind to it, you can actually do quite a bit,” says Ishii. “We didn’t have any lawyer. No money or legal experience.”

Boone suggests that a non-profit-owned studio building would also help stabilize Vancouver’s arts community. “It’s something that we are investigating,” he says. “We’ve just finished a broad scope feasibility study and are beginning to examine our fundraising strategy.”

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