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Celebrated gallery forced to close its doors after funding cut

One of the oldest artist-run centres in Vancouver has been forced to close its doors due to the provincial arts…

By Vivian Luk , in Culture , on October 29, 2009 Tags: , , , ,

One of the oldest artist-run centres in Vancouver has been forced to close its doors due to the provincial arts funding cuts.

The Pitt gallery sold limited edition t-shirts for $20 each to raise funds
The Pitt gallery sold limited edition t-shirts for $20 each to raise funds

The Helen Pitt Gallery, established in 1975, exhibited experimental art and relied on public money to cover half of its running costs.

Unable to pay rent beyond October, it is now relying on space donated by other artist centres to host exhibitions planned for the next three months.

Helen Pitt is the first high-profile casualty of the provincial arts funding cuts announced in September.

The Liberal government has cut funding to gaming grants and to the BC Arts Council. The council has had its funding cut by 80 percent this year, and will be facing a 90 percent cut next year.

Art in donated spaces

The Pitt Gallery will continue to host exhibitions and events with the help of fellow artist run centres. The 221a Artist Run Centre has donated space to host Helen Pitt’s administrative office and remaining exhibitions.

“We’re not closing down,” insisted Laura Kozak, the vice president. “We’re losing our space, but in many aspects, we’ll continue to exist. It’s a slight period of hibernation.”

Donations were accepted at a farewell party on October 23
Donations were accepted at a farewell party on October 23

Aside from losing its space, the gallery has also let go its director/curator, Paul Kajander.

“There isn’t really the funds or the budget available right now to continue to pay someone for a full-time position,” Kajander said.

He is concerned about what the closing of Helen Pitt could mean for the artistic community in British Columbia.

“We’ve always been keen to support experimental practice, community engagement and critical art practice that makes us a unique voice,” he said.

“When you lose that, what people in BC should care about is, the less diversity and the less opportunity there is for that sort of creative activity, the drier life in BC will become.”

The current difficult situation has forced the gallery to rethink the way it runs the business.

“We’re looking at a healthy plan for the gallery to continue to exist and make some more opportunities in light of this hostile economic situation,” said Kajander.

“What we’re most keen to do right now is to give people brief curatorial residences, make smaller opportunities for a variety of people instead of leaving one person to run the show. In spite of all that’s bad, it’s actually a pretty good situation.”

New business ideas

Chris Tyrell, author of Artist Survival Skills: How to Earn a Living as a Canadian Visual Artist, argued that for artists, reinvention is the key to surviving harsh economic realities.

“I want us to fight for a return to appropriate public funding,” said Tyrell, who has been involved in visual arts since 1976.

“But to expect things to stay the way they were forever is naïve. We need to be more market savvy.”

He suggested that artists should look for more corporate and general public support rather than relying heavily on government subsidies.

The Arts Club Theatre, a non-profit theatre company, is one example of an art organization that is gathering market support in order to make up for an estimated $200,000 cut in government money next year.

“Fortunately, we’re not overly dependent on government funding,” said Howard Jang, the executive director.

“Most of our revenue is from the box office. What’s more important is to galvanize the market support that we have, like getting audience to come to our shows.”

“We’re also getting support from the community that we support, such as restaurant businesses, tourism business, supply business, such as lumber that we buy from people who build our set. We need the whole economy to associate with us.”

For the vice president of the Pitt gallery, Laura Kozak, the current crisis is like “a forest fire situation, where everything we’re used to gets burnt to the ground.”

“But that breakdown allows for new things to come out of it. There’s an unusual spirit of cooperation and helping each other out and sharing resources right now.”

“It’s one of the positive things coming out of this discouraging time.”