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Housing crunch hurts Vancouver artists

Taralee Guild is a local painter who gets by “pinching pennies.” The recent Emily Carr University of Art and Design…

By Adam Pez , in Culture Feature story , on October 20, 2011 Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Taralee Guild is a local painter who gets by “pinching pennies.”

The recent Emily Carr University of Art and Design graduate commutes to her studio by bike and works 60 hours a week painting to save enough to buy new equipment and rent a room in a house by Trout Lake, a 20-minute bike-ride from where she paints.

Taralee Guild working in her studio on Union St.

Guild, like many artists, is feeling the pinch of Vancouver’s heated real estate market, and she said the lack of adequate housing may be affecting her art.

Penny Gurstein, director of UBC’s School of Regional and Community Planning, said Vancouver needs more affordable rental options, otherwise the city’s plan to keep local artists from moving away by ensuring studio space will fall short.

“We need a whole range of new policies if we really want to continue to be considered a livable city for everyone,” said Gurstein. “We’re not now; we’ve reached the point where it’s unaffordable and it’s crazy.”

On Oct. 6, city council met to consider the Artist Studio Regulatory Review Implementation Framework, a study which includes several recommendation for improving working conditions for Vancouver artists.

Council is focusing on the recommendation to provide more work-only studio space in industrial areas. This will help artists get the studio space they need, said Gurstein, but it won’t work unless artists can also find cheap, accessible places to live.

Between 1996 and 2006, the number of artists living in Vancouver nearly doubled and attained the highest concentration per capita of any city in Canada, according to a 2009 Hill Strategies Consulting study. But, the study said the number of artists moving to Vancouver slowed significantly between 2001 and 2006 with a growth of only 12 per cent, down from 57 per cent between 1996 and 2001.

Need for rental units

Guild said she would like to have a live-work studio, which are spread throughout the city under the city’s Live/Work program, but they are too expensive.  She said she likes the company and inexpensive work space Glass Onion Studios provides, but dislikes the lack of a kitchen or commons with the room she rents.

Artists like Guild say they want separate work space, because, unlike lofts provided by the Live/Work program, work-only studio space is still affordable and provides a chance to mingle with other artists. City council’s emphasis on sequestering industrial land for studios will help.

Inside Whimsey + Folly Design is a commercial art studio at 1000 Parker St.

“It’s a wise thing to do,” said Jeffrey Boone, executive director for the East Side Cultural Crawl. He said the new plan would help ease the sense of instability caused by Culture Crawl artists often switching studios or packing up when space gets too pricey.

Still, perhaps the biggest challenge for artists living near Commercial Drive, and in Vancouver as a whole, is finding cheap, livable housing near where they work.

City of Vancouver community statistics for 2009 indicate shelter alone ate up 39 per cent of Vancouver artists’ annual income. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp considers anything above 30 per cent to be unaffordable.

Vancouver artists cope as best they can on an average annual income $8,000 less than the average BC worker, according to the 2006 Census.

Some artists choose to tolerate cramped conditions and share studio space. Some cut down costs by setting up studios in their home, disregarding city bylaws preventing the practice for fear of noise complaints and fire hazards.

Some get “crappy jobs” to support themselves, says Guild. Still others, particularly young artists, like many young Vancouverites, said Gurstein, get fed up with the prospect of renting until they are 40 and move elsewhere.

Vancouver could lose out

Canada-wide, artistic and cultural production generates $23 billion every year, and has been one of the fastest growing sectors in the Canadian economy.

Actors, directors and choreographers participating in cultural economy form the foundation for Vancouver’s motion picture industry, and according to a 2007 city report, the Vancouver “creative sector” generates economic activity equal to the downtown core retail sector.

Guild plans to keep painting, and said she also plans to one day move abroad.

“It’s not glamorous,” said Guild. “I can’t even afford to buy my own paintings.”

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