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Vancouver sanctions underground arts venues

They tuck themselves away in warehouses and back alleys. They spring up in art galleries late at night. Sometimes they…

By Maryse Zeidler , in Award nominated Culture Feature story , on March 27, 2013 Tags: , , , , ,

They tuck themselves away in warehouses and back alleys. They spring up in art galleries late at night. Sometimes they can even be found in the back of a retail store.

They’re Vancouver artists desperate to find affordable, intimate places to present their work. Vancouver has the highest number of artists per capita in Canada. But these performers say there aren’t enough suitable spaces to showcase their talents.

The China Cloud is an underground arts venue in East Vancouver. Photo: Maryse Zeidler
The China Cloud is an underground arts venue in East Vancouver.

The problem has been exacerbated by the closure of the Waldorf in January and the eviction notice of W2 in the Woodward’s building in December. Both venues earned a reputation as cheap spaces that readily accommodated arts groups.

Some artists have taken matters in their own hands and created their own performances spaces tucked away in the city’s nooks and crannies, flouting local bylaws. According to the City of Vancouver, there are 250 to 500 such illicit events per year.

But the people running makeshift venues now have a way to go legit. Vancouver city council approved a pilot program March 12 that will allow cultural events in spaces like warehouses, art galleries and stores.

Bringing underground arts venues into the fold

The city hopes the program will resolve the need for more performance spaces and possibly kindle an outburst of creative activity.

“It has long been recognized that it is difficult to find places for live performance in Vancouver,” says Coun. Heather Deal. “As a result, many events happen ‘underground’ and therefore are in constant threat of being shut down due to complaints.”

But although many artists applaud the new effort from the city, they say that it is only a baby step. They’re still hobbled by two other significant barriers.

The city’s pilot program for small-venue licensing is an experiment that will run for up to two years.

The program is trying to encourage people who run the city’s off-grid spaces — quirky operations with names like the Dental Lab, 1067, China Cloud or the Emergency Room, frequently on the city’s east side —  to do two things. First, apply for a licence and, secondly, abide by the city’s new, modified bylaws. During that time, performance organizers will have access to a much cheaper and more simplified licensing system.

Event organizers can now submit a single application for a licence for as little as $25. In the past, they had to apply separately to the fire, engineering, and police departments and spend nearly $1,000 in the process.

They’ll still have to comply with some safety requirements, but a list that’s lower than the one for the Orpheum or the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

City staff will collect information, while doing random checks at the venues, to evaluate the program.

City’s ‘baby steps’ fall short of demand

Colin Cowan runs the China Cloud, an underground arts venue in east Vancouver. Photo: Maryse Zeidler
Colin Cowan runs the China Cloud, an underground arts venue in east Vancouver.

One of the spaces that will be trying to work with the new rules is China Cloud. The artist-run space is currently licensed as artist studios and an art gallery. On weekends, though, it hosts intimate performances by some of Vancouver’s and Canada’s best musicians. Its operators try to keep the location quiet.

Originally a cockroach-infested dive, the China Cloud has blossomed. The walls showcase hand-carved, wood-based art. Kitschy decorations adorn the tables. Comfortable couches surround the stage. The main room has a warm, welcoming feel to it.

The self-professed “Mr. Mother Goose” of the China Cloud is Colin Cowan.

Smiling readily under a mop of thinning red hair, Cowan sees the change as “a good start.” But like many artists who spoke at the council meeting, he was disappointed by the pilot program’s ceiling of two events a month.

“It’s nice to have a baby step,” he says, “but you want to make sure it’s at least a worthwhile baby step.”

City staff recommended a cap of two events a month per location so they could cope with the influx of applications. The venues will need to have concrete flooring and be at street level.

Like other underground venues, Cowan is hesitant to give out too much information about the China Cloud for fear of being shut down. The space doesn’t have a website or a Facebook page. Events are rarely advertised. People hear about shows by word of mouth.

Despite his reservations, Cowan is planning to apply for a licence for his two bigger monthly events.

But that still leaves another six unlicensed shows a month — one of the difficulties the new city program hasn’t addressed. Those shows will just stay under the radar, as they always have been. Many of them barely meet the minimum 25-person threshold that requires a licence in the first place.

Cowan doesn’t want to skirt the law. He’d like to see the program expand to eight events a month so that he could host musicians and other art without the constant fear of getting shut down.

“What would change is that we could legitimately put on shows and get licensing,” he says. “We could confidently run a business the way we want.”

The city estimates that it will receive up to 336 applications a year. If its assessment that there are up to 500 such events annually is correct, that leaves a shortfall of almost 14 events a month that will remain underground.

The two-events-a-month limit happens to coincide with the rules around another major issue in the underground arts scene: liquor.

Mixing arts, alcohol and business

Andrew Volk is opening a new underground arts space in Vancouver. He believes that art, alcohol and business are a natural fit. Photo: Maryse Zeidler
Andrew Volk (bottom left) is working on a new underground arts space in Vancouver.

The reason the city limited events to two, in part, is that it’s only possible for event organizers to get two temporary “special-occasion” liquor licences a month. The B.C. liquor control control and licensing branch rarely distributes “liquor primary” licences, which allow venues to operate more like a club.

Although selling alcohol isn’t the primary objective of these underground venues, many see liquor and the arts as a natural combination.

Patrons get to have a drink. Proceeds from the bar help subsidize the cost of hosting a show.

City officials recognize this. In the policy report they presented to council, they warned that events with alcohol can pose safety risks. But they recognized that “alcohol is also an integral part of many arts events” and that “audiences at arts and culture performances do not typically have problems with binge drinking or troublemaking.”

But it still kept the limit to two.

The bigger-picture restrictions around liquor-primary licences are what Andrew Volk believes is keeping Vancouver from its potential as a creative city.

An energetic guy with pale skin and crystal blue eyes, Volk has been running unlicensed parties and events for over a decade. He is working on a new space in east Vancouver. It will house artist studios, a printing press for a monthly arts and culture magazine, a recording studio, and an open room with a stage. So far, he has invested almost $10,000 into the space.

Volk looks to Berlin, where he lived for six months, as a model for innovation. “In Berlin, you can have the hippest shit going on,” he says. “You’ve got kids owning clubs and then making huge amazing things.”

For Volk, the regulations, costs and red tape associated with primary liquor licenses means that only well-established, middle-of-the-road businesses can pursue them. “It means that nobody young and cool is going to open anything,” he says.

Supporting the arts or stifling creativity

Vancouver’s underground arts scene has been around for a long time. While some artists are knowingly defying the rules, many more may not even be aware of them in the first place.

Jess Hill is a singer-songwriter who recently performed at a haberdashery in Yaletown. Photo: Maryse Zeidler
Jess Hill is a singer-songwriter who recently performed at a haberdashery in Yaletown.

Jess Hill is one such artist. A local singer-songwriter, Hill had no idea she needed a licence for her last event. For the release party for her latest CD, she packed just over 70 people in her living room in east Vancouver. Hill has also performed in art galleries, tattoo shops, and grocery stores. Recently, she even performed in a haberdashery in Yaletown.

For Hill, performing in her home was as much about creating a memorable performance as it was convenient and cost-effective. “When you make an experience that’s more sharable and that people feel more connected to,” she says, “then the word of mouth builds for the next thing.”

Events in residential areas are not included in the city’s new licensing program. But events like house concerts have long been popular across Canada. Home Routes is a Winnipeg-based organization that organizes cross-country house concert tours. Old Crow in North Vancouver hosts monthly home-based events. And artists often use house concerts as fodder for fundraising their next album with IndieGoGo.

When Hill found out about the new licensing program, her first thought was concern that it might stifle the city’s creativity. “There’s such a burgeoning vibrancy that’s already here and it could go one way or the other,” she says.

“I feel like we’re at that fork in the road where it could continue to thrive and grow or it could get killed by the paper trail.”