Lorna Brown is a well-known Vancouver artist, curator, and educator. She is pictured here with the billboard for Digital Natives, a project she and Clint Burnham curated for the Vancouver 125 series.
Dear Mayor and Council,
I am an artist, curator and writer. I currently live and work in Mount Pleasant, and have lived in the East Side of the city for close to three decades. I am writing to state my opposition to the rezoning application for the proposed Rize development at Broadway and Kingsway.
Our city is home to the highest concentration of artists of any city in Canada, and the character and vitality of our neighbourhood reflects this reality. As our elected representatives, you have a responsibility to defend, and further, to improve the capacity of artists and cultural workers to continue to live in and contribute to the communities we helped to build. I believe that the proposed Rize development is a significant threat to this objective. To approve this rezoning application would contradict many of the stated policies of City Council regarding its commitment to the arts, its priority to address the studio space crisis, as well as its intentions regarding the lack of affordable housing.
This issue has a personal dimension for me: along with many other artists, my studio was located at 246 East Broadway and was destroyed by fire on Christmas Day, 2009. I would like to share with you the effects of displacement on an enterprise such as mine, since it will illustrate the impact of relocation on the art community in general, should work space and housing become increasingly unaffordable and artists can no longer live or work here. That Christmas morning marked the beginning of an ongoing struggle to rebuild the independent artistic practice that is my livelihood. Securing a new space to work, negotiation with the insurance company, legal consultation, replacing business records and documents, equipment and the like were tasks that needed to be done while at the same time meeting current and ongoing commitments in order to keep my practice afloat. My accountant commented that few businesses survive this kind of forced relocation. No amount of insurance could compensate for the cost of rebuilding, lost income and lost opportunities. In this way, my experience parallels what I see in the near future for the many artists, arts organizations and creative small businesses that make Mount Pleasant such a vibrant neighbourhood. By contributing to the increased costs of work spaces, exhibition spaces, and housing in our area, the Rize development will lead to a ‘planned’ and systematic displacement of our community. At the same time, it will create a deficit to be borne entirely by the sector that has developed the principal assets of this community, the very qualities that make it valuable.
While I am not opposed to responsible development, nor to positive change in my community, the proposed Rize development is neither. It offers no housing that anyone in my community can afford. It offers no tangible benefit to the street life, local business community or cultural health of Mount Pleasant. It is a harbinger, in fact, of the destruction of what is valuable and treasured by residents.
It will threaten the local presence of a vital and internationally recognized art community. In an interdependent relationship, the art community supports and generates significant economic activity and a host of social benefits through a combination of non-profit, for-profit and social profit ventures. The art community contributes to a very high quality of life even for those on very modest incomes – ours and our neighbours. This delicate and successful balance needs viable, stable and healthy organizations like artist-run centres and local businesses. We rely upon volunteer labour as well as paid work, creative collaboration based on shared values, and cooperative attitudes. These currencies are scarce when residents – our audiences, our young colleagues, our neighbours – struggle to earn enough money for a place to live or to work. Generosity and cooperation are not part of the business plans of the franchise operations that are replacing small, independent businesses up and down Main Street. Irresponsible development, with its focus on short-term gain, threatens the precarious balance that exists in this neighbourhood, and if it gains the support of city hall, the decades of very tangible investment by artists and our supporters will be squandered, with no benefit to anyone in our community. To approve this rezoning application is to ask our community to not only forfeit what we have already contributed, but to also shoulder the losses arising from our displacement.
At the moment, on the corner of Broadway and Kingsway, a very orange marketing campaign occupies the location destroyed by the fire. It consists of several temporary walls, some temporary fencing, a temporary bench. Papering the walls are enlarged facsimiles of artworks. There is an evergreen tree with sparkly tinsel, no doubt potted for ease of removal. It mimics an art installation of the friendly, community-minded variety in a cynical attempt to appear like a good neighbour. It seriously underestimates its audience, who recognize that this unused, fake park, this branding exercise, is planted on a site where family businesses, creative work and long-term practices were once active. There is no pleasure to be found in this unintended irony.
If the development is well represented by its marketing, we can expect something clumsy, poorly executed, and out of touch with the community in which it is placed. It will consider art to be wallpaper, only valuable as propaganda, as a temporary diversion. Artists themselves will be considered expendable, a resource successfully tapped to extinction. The development will leverage the investment made by our community while at the same time ensuring that we cannot profit from it. The development, as a precedent and a formula, will be replicated in other artist-friendly neighbourhoods.
If Council is serious about its claims that ‘everyone who wants to live in Vancouver should be able to live here’, if it truly values what artists, volunteers, audiences and cultural workers have contributed to our success as a city, then it will choose to prevent the forced relocation of our community. If pushed out of the city into the suburbs – or more likely into other cities – this displacement will be permanent.
Lorna Brown is a Vancouver artist, curator, and educator. Over several decades she has made a significant contribution to Vancouver’s visual arts scene, both at home and internationally. Her recent independent curatorial projects include the online archive Ruins in Process: Vancouver Art in the Sixties, Group Search: art in the library, at the Vancouver Public Library, and the public art project Digital Natives, a Vancouver 125 commission. Over the years, she has volunteered on boards and committees for The Western Front, The Or Gallery, Artspeak, grunt gallery, Access Gallery, and The Vancouver Art Gallery. She was Director/Curator of Artspeak Gallery from 1999-2004. Since 1984, her work has been shown in exhibitions at Dazibao, Montreal; Presentation House Gallery, North Vancouver; Contemporary Art Gallery and Centre A, Vancouver; Gallery 44, Toronto; Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa; Tapei Fine Arts Museum among others.
Please also see a letter by Vancouver art curator/director Glenn Alteen. For more details on Rize and Mount Pleasant visit the Residents Association of Mount Pleasant website.