Performing Arts in Squamish: What will the future bring?

Plenty of talent, but funding and venues lacking

The Sea to Sky Corridor is rich in creative people who excel in the performing arts, but the question many ask is if Squamish is rich in support for the arts. 

In the lead up to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, cultural activities were supposed to become a legacy for the region. Arts and culture were funded, but limited to the host communities.

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Some of Squamish’s artistic talent did get their moment in the spotlight at the Olympics. Dana-Marie Battaglia, whom The Chief readers voted best local musician in 2010, played at the athlete’s village in Whistler and in the town’s village square, as well as at events in the Callaghan in the years leading up to the Olympics.

“The Olympics was an amazing time, I made $7,000 in four weeks. Plus, there was a lot of grant money.  Also, there was a lot of awesome paid work in the year leading up to it. But after the Olympics, everything just dropped off,” said Battaglia. 

Battaglia wonders why the District can’t have a dedicated arts administrator. “Most successful non-profits have a paid administrator, so there’s some ongoing connection, someone who can coordinate everything. Yes, volunteers do the work during the event, but you need someone who knows what’s going on.”

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Between Shifts Theatre Society artistic director Kathy Daniels, photographed in a rehearsal space donated by the Sea to Sky Hotel. - David Buzzard

Kathy Daniels, who has helped run the Between Shifts Theatre Company since its inception 25 years ago, has the same lament. 

“Absolutely, I would love to see a dedicated arts administrator, but there’s just never the funds to hire someone from the District,” Daniels says an arts administrator would go a long way toward preventing volunteer burn out, which so many non-profits in Squamish suffer from.

The Chief contacted the District of Squamish for comment, but did not hear back by press deadline.

Lack of venues is also a major concern, especially with uncertainty over the future of the Brackendale Art Gallery. “Way back when, when I sat on the select committee for arts and commerce,” Daniels recalled.  “I said we should have a dedicated arts venue. I tried to tell them other towns in B.C. of comparable size had such a facility. They said, ‘we don’t believe you.’ So I went to Terrace, Salt Spring, Chemainus and North Van, and showed them the facilities those communities had. I asked the District to buy the building, which is now The Ledge Cafe, for that purpose.... I keep getting told the District will build a dedicated arts venue, but I think in the end it will take private money to make it happen.”

There has been talk about a community arts facility on the oceanfront, as part of an amenity package. But some feel the District should buy the BAG for that purpose.

Thor Froslev, the founder and proprietor of the BAG, which he started in 1972, with $5,500, describes the BAG as a privately held community arts centre. It has been that and much more through the years, bringing in many accomplished performers, including Barney Bentall, Paul Horn and the Purcell String Quartet. As well, it has a long theatre history.

“Some of the people who performed here became very large in B.C theatre. Some of their faces are on our casting wall,” said Froslev.

He hinted at wanting a District takeover of the BAG, only going as far to say “Patty [Mayor Patricia Heintzman] would be a good woman to run this place.”

Local musician, Norman Foote, says he doesn’t think the BAG as a publicly owned venue, would be the way to go. 

“Everyone has their own opinion on what it should be. But ideally, I hope someone can take over and do at least three-quarters of what Thor and Dorte have done with it. The BAG has already become the default community centre for arts groups in Squamish. I just hope someone younger takes it over and maintains it. I think you need someone with a passion to take it over and promote it the way Thor promoted it,” said Foote.

Another venue, now gone, but fondly remembered, demonstrates how even a simple stage and a small room, can foster local performing arts.

“I’m just an old washed up mommy now,” says Battaglia, “But when I was 21 and came to Squamish, I found a community here. Greg [Fischer] at Gelato Carina was a big help. Back then it was like Cheers (the fictional bar, from the long-running TV show of the same name). You could go and perform there and hone your skills playing before a small, but friendly audience.”

Between Shifts Theatre Company just finished their presentation of the Canadian horror play, Pontypool, and are preparing for their Christmas production, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Despite that, Daniels says a “huge big fat negative,” hangs over the local theatre troupe, in the form of losing their storage space. Which is just the latest travail in the ongoing struggle of local arts groups. 

“It can be disheartening, in 25 years, we’ve never had a home.

“The Squamish Arts Council is trying to help local arts groups, but they’re limited in what they can do, and their members are overloaded and overwhelmed. There are a lot of arts here, but not much support,” said Daniels, adding that the community is losing arts events, like the defunct Sea to Sky Film Fest that brought people from the Lower Mainland to Squamish.

Johana Schwarz has been involved with the Howe Sound Performing Arts Association since 1990. And while the community has lost some events, she says the performing arts community has grown, despite the lack of concurrent growth in arts infrastructure.

“The Wind Festival is expanding, we have the summer concert series at the [Sea to Sky] Gondola, there are plans to expand Canada Day celebrations, but volunteers are burning out,” said Schwarz.

She, like most others in the local arts community, wonder when or if, the long-promised arts centre will ever materialize?

“I’ve read about the storage problem Between Shifts is having. And now we’ll probably lose the BAG as a venue. Eagle Eye Theatre is busy, and busier all the time. We need more focus on the arts, the time for that is here.” Schwarz adds that and arts venue would be a draw for the entire corridor, just as the Squamish-based Howe Sound Music Festival attracts young talent from Lions Bay to Pemberton. But she had no illusions the Olympics would bring a lasting arts legacy to Squamish. “We weren’t part of the money, so that didn’t surprise me. Although Quest University did talk about having a theatre I was hopeful there, so there have been a couple of disappointments.”

Brian Marchant, a member of the Squamish Arts Council, who is also very active with Howe Sound Performing Arts Association, says arts are still not recognized in the community.

“We’re all about rec and eco-tourism, there’s nothing wrong with that, but arts and culture could compliment it.” Marchant acknowledges the Eagle Eye Theatre is receiving much-needed upgrades but feels much more needs to be done. If not an arts centre, then at least a full-time arts administrator. 

“SAC has been doing great work, and they were designed to be an administrative hub, but they need to scale up. In some ways, they’ve been doing that, but more support is needed to provide momentum, to propel the community forward.” Marchant says its an interesting time for the arts community in Squamish. Noting that as a whole it should be on the cusp of doing great things, but suffers from volunteer burnout. “There are some private venues, but the time is ripe for a community arts centre, it’s frustrating.” 

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Thor Froslev introduces Dustin Bentall and Kendal Carson at the Brackendale Art Gallery

Marchant says the arts centre, he and others envision, would have a scalable 300 to 400 seat theatre, smaller multipurpose rooms, storage space for costumes and sets, and perhaps even a cafe as an artists’ gathering spot. 

But like many things, it is a question of funding and timing. For close to 10 years Marchant and others have been lobbying local government for such a facility. 

“Before the gondola, before the boom, the council of the day didn’t see enough strength in the art movement. They said before anything was done we had to have a sustainable program. But now, the discussion isn’t really happening, even though it’s much more realistic today. I hope developers will step up to the table, and projects will put aside a percentage for an arts centre. 

“In the meantime, I enjoy the camaraderie of the local arts community. These problems are familiar, and at some point, you can’t do anything more. I’m not negative about arts here,” he stressed.

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