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    Vancouver and Seattle: a tale of two arts cities

    The Vancouver Symphony plays in Seattle, including a stunning performance. Why have the cities so diverged in their development of the arts?
    Bramwell Tovey, conductor of the Vancouver Symphony

    Bramwell Tovey, conductor of the Vancouver Symphony

    Last week, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra kicked off its West Coast tour with a concert at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. The orchestra turned in a performance rather like the Seahawks: an awkward first half followed by a stunning second half, sending Prokofiev far over the moon.

    More about the concert below, but first some thoughts comparing Vancouver and Seattle as arts cities.  Both cities are rich, full of arts appreciators, about the same size. Yet by most measures of artistic achievement, Seattle ranks far ahead of Vancouver. How come?

    More than two decades ago I received a visitor from Vancouver to my offices at Seattle Weekly. This cultivated Londoner wanted to encourage us to start, with him, a version of the Weekly in Vancouver, with emphasis on sophisticated arts coverage. He fondly imagined (these were the late 1980s, when such delusions were still alive) that good arts criticism would develop audiences who would demand a higher caliber of arts performances, particularly music.

    The publishing venture never happened, but it did prompt a serious look at Vancouver media and the arts. There wasn’t much back then: a smallish Vancouver Arts Gallery, an opera company that had a few high moments when Joan Sutherland’s husband was its conductor and could attract the aging, great soprano. Pretty good theater and ballet. Mediocre performance venues. Some lively wrong-side-of-the-tracks arts in East Vancouver.

    Seattle, meanwhile, had the Big Five (opera, symphony, ballet, art museum, theater), all growing rapidly and about to enter into a decade in which a billion dollars of new arts buildings were going up. This is highly unusual for a city of our mid-size, where normally only one or two arts organizations has a big budget a high aspirations.

    The disparity had several explanations. Canadian arts get far more public subsidy than ours, but an awkward amount – not enough to create excellence, but enough to discourage private donations. That funding is also unstable, as when B.C. cut arts funding by more than half in 2009, though much of this was later restored albeit nowhere near the levels promised when the BC Lottery Fund was set up.

    Vancouver is a city without the kind of striving-for-national-attention business establishment that Seattle had in those building decades, in part because the B.C. economy is resource-based and many of the corporate offices are in the suburbs, not downtown, and headquarters tend to be in Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto. (Developers make a lot more money building condos than office towers in glittering downtown Vancouver.) And as “Canada’s California,” Vancouver is more about enjoying the outdoors and the laid-back, counter-cultural life than using high arts to attract corporate employees and to stimulate downtown real estate (the Seattle formula).

    Seattle, if anything, over-achieved. Now all of our majors are struggling financially and scaling back, and we keep shedding theater companies and small musical groups.  Vancouver still has many of the same handicaps. You would think, with an Expo and a Winter Games, that it would have built first-class performance spaces, but the VSO is still confined to the Orpheum, a converted movie palace, and Vancouver Opera makes do in the remodeled but acoustically ungainly Queen Elizabeth Hall. One truly fine music venue is the Chan Centre at U.B.C., but it's a small venue with lots of demand on the space from the university and far out on the edge of town.

    The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently paralyzed by a civic debate about whether to build a big new museum or to fix up the small one and build a series of satellite museums. One big collector who is also the chair of the VAG Foundation, Michael Audain, is sending his fabulous collection to Whistler.

    And there are many recent casualties, in part because the B.C. government is scaling back support of the arts further. The beloved Vancouver Playhouse, scene of the most serious theater, has just disbanded after 49 years. MusicFest Vancouver, a summer festival, has suspended operations. Ballet BC has managed to return from the brink of extinction. The latest blow is the closing of the Waldorf Hotel, a funky cultural center that is the heart of East Vancouver. The city had done better than Seattle in creating art spaces in less affluent neighborhoods, but now a mainstay of that world has been lost (though the arts advocates are fighting back).

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    Posted Mon, Jan 28, 7:25 a.m. Inappropriate

    Any comparison has to take into account Seattle's much larger size. The two countries count "metro areas" in a variety of ways, but if you call Seattle four million and Vancouver two and a half that would be about right. It certainly helps explain some of the differences in arts support. On the flip side, Vancouver is denser, and sometimes being able to walk to a museum or symphony encourages you to go more often.


    Posted Mon, Jan 28, 7:59 a.m. Inappropriate

    I love seeing these comparisons between Seattle and Vancouver. While reading it I was reminded of Ethelbert Miller, the poet, activist and head of the African-American Resource Center at Howard U in Washington DC, who says when the opera comes in, he gets nervous. Says while it's a good sign for high brow culture, it's a bad sign for everything else.

    I think about that when I compare the two cities as towns as places for innovative poetry. Seattle had Roethke starting in 1947 and David Wagoner is fond of saying that there was not a poet within 500 miles at that time. True enough, but when Roethke made the switch to open form in the early 60s, he was about 50 years behind those at the leading edge of that effort. Still, better late than never. But in Vancouver in the early 60s they have had the TISH poets (which have given Canada two poets laureate). That in itself would be enough, a whole movement and generation pushing the poetics of Charles Olson (who was the first to use the term post-modern and, essentially pioneered the post-modern movement in U.S. literature), Robert Duncan (the subject of a brilliant new biography by Lisa Jarnot) and Jack Spicer, whose books sell in Vancouver almost as well as they do Spicer's home base, San Francisco. That was the energy that facilitated the seminal Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963 which has never been equaled in Seattle.

    Then there is Robin Blaser, who pushed the serial poem form ahead of just about anyone on the planet, the Kootenai School of Writing, a beachhead for Language Poetry in Vancouver, the eco-dharma school of poetry as Trevor Carolan likes to describe it, taking off from the work of people like Gary Snyder, and other such innovators. Seattle, on the other hand, has not had the same amount of activity for as long, but Jeanne Heuving's new poetics program at UW Bothell (of all places) is a wonderful addition, if heavy on the Language Poetry side of things. Their Convergence on Poetics conference last September was a major gathering of innovative writers from all over the U.S. There is great hope for Seattle, being such a literate city, with myriad natural energy sources from which to write (mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, island, fjords, &c;) but when it comes to something beyond money to make an artistic movement happen, Vancouver in my estimation, has had the edge. Now if only those opera types could make it a little easier for poets with housing (Art Space Seattle is a great start), or health care assistance (community acupuncture and Project Access NW are great starts too) or grants based on innovative prowess. Too many arts grant projects in Seattle are essentially quota programs that benefit mediocrity. The Griffin Poetry Prize, which has gone to people like John Ashberry, Robin Blaser and other bone fide innovators would be a great model to emulate and would be a drop in the bucket of the opera fans.


    Posted Mon, Jan 28, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

    Excellent article, and of course, one must account not only for size as mhays says, but wealth - both corporate and individual - as well as philanthropic climate and tax differences in the two countries. It is astonishing to see the difference in the donor recognition pages between the Seattle Symphony and the Vancouver Symphony; the size of the VSO's list, and the levels of support, are a very small, very pale shadow of the Seattle Symphony's. It is quite the eye-opener. The levels of available support from individuals - donations and ticket purchases - and corporations is just completely different, and here Vancouver is utterly dwarfed by Seattle.


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