What It Takes to Create an Art Space For Everyone in Vancouver

Anna Rose, co-founder of Red Gate Arts Society, speaks on the “Youth Drain” and Other Issues Facing Vancouver’s DIY Music and Arts Scene

As the co-founder and an active member of the Vancouver-based arts collective Red Gate Arts Society, Anna Rose is more than familiar with the pattern of exodus for young artists in the city, and relates how “only two of the eight founding members of Red Gate remain in Vancouver.”

Red Gate, as an arts society and venue, aims to provide affordable performance, gallery, and working spaces for artists. They also make a point to be a cultural scene where young and emerging artists can develop their skills and overcome obstacles, as oppose to leaving to more affordable cities such as Montreal and Toronto with larger artistic communities.

Rose refers to this phenomena as a “youth drain” and explains how “young creative people have no choice but to go somewhere else where they can afford to live.”

“If you want a city life,” says Rose, “it’s not viable if all the young people move to Surrey or Abbotsford.”

Rose, a native of Vancouver, has sentimental reasons for staying: “…it’s my home and I don’t want it to be a cultural wasteland, especially since it has the potential to be vibrant and interesting.” The concept of a cultural wasteland is not unique to Rose’s experiences. It has also been articulated in a recent piece in The Walrus called “The Highest Bidder” which denotes how, given the way things are headed, Vancouver’s future is no more than that of an ocean-side resort town for rich people, without a middle class or any young aspiring artists.

The impeding force behind Vancouver’s art scene and Red Gate itself is gentrification. As new businesses and condos cause rent prices to increase, art spaces and venues are pushed out of downtown and further away from the city’s centre. “There are four artist studios on our block alone that will be gone in the next two years,” explains Rose. “Essentially it’s wherever the poor artists go, to the lower income places, where we’re generally viewed as the first wave of gentrification.”

Rose elaborates on Vancouver’s history of gentrification, and recalls her dad mentioning his first cheap warehouse studio in Yaletown, back when Yaletown was “weird and industrial”. She also relates how the renovation of the SFU Woodwards building was a designation that the central part of downtown would evolve and become gentrified. This was in 2013, and the first Red Gate building, located across the street, was forced to change locations soon after they began construction.

Red Gate’s current neighbourhood, between Strathcona and Clark on Hastings St., is already experiencing the same development, and Red Gate is yet again planning a move. “Our whole block has been bought up, and there’s huge condo development going on a block away”. This is a disappointment for Red Gate, since according to Rose, “the new address has worked out really well so far, and is really great in of itself and for shows.”

However, now that their lease is up, they have to pay rent month to month, which jeopardizes their longevity and impedes their ability to apply for grants or make long term plans. Rose explains that the situation of Red Gate is not exceptional, and that other arts collectives and venues constantly face similar kinds of problem, offering the example of Vancouver Art and Leisure, a venue for LGBTQ+ nightlife, which has faced the same instability due to elevated property values.

Red Gate’s mandate is to provide cheap studio and gallery spaces to artists, especially to those young or up and coming who may have trouble finding exposure elsewhere. But many of Vancouver’s by-laws and antiquated liquor laws make it difficult for Red Gate to offer its services, the prime example being all-ages shows. “For us,” says Rose, “we mostly just do the all-ages shows as a favour to the community, we just don’t make money. Throwing all-age shows is kind of a nightmare, and logistically really difficult. You have to search people’s bags, and if someone who is underage brings in beer, we’re responsible. If someone is drinking and comes in drunk, we’re responsible. And if someone leaves drunk, we’re responsible for them basically until they get home.”

For revenue, Red Gate relies mostly on cover and rental of their studio spaces, and they have no intention of becoming liquor primary, nor of charging teenagers $25 at the door to compensate for lack of liquor sales. “We want to be decent humans,” says Rose. The fact is however that being licensed as a gallery space, with the ability to have only temporary liquor licenses, makes them susceptible to by-law breaches and the threat of being shut down.

Red Gate also prides itself on being a safe space for all demographics, and with its various workshops on issues such as consent and Fentanyl, is giving back more to the community than you would expect from other more popular and well established venues.

“Red Gate is run almost entirely by women; that makes the dialogue and focus a bit more balanced than a lot of other places, as well as actively working with different groups in conscious bystander training. It’s a continuous conversation that we’re all discussing and being aware of. An inclusive policy also doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want.”

In the DIY Vancouver arts scene Red Gate is a staple, and Rose acknowledges the sense of community that the space has engendered. In addition, however, to the high rent, another main concern for Red Gate and other such venues and arts related spaces is limited legal protection from the city, which Rose says, “has a long way to go.”

“Our ultimate goal is to have a protected, sanctioned cultural area, where the rent doesn’t get spiked by speculation. Another fantasy is a long term lease or lease to own that we won’t have to move from, which will give us the opportunity to do the crazy long term projects we have in mind. That’s the golden ticket in Vancouver right now, is any building that doesn’t cost millions of dollars.”

Besides the idea of a sanctioned cultural area, which Rose mentioned has happened in other cities, she also commented on the idea of an entirely youth-run venue in Vancouver (which she hopes the collective will one day create).

“If some of the provincial government funding went into a permanent all ages venue, it would be a great experience for them, teenagers would be able to run the bookings and shows, and there could be a couple people of age to make sure it doesn’t all go down in flames,”

For reference, a concrete example of this being successful in another city is the “Pavilion Halifax”, an all ages club opened in 1998 on the Halifax Common, which supports independent bands by providing a space to perform and the opportunity to generate a fan base.

As it stands, Red Gate is proof that a DIY arts space and venue can operate autonomously in Vancouver. Rose is thankful for the “overwhelming sense of community and amount of support” Red Gate has received, but also believes that the community should always be growing.

“We don’t intend to be exclusive. The more people who come down to be inspired, the better. The problem is legislation, and the real-estate market, those are the two biggest hurdles.”

In the months leading up to our interview, premier Christy Clark announced a $15-million grant for B.C’s music sector. In her grant, she proposes creating a “vibrant music sector in the province” to combat the “significant erosion of B.C’s assets in recent year.” One would imagine that, in the process of helping artists, as well as live music and performance spaces, she would consult people like Anna Rose and Red Gate.

“A positive note” concludes Rose, “is that the city and people running policy are coming around to the fact that Vancouver can be culturally vibrant, and how that starts from the bottom, with grassroots places that incubate culture.”

As for the new building, Rose remains optimistic: “it’s exciting, the next building will always be interesting in ways I can’t predict.”

Red Gate is always in need of support, and for $20 a month you can help by become a supporting member and in exchange receive access to their private online calendar. They are also aspiring to create an entirely all ages venue in a new space, and any interest or inquiry about contributing to such a venue can be directed to their website.

Featured image by Ivanna Besenovsky.

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