“Miss Comer, a smartly attired, smart talking brunette from New York has helped organize a Vancouver survey called, ‘The Arts in Our Town.’”
– Vancouver Sun, May 30, 1946.
“NEW ARTS COUNCIL FIRST IN
DOMINION [headline] Founding Director Howard Goodwin called the
new organization, ‘a new-born but lusty infant.’”
– Vancouver Sun, October 30, 1946.
The Community Arts Council of Vancouver, the first Arts Council to be established in North America, came about mainly through the efforts of two determined and talented women and their friends. The vision, enthusiasm, and energy which characterized the council’s formative years, seem upon reflection today, extraordinary. These women, Jean Russell, past president of the Junior League of Vancouver and its president, Elena Arkell (later Wait), tried to persuade the league to broaden its service to the com¬munity by embracing support for the arts. As World War II drew to a close, there was some feeling that an uplifting of spirits was needed through artistic expression and appreciation. The idea was not immediately accepted, but the persuasive Elena Arkell and strong-mind¬ed Jean Russell led the way. Before long the Junior League of Vancouver, and gradually the wider community, became staunch sup¬porters of their new idea.
Before the war ended, Virginia Lee Comer a professional arts consultant of the Association of Junior Leagues of America in New York, had put forward the idea that assisting the arts could be a worthwhile community service. She had prepared a plan for surveying the state of the arts in American cities, published in 1944 and called Arts and Our Town. Jean and Elena recognized Miss Comer as a kindred spirit, so they invited her to come to Vancouver to explain her project. The local Junior League readily accepted her survey plan, and a year later published ‘The Arts and Our Town: Vancouver, Canada.’ This report was to change the face of the post-war city.
In May 1946, Mayor J.W. Cornett called a public meeting which was attended by 350 people representing seventy-one Vancouver arts organizations. Ira Dilworth, Western Director of the CBC, and later the Arts Council’s first chair, presented ‘The Arts and Our Town,’ a report with fourteen recommendations, the principal one being the formation of a coordinating council of the arts. The Junior League was asked by the mayor to organize an interim committee to draw up a constitution and by-laws for a community arts council. Lawyer Jean Russell chaired this committee which consisted of Elena Arkell, artist Lawren Harris, Ira Dilworth, Eleanor Gibson (later Gregory) and Howard Goodwin. Jean Russell, who had worked at the Boeing Aircraft plant during the war, persuaded John Goss, a local union member, to join the committee.
On October 29, 1946, an expectant crowd jammed the Mayfair Room of the Hotel Vancouver for a civic meeting at which Mayor Cornett thanked the interim committee for their work. Then he announced that a coordinating body for the arts in Vancouver would be organized, and that the Junior League would assemble the first board. There was a gasp of triumph from the crowd and the words rang out, “We have an Arts Council!”
The original Community Arts Council of Vancouver board was organized on an informal basis. Ira Dilworth was its chair, Nora Gibson (later Gregory) its secretary-treasurer and its first members included Jean Russell, Elena Arkell, Alex Walton, Howard Goodwin and Dr. Norman McKenzie, president of the University of British Columbia. Two of the board members, Elena Arkell and Jean Russell, invited industrialist H.R. McMillan to have lunch and at the end of the meal he said, “Well, girls, how much money do you want?” Laughing, they replied, “No, not money, we want you to be on the board.” H.R. MacMillan accepted with grace and became a strong Arts Council supporter. Another initial member recruited as a result of their efforts was the Hotel Vancouver maître d’, John Helders, who allowed board meetings to be held in one of the rooms at the hotel.
When Ira Dilworth was transferred by the CBC to Montreal in 1947, Elena Arkell took over as the Arts Council’s chair, and things really started to hum. The new board was spurred on by two visitors from the British Arts Council, Sir Eric McLagan and Dr. B. lfor Evans. These gentlemen declared, “You can’t just sit there and coordinate. You have to make yourselves known. In order to be effective, you must get involved in projects so that the community knows who you are.” This was the inspiration the fertile minds of the new directors needed. From then on, they met once a week at the downtown Arctic Club and started to conjure up some imaginative schemes.
By this time the Arts Council needed an office. One of its strong supporters in these formative years was A.E. “Dal” Grauer, president of B.C. Electric. In Arts Council circles he was known as the “spark that got us going” because as chair of the Vancouver Symphony Board he was able to arrange with the manager, Derek Inman, to allow the new council to occupy a rent free room in the symphony’s premises on Seymour Street. This room had a desk and a few chairs and was the office for the council’s first paid employee, secretary Dorothy Chipping. The Junior League came to the rescue once again by paying her salary.
The Community Arts Survey Committee, 1945 (responsible for publication of ‘The Arts and Our Town: Vancouver, Canada’):
- Miss J. Russell, chairman
- Mrs. R.R. Arkell
- Mr. L.H. Berry
- Mrs. Norman Brown
- Mrs. Ernest Buckerfield
- Mrs. Harold H. Caple
- Mrs. Julia Christianson
- Mr. Ira Dilworth
- Mr. T.H. Goodwin
- Mr. John Goss
- Mr. Lawren Harris
- Mr. J.G. Hilker
- Mrs. E. E. lrwin
- Mr. Adolph Koldofsky
- Dean Dorothy Mawdsley
- Mr. J.Y. McCarter
- Mr. T.P.O. Menzies
- Mrs. R. Dubois Phillips
- Mr. E.S. Robinson
- Mr. Charles Scott
- Miss Dorothy Somerset
1946 the major cultural organizations included the Vancouver Symphony
Orchestra, the Junior Symphony, the Little Theatre, the Bach Choir the
Vancouver School of Art, the Vancouver Art Gallery and a cramped museum
above the Carnegie Library at Main and Hastings. There was the Denman
Auditorium on Georgia near what is now the Bayshore Inn, but no civic
theatre. No coordination existed between any of these artistic
endeavours regarding dates of upcoming performances or events.
In 1947 the Arts Council launched its first major project: the initiation of weekly acting and dancing classes for children in four community centres. These culminated in the presentation of two very ambitious theatrical productions, Bluebeard with a cast of 120 children supported by dozens of volunteers and the following year Snow White, with an equally impressive cast. This venture then became reorganized as the Vancouver’s Children’s Theatre.
In 1949, continuing to follow the advice of the dignitaries from the British Arts Council to “get involved in projects so that the community knows who you are,” the Arts Council presented an ambitious exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Design for Living. ‘This month-long display consisted of four different architecturally designed houses, decorated and furnished by local manufacturers. The work of Vancouver artists and craftspeople was featured. The exhibit was wildly successful, with 14,000 people attending, breaking all attendance records for the time.
Other Arts Council members arranged a one-act play festival. This week-long event had three adjudicators, and three one-act plays every night. Some of these amateur presentations displayed more enthusiasm than talent. Mary Roaf remembers being told by another board member, Geoffrey Andrew, “Mary, your show is slipping.” The remark was in fun, but in fact any dramatic group good or bad was invited to participate and all were given a fair criticism by the adjudicators. In addition to the one-act play festival, the committee developed the Vancouver Children’s Theatre, which sponsored performances for young people and eventually became Holiday Theatre.
Another early activity was the promotion of the first Vancouver appearance of the National Ballet of Canada through developing community support and arranging imaginative publicity.
During those early years there was a close ‘town and gown’ relationship between the Arts Council and the University of British Columbia through UBC President Norman “Larry” Mackenzie, a great supporter of the Arts Council and a founding board member. Around 1948, he telephoned Elena Arkell to say that he could not keep up with all the demands of the Vancouver artistic scene because so much needed to be done. He said he was delegating his newly appointed assistant, Dean Geoffrey Andrew, to support the council’s aims.
In 1949, Virginia Lee Comer visited again from New York, obviously intrigued by the development of the new society. Her report of this visit declared:
“The Community Arts Council of Vancouver, in a scant two years of operation, has achieved a remarkable degree of acceptance in the community. During this period, while it has been drawing the blueprint of its own structure with no precedents to follow, it has proven enough of a concrete nature to show that the concept has validity and substance. The council is no longer an experiment.”