Say the words out loud: Community Arts Council. Listen for a reaction. Be prepared to duck.
They are words that come — such is the state of our society’s attitudes to the arts and arts enthusiasts these days — pre-freighted with disparagement. In the popular imagination, they are associated with twee teas where Sunday watercolourists who are accountants in real life exchange earnest compliments with dabbling potters in baggy woollies. They suggest unwise choices in clothes and repertoire by amateur sopranos accompanied by gaunt men on the cello in front of audiences sometimes numbering in the dozens. They suggest craft fairs where improbably flavoured vinegars and dubiously-scented soaps compete for your cash with raku piggy-banks and the best-ofclass display from the fall calligraphy course, everything the product of the beaming, glistening l’d-be-a-fulltime-artist-if-I-onlydidn’t-have-to-work apologist behind the folding baize table.
Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, such regrettably unreconstructed assumptions were perhaps not entirely unfounded. But mention the Community Arts Council of Vancouver and you are talking about a very different set of expectations indeed.
You want to know how useful the Community Arts Council of Vancouver has been in its 50 years? Look around and try to count your blessings. Not overtly artsy blessings, necessarily: simple things, things that affect the lives of all of us.
Try to imagine downtown without the trees that grace so many of our streets and boulevards — a downtown where, instead of plum and cherry blossoms, car dealers’ plastic pennants and giant hoardings dominate the spring cityscape. That’s how it was until the CAC campaigned for change; that’s how it still might be.
Try to imagine high-rises blotting out all that open green park space at the entrance of Stanley Park. It was going to happen. Two decades of fierce lobbying by the CAC eventually made sure it didn’t.
Arthur Erickson’s Robson Square complex, that remarkable architectural evocation of mountains and forests and waterfalls that brings our province’s topography to the centre of our city? A CAC study was instrumental in making sure Erickson’s plans bore fruit.
Wonder why the city has no Seattle-style freeways cutting across its heart and along its waterfront? Thank the CAC — and thank it, too, for the preservation of Gastown and the launching of the heritage movement in the city (these were the people who initiated the salvation of the Orpheum Theatre, Roedde House and Barclay Heritage Square.)
Talking theatres, have you been to a production by the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company recently? Or anything else in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre? The CAC was responsible for both: the Arts Council’s president at the time was the first person to speak on the Playhouse stage.
Street banners? The Community Arts Council started the tradition, back in 1958. The first Vancouver film festival? The Vancouver International Festival, which some look back on as the focal point of a decade-long Golden Age for the arts in this city? The Friends of Chambers Music… the University of B.C. Music School… the Vancouver Academy of Music… the Vancouver Museum and Planetarium … they all, to a greater or lesser degree, began as initiatives of the Community Arts Council.
When the CAC was launched, 50 years ago, it was an entirely new thing. Those who created it had no models in other cities on which to shape their dreams of civic betterment. They made it up themselves – imagined it so effectively, in fact, that it became the model, with Vancouver-inspired imitations springing up across North America.
What was it they aimed to create? A body that could mix well-intentioned enthusiasm with carefully selected professional expertise who would advance the notion that a city that pays attention to the social principles of public arts (imaginative expressiveness and shared aesthetic pleasure broadly applied to the urban environment) is likely to be a better place to live than one in which these principles go unconsidered.
At the heart of the half-century of success of The Community Arts Council of Vancouver is the spirit of intelligent, wellfocused volunteerism. And in this cutback obsessed era, an era in which the public cost of the arts is (like everything else in our society) under ever more meticulous scrutiny, volunteerism of this kind is something that we’re going to find increasingly necessary. Most of it goes unsung, which makes the long-term dedication of the people involved all the more remarkable. It’s the purest kind of civic service – you see something that needs doing, and you see that it gets done.
As this very partial list of achievements makes clear, one of the abiding and entirely praiseworthy principles of the Community Arts Council of Vancouver has been the determination to get things going and then get out of the way and let the professionals take over. In a sense, these people (amateurs in the best sense of the word’s origins in the Latin term for love) are, as former president Anthony Norfolk once put it, continually putting themselves out of business. But never for long. As Vancouver continues to grow and the city’s demographics continue to change, new needs will continue to arise to surprise and challenge those who are prepared to work with them.
It says much for the flexibility of the Community Arts Council of Vancouver that it has managed to stay in touch with these changes. In the past decade, for instance, it became apparent that a mainstream outlet was needed for artists (particularly minority artists) who might otherwise find it hard to show their work; the CAC now makes accessible a gallery of its own. Recognizing the crucial need to sensitize new generations to the life-enriching pleasures of involvement with the arts, the CAC now devotes much of its energy to advocacy.
In the 50 years since the CAC was launched, an entire national arts superstructure has been established; many flowers have blossomed. But if the ecology of art in Canada is to remain in healthy balance, the grassroots remain of crucial significance. It is to the grassroots that the CAC has always paid its unsung attention; we are all beneficiaries of its care.
And in the entirely unlikely event that people make disparaging remarks about community arts councils in your presence, be prepared to set them straight.