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Vancouver reviving its arts, culture panel

Vancouver is reviving its Arts, Culture & Heritage Commission, returning a sign of city prosperity that had been left bereft since 2005.

The $400,000-per-year program will include a pool of cultural grant funds, a public art program for new installations and maintenance of existing art, and a new a full-time cultural services manager. The city council will also appoint 11 leaders from the community to the volunteer commission.

“We haven’t had a cultural commission in 14 years,” Jan Bader, Vancouver’s program and policy development manager, said in a presentation to the city council earlier this week. “Here’s the sort of first, out-of-the-gate look at what the commission might look like.”

Last broached by the city council during its retreat in March, the revived commission would serve as a development authority rather than an advisory body. It’s a seemingly trivial distinction, but a development authority actually has much more material power, Bader said.

Unlike the last time around, the new arts body could operate independently, issuing bonds and entering into contracts.

“It would be a separate legal entity created under the city council’s direction, and it would be able to solicit and accept public and private funds. It could own physical assets, like the art collections or buildings,” Bader explained.

She proposed presenting a slate of potential commission members to the council, who could then select 11 people to serve. Term lengths are tentatively set at three years, with a maximum of two terms. The candidates would be drawn from a wide swath of groups. Ideally, Vancouver’s arts, heritage, culture and business communities would be represented, Bader said.

The change marks a new era for public art in Vancouver — or, rather, a return to a past heyday.

In 1994, the city established a Cultural Commission, an advisory body designed to better focus Vancouver’s approach to public art and heritage. For a decade, the commission, led by a cultural services manager staffer, advised the city council on how to spend public money and distribute grant funds.

“Then, we started into the budget-cutting years,” Bader said.

Around 2003, the group started to fizzle, slicing its annual art grant funding in half. The year after that, the cultural services manager position was eliminated from the city’s staff, and in 2005 the commission was suspended altogether.

In 2009, a Columbian article glumly noted that Vancouver had the “unappealing distinction of being the largest city in the Northwest not to have a public arts center or a percent-for-the-arts program to fund public art.”

The freshly revived grant program will allocate $100,000 per year. Starting this year, nonprofit and government groups can apply online for small grants of up to $10,000. Once the commission is established, they’ll review applications and make recommendations to the city council.

“The cultural grant program, we’re pretty much ready to go with this,” Bader said.

On top of that, the city plans to set aside an additional $100,000 to $150,000 per year for commissioning new public art and maintaining the art that already exists. City staff have already sent out a request for proposals, creating an on-call roster for curators who can help maintain and repair public art.

The final piece of the puzzle — a full-time city staff position, the cultural services manager — will be temporarily filled by Bader herself. In her presentation to city council, the soon-to-retire staffer said she hoped revitalizing Vancouver’s art scene could be her final contribution to the city.

“The plan for the cultural services manager position is for me to transition into that position as I’m planning to retire sometime late next year,” Bader said. “So that’ll give me an opportunity to get the program fully off the ground and spend my last time with the city working with something I care deeply about.”

For the first two years, the $400,000 sum to fund the arts program will be drawn from Vancouver’s general fund.

After that, a proposal in A Stronger Vancouver, an expansive, $30 million package of taxes and fees currently being considered by the city, would fund the new arts program indefinitely. A potential 5 percent tax on ticket sales would generate an estimated $500,000 per year, enough to keep the program alive into the future.


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