A once-bereft group aimed at funding and promoting Vancouver’s art scene has been revived, with nine people appointed to the city’s new Culture, Arts and Heritage Commission.
The group’s members draw from varied backgrounds — there are artists, business owners, historians and even a park ranger — but together, they hope to breathe new life into Vancouver and its culture.
“I’ve never lived in a city that has so much potential,” said local filmmaker Beth Harrington, who found out on Tuesday she’d been selected to serve on the new commission.
“I think the shadow of Portland has been there for so long. I guess maybe it was harder to make a case for an art scene here. But now, it’s changing by the minute.”
The new commission will operate with an annual budget of $400,000. Of that, $100,000 will be made available to the community’s artists as a competitive grant program. Another $100,000 to $150,000 will go toward commissioning new works of public art and preserving old ones. The remainder will pay for administrative costs, including a new full-time cultural services manager at City Hall.
That position will temporarily be filled by Jan Bader, Vancouver’s program and policy development manager, who told the city council in June that she “cares deeply about” revitalizing public art.
Vancouver’s gone without a public art program for 14 years.
In 1994, the city established its Cultural Commission, which spent a decade advising the city council on how it should spend money on public art projects. But in 2003, belt-tightening measures slashed the group’s available grant funding in half. A year later, the city’s cultural services position was cut from its roster. In 2005, the commission dissolved altogether.
The slow fizzle of Vancouver’s support for public art resulted in a gloomy aside in a 2009 Columbian article: The city had “the unappealing distinction” of being the largest city in the Pacific Northwest without a public arts fund or center.
“I used to joke and fantasize about a Vancouver artist colony,” said Harrington, who moved to the city 23 years ago. “The commission is a really exciting thing, because it is the thing that I had hoped for Vancouver — a way to really promote the culture and the history and the art scene of this place.”
Who’s in the group?
The Vancouver City Council appointed nine people to the new commission Monday night.
Along with Harrington, the group includes:
• Linda Reid, Columbia Bank chair.
• Kevin Weaver, founder of local gallery “Art on the Boulevard.”
• Alex Gall, owner of Archaeological Services LLC.
• Lee Rafferty, former longtime director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association.
• Christine Richardson, costume director for the Portland Opera.
• Tracy Fortmann, superintendent of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
• Maureen Montague, executive director of Columbia Springs.
• Lynne Bowden, local artist and representative on the Clark County Arts Commission.
This time around, the group will operate differently.
When the city established a Culture Commission in the 1990s, it was designated as an advisory body — a group that passes along information to the city council, but with very little power.
The new Culture, Arts and Heritage Commission is a development authority. The distinction may sound like government jargon, but it expands what the group can do.
As a development authority, the revived commission can operate as a separate legal entity from the city. It can hold assets, enter into contracts and issue bonds.
“The hope is just to expand the artists’ culture here in our community. I think it’s really nice to see that the city’s backing it financially,” Weaver said, standing in his gallery on Evergreen Boulevard Thursday. “Communities flourish, and it really helps with the economy.”
Wants versus needs
For the first two years, the group’s $400,000 annual budget will come from the city’s general fund.
After that, continued funding for the program is rolled into A Stronger Vancouver, a sweeping package of new city services and projects.
A Stronger Vancouver includes 34 capital projects, as well as an overhaul of the city’s operating services that encompasses everything from street safety projects to enhanced fire sprinkler requirements.
It’s expensive — enacting the full package would add around $30 million to the city’s annual budget, collected through a combination of business taxes, property taxes and miscellaneous fees. One of those fees is a proposed 5 percent tax on citywide ticket sales, which would generate an estimated $500,000 per year to fund the new arts program.
Some locals have raised objections over funneling some of those additional funds into the arts.
As Stephanie Turlay, wife of Councilor Bill Turlay, told the council in July, it’s a question of wants over needs. The city might need better roads and better public safety programs, she said, but it doesn’t need public art.
“You can either buy the hamburger and potatoes for the city, or you can buy the lemon meringue pie for yourself,” she said.
Harrington said she fundamentally disagrees with the implication that art programs are a luxury.
“Time after time after time, it’s an engine for a city to grow, for good things to happen, and it’s well worth the money. It brings it all back to the community. It’s the missing piece,” she said. “There are models all over the United States to prove it.”