Fifty years ago, when the Georgia Straight launched its first publication, our arts landscape looked very little like the thriving scene that’s attracting world attention today.
In 1967, we were a relatively small city, the mountains isolating our artists from the rest of the country. On the theatre front, the Vancouver Playhouse operated out of a new civic stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza, while the Arts Club was still a grassroots troupe working out of an old gospel hall on Seymour Street. The Firehall Arts Centre was still a firehall. And as far as dance? There was no Ballet BC, and the Anna Wyman School of Dance Arts was just about to open. The Vancouver Art Gallery still sat at a small location at 1145 West Georgia Street, but art renegades like Michael Morris and Glenn Lewis (both of whom helped come up with the Georgia Straight’s name over beers with Dan McLeod at the late Cecil Hotel in 1967) were stirring up the gallery scene in radical new ways. Not only was there no Video In, there was no video. UBC’s Museum of Anthropology did not yet occupy the windswept point on the University Endowment Lands. As for classical music, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra was going strong, but still didn’t have a permanent home; it provided accompaniment to Vancouver Opera, which didn’t have its own orchestra yet.
How times change—often in unforeseeable ways.
Who would have guessed that we’d become home to a major summer Shakespeare series in Vanier Park? Or that the Arts Club would later expand to encompass several theatres? Or that we’d become seen as the birthplace of photoconceptualism? Or that we’d host a parade of arts festivals every year, from the cutting-edge PuSh International Performing Arts Festival to an Eastside Culture Crawl that draws tens of thousands. Amid all that, we’ve watched our indie arts scene surge, against the odds of astronomical real-estate prices and ever-tightening government funding.
Here are some, but absolutely not all, of the momentous events—for better or worse—that have made Vancouver’s cultural scene what it is, 50 years later. These are just the major companies and milestones; what’s missing are the innumerable festivals, indie companies, artist-run centres, and DIY shows that define the arts here.
What the timeline does show is that, while we’ve suffered some losses along the way, we’re clearly not just a bunch of upstarts on the other side of the mountain anymore.
Vancouver East Cultural Centre opens, 1973
In the early ’70s, the historic building at Venables and Victoria was a former Methodist church that had been converted into offices for an umbrella group called Inner City Services. The tiered balcony was hidden by office partitions and plywood flooring. There was no seating, and the Gothic stained-glass windows were broken. But Cultch founding director Chris Wootten saw the need for a midsize theatre in the city, and began fundraising to turn it into a venue. Although it would be unthinkable in these cash-strapped times, Wootten quickly secured funding from three levels of government. Furnishing the theatre was another matter.
On the Cultch’s 25th anniversary, in 1998, he recalled to the Straight that he and his helpers found curtains and signs in the Strand, an old vaudeville house at Granville and Georgia that would soon be demolished. They bought old metal theatre seats stored in the basement of a seedy Downtown Eastside hotel for a dollar apiece. As for the broken windows: “We were also lucky, because we found a guy, sort of a hippie craftsman, who replaced all the stained glass.” And so the Vancouver East Cultural Centre opened with a performance by Anna Wyman Dance Theatre on October 15, 1973. “It was a wonderful time,” Wootten remembered. “We didn’t get paid anything, of course, but it was more of a family—a total team effort.”
Many shows and concerts later, the Cultch received a major, $14.5-million renovation by Proscenium Architecture and Interiors in 2009. “You wonder: will they do it right? And they did. It’s very gratifying to know that the building is going to be around for a long, long time,” Wootten told the Straight at the time.
Cultch executive director Heather Redfern—who’s gone on to bring the renovated York Theatre, Vancity Culture Lab, and Greenhouse under the Cultch umbrella—said at the time: “There was trepidation until I could start to show people around, and people said, ‘It’s still the Cultch—only better.’ ”