Opinion: Does Vancouver repel creative people?

Jan 23 2017, 9:41 pm

Mark Busse is a communication strategist and designer with a strong desire to use design and creativity as a catalyst for positive change with serving communities. He is currently Director of Creativity and Engagement at HCMA Architecture + Design. Connect with him on Twitter at @MarkBusse.

I was recently invited to participate in one of Urbanarium’s City Debates addressing the resolution “Vancouver repels creative people.” My first inclination was to decline, the vague resolution striking me as banal, personally too busy being a creative person to engage in tired, unproductive whining. But friends and colleagues challenged me to reconsider, so I decided I would accept the challenge and argue the CON side—that Vancouver does NOT repel creative people at all.

With only seven minutes to make an opening statement, followed by some discussion before a two minute conclusion, there wasn’t much time to present a cogent argument. Below (in italics) is my script with some additional thoughts and evidence inserted that I brought along for the discussion but didn’t get much time to discuss.

My view of the packed room from the Urbanarium City Debate stage (Mark Busse)

Vancouver does not repel creative people—it attracts them.

Hands up if you were born and raised in Vancouver. So some of us were, but more of us came here. Now, how many of you consider yourselves to be creative people? Lots of you! Well, that’s strange, because according to our friends on the other side, this city is repelling you creative people. Blink twice if you’re being held against your will.

Am I the only one who finds the phrase “creative people” rather elitist and condescending? Aren’t all people inherently creative—at least at birth? Why do we talk about such things here? How are we defining a “creative person”? If we’re talking about scientists, engineers, architects, designers, artists, entertainers, and the rapidly growing ranks of professional knowledge workers, then Vancouver is chockablock.

Getting caught up in defining “creative people” and putting them on a pedestal is pedantic—and more than a little elitist in my view. What we need is more “engaged people” and a “culture of yes” that allows people to find opportunities and participate in this amazing place, thus creating the city we want, and in turn being influenced by everything Vancouver is.

I’ve spent 30 years working here as a creative professional, for the last decade producing and hosting popular creative events, and I’m convinced there are strong forces at play in Vancouver, attracting creative people, and enticing us to stay.

We’re not going to try to convince you tonight that there aren’t problems, challenges, or reasons people might choose to leave Vancouver. Of course there are. They demand, dare I say it, creative solutions. We also won’t be arguing that creative people never leave Vancouver. This isn’t some kind of Roach Motel where creatives check and never check out. But that’s true of every great city.

What we will argue is this. Taken on the whole, Vancouver is a fantastic, welcoming city filled with potential for those whose passion is creation, innovation, and bringing new ideas into the world. Could they imagine how it could be better? Sure. That’s why they’re called ‘creative.’

One of many sold out CreativeMornings/Vancouver events (Mark Busse)

Vancouver is a pioneering and progressive city.

Vancouver is a city of trailblazers, activists, and progressives. A changing city. We’re young. We’re not weighed down by the dead hand of history and the way things have always been. We’re writing our own story.

And for tonight’s story, here’s the case we’re going to make for you: The things that Vancouver’s critics see as signs that our city is repelling creative people? Those are actually signs of the creative ferment in process. Creative spaces rise and fall; creative projects launch and fail and launch again; creative people arrive and stay and build, or move on—in a constant flow.

But beneath that churn, Vancouver is a unique city with a durable, vibrant, creative foundation.

Vancouver gave the world West Coast Modernism, botox, the California Roll, Chinese buffets, Greenpeace, the Occupy Movement, Adbusters, Douglas Coupland, Hootsuite, Flickr, Slack, yoga pants, a ton of entertainers, cannabis culture and Tommy Chong, rights for sex trade workers—even the most sampled and influential album in the history of hip hop (true story, Google it).

One important note before I continue: it’s pretty clear there’s a fundamental agreement between everyone on this stage tonight. I imagine most of you agree too. And it’s that Vancouver must be a creative city, must foster creativity, and must attract creative people if we want to thrive. But I suggest that thriving also requires us to understand that creativity and creative people aren’t the exclusive domain of arts and culture.

Social innovators are creative people. Business innovation is a creative act. Innovation in activism, technology, environmental protection, clean energy, urban design—these are all creative endeavours, being done by creative people in Vancouver. Now.

And if we want to truly gauge how welcoming our city is to creativity, then we must look across those dimensions as well.

Each year hundreds gather for Interesting Vancouver to discover ordinary people doing extraordinary things (Mark Busse)

Vancouver’s population and creative community is growing quickly.

I think it’s telling for a city that’s supposedly so repulsive, Metro Vancouver’s population has actually grown by over 200,000 people over the past five years. That’s like adding an entire city of Richmond!

Are none of those people creative? Obviously they are, with four in every 10 Vancouver professionals working in a creative field—the city’s fastest-growing sectors.

If we’re defining the creative sector, let’s look at the state of the creative economy: According to Vancouver Economic Commission, new jobs in creative fields = 40% of economic growth and leading-edge tech startups are growing exponentially. Vancouver has the fastest growing economy in Canada and will remain so for the next five years with lowest unemployment at 5.7%. 94,000 new jobs created in 2016 (more than any other Canadian city), highest GDP growth at 3.9%, most diversified economy in the country, and with over 40% of new office space occupied by Technology and Digital Entertainment & Interactive companies.

We’re seeing the digital economy exploding in Vancouver. Companies like EA, Microsoft, Hootsuite, and others employing thousands. And it’s not just the tech sector. The film and gaming industries are flourishing, with Sony Picture Imageworks hiring more than 700 mostly locals—and growing.

Vancouver’s Film & TV industry is the third largest in all of North America with 20,000 Film & TV Jobs in Vancouver. There were 353 productions in Vancouver in 2015 alone. If you want to see first hand how many creative people are attracted to Vancouver, check out vfxvancouver.com—on any given day you will find literally hundreds of job postings for film, visual effects, animation, and gaming companies.

I view creativity more broadly, but even if we focus just on the arts and culture sector, there’s lots of evidence that it is improving—even thriving! Festivals like VIFF and PuSh punch way above their weight. Theatre, opera, and dance companies like Bard, Ballet BC, and Kidd Pivot are surviving, even growing, and producing world class productions. And independent arts societies like Red Gate are expanding and opening additional performance stages.

The City is investing millions into cultural initiatives with over half a million alone toward providing access to civic theatre spaces to the arts community alone!

City hall has made a commitment to arts and culture as part of a strategy to build a vibrant, livable, healthy, and happy city, recently appointing Branislav Henselmann as Managing Director of Cultural Services and adopting culture as the Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development paired with increased operating budgets.

I’m excited about projects like Artscape’s 48,000 sq. ft. artists hub in Chinatown, the former VPD headquarters at 312 Main Street being converted into a community innovation hub, and Low Tides plan to reimagine Strathcona as a vibrant art district.

There are lots of shows happening and energy and momentum building in art galleries throughout the city. Artist-run collectives are finding funding sources and creative ways to overcome the restraints that come with practicing arts in an increasingly densified city. I’m on the board of an arts society that runs two venues with a gallery and event space, has 84 tenants, and 500 members and growing.

Do galleries and projects fold up their tents and move on? Sure, but new ones take their place. Creative destruction is the absolutely essential counterpart to creation itself. And one reason we have those new artists, new creatives ready to step into the breach, is that Vancouver has such a robust creative infrastructure.

A 2012 study by Hill Strategies comparing per capita cultural investment by municipal governments across Canada ranked Vancouver second in each year from 2006 to 2009, second only to Montreal. Another study ranked Vancouver the top city in Canada in arts and culture grants per capita—with 50% higher per capita grants than the next ranked city, Calgary.

According to City Council records from December 2016, the City investments in art and culture has increased by over 53% from $19.6 million in 2012 to $30 million in 2017, and operating grants were $11.5 million in 2016 – a 12% increase in the last five years.

Digital, advertising, and marketing agencies are busy. Art and design colleges are busy and growing, a good example being Emily Carr’s new expanded campus soon to open.

Like all of you, I loathe recent cutbacks in arts funding by the province and Fed, but let’s not forget the bold measures taken by City Hall to further prioritize culture across various departments and make substantial investment into arts and culture the last few years. The City now has 840,000 sq. ft. of arts and cultural spaces—up 10% since 2012!

The City has expanded its Artist Live-Work Studio Awards Program, and approved of $550,000 in subsidies for community use of civic theatre spaces. Someone explain to me how a city that makes these sort of investments could be described as repelling creative people?

Vancouver’s creative infrastructure extends outside the arts sector itself. Its vibrant urban culture, ever-improving transportation options and walkability of the city, and of course gorgeous natural surroundings make this one of the most appealing cities for creative people on the planet!

Alley-Oop, the first of three #MoreAwesomeNow laneway activations by HCMA and DVBIA (Image: Kim Bellavance)

Diversity, grit, and challenges are found in all creative cities.

Do creative people here face challenges? Of course. Welcome to the arts in every major city in the world.

Consider this quote “…many parts of [the city] are virtual walled communities, pleasure domes for the rich, and aside from those of us who managed years ago to find our niche and some means of income, there is no room for fresh creative types. Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.” That’s David Byrne on why he’s leaving New York in 2014.

Affordability issues aren’t new to Vancouver and it’s a tension you’ll find in every large city where creative people gather. Vancouver is an attractive place to live, and because we create the conditions for wealth, money follows us. It doesn’t follow quickly enough, and definitely not closely enough for my preferences—or my mortgage—but it follows.

We also embrace and celebrate diversity here, and with half of recent newcomers born outside of Canada I think we’ve only just begun to see the amazing potential of engaging with and mixing the perspectives, ideas, and art forms they bring with them.

Vancouver is a city of diversity—something I believe is a crucial condition for creativity—with a large percentage of the incoming population to Vancouver foreign-born and generally people of colour.

Are the proponents of the resolution that “Vancouver repels creative people” stating, in effect, that these people are “uncreative?” Or is it simply that the bubbles we live in blind us to the vast creativity that exists within minority communities like immigrants or indigenous populations? What we should be talking about is how as people within established and “mainstream” cultural organizations we can better establish ties to minority communities and  bring those voices to bear within the wider populace!

Creativity is inspired by beauty and tension. We are surrounded by beauty, and there’s enough ugly and rot to provide tension. But I don’t really buy the argument “the greater the artist’s suffering, the greater the art.” By that logic, we should have waterboarded the Group of Seven.

But there’s no question that creativity loves to battle constraint. It’s that weirdest of machines that runs best when there’s some grit in the gears.

Let’s not confuse welcoming creativity with making things as easy as possible for creative people. Or kid ourselves that creatives want curated, antiseptic cities. Innovation often comes because there’s an obstacle to overcome, an injustice to set right, or a path to clear.

When it comes to inequality and injustice, this city certainly has its share, but I want creative people front and centre to witness that inequality. I want their big, imaginative brains overclocking on solving that injustice.

Inequality isn’t driving creativity out of Vancouver. It’s makes creativity a moral and spiritual imperative.

Original dance piece “Solid Liquid Ether” by choreographer Heather Myers while Artist in Residence at HCMA (Mark Busse)

Vancouver is young, filled with potential and possibility.

And so, I’ll wrap up by asking: What type of city do we want Vancouver to be?

Vancouver is still young. The city is a diamond in the rough, and it takes pressure and time to create diamonds. So let’s not get caught up in comparing ourselves to other cities or use victim language like tonight’s resolution, but celebrate and build upon that which is going well.

Vancouver is a unique North American city. Not American or Asian, yet somehow both, with an amazing view and access to a rich mix of global cultures without having to labour under the idea that we are the “greatest culture” or ever will be. We have a better vantage point to observe.

We definitely need creative solutions that tackle inequality and exclusion. But I can’t think of a more self-defeating solution than trying to drive down rents by making this city so bland creative people don’t want to live here.

Why is TED’s main event in Vancouver? Is it only a beautiful destination? Not at all, it’s because the world looks to Vancouver for its unique brand of creativity—now more than ever. Why did the founder of CreativeMornings insist on the first chapter in Canada (now over 160) be in Vancouver instead of Toronto or Montreal? It’s because they saw and felt something special happening here.

And if the citizens of Vancouver can be an indicator of creativity in a city, the fact that speaker events like TEDx, Pecha Kucha, Public Salon, Interesting Vancouver, and others constantly sell out demonstrates that there is a yearning and creative energy here that is gaining a foothold and momentum.

Years ago I made a commitment to be a force of good in this city, helping to build the connections and capacity of the creative community that I love, so I invite you to join me. Let’s reject tonight’s resolution and chat later about how we can do more to support creativity and magnify its impact as the city grows.

A side effect of a young city in ascension is that is forces those who really care about it to be stronger and shape its future. Why would we want that to be easy? Some will leave, some will stay, and it’s not just the dilettantes and artistic elite who will write our story of Vancouver—that’s for creative people like us, here, now.

Enthusiastic participants in an art workshop via CreativeMornings/Vancouver Field Trip to The Arts Factory (Mark Busse)

Vancouver doesn’t drive creative people away, it DRIVES creative people.

Ladies and gentlemen, I reject our opponents’ defeatist narrative and am actually frightened by the alternatives it suggests. It sounds like they are arguing what arts and culture need to thrive is economic collapse? Vancouver is a unique place. It is growing. I believe the combination of these factors will benefit the creative economy and provide opportunities to traditional artists in the future.

There’s been tons of creative energy building in Vancouver recently, from large public art events like the mural festival that launched in Mt Pleasant this year, to more localized initiatives like the #MoreAwesomeNow laneway activations downtown—a partnership between DVBIA, the City, and HCMA, but only the first of many planned.

I’m not trying to convince anyone that Vancouver doesn’t have challenges, but tonight I have presented an argument that soundly refutes the idea that our city repels creative people. On the contrary, it is attracting and producing engaged, hard-working, skilled, eager, motivated, and enthusiastic creative people in droves.

Presentation House director Reid Shier recently profiled Vancouver in the book Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant-Garde. And he said, “Artists continue to drive critical and visual discourse in Vancouver, and the same self-reflexivity can be seen in its emerging generations, who now draw from more established local models. Rapacious civic erasure and renewal still provoke an acute historical attentiveness, but the city’s heretofore beautiful environment might also be understood as a resource for creative invention.

“Geoffrey farmer has recently described, “Ian Wallace Jeff Wall, and Stan Douglas opened up a door to theatricality and to the construction of history. The West Coast kind of promises the possibility of reinvention, to re-examine certain traditions and mix them up.” How this relative freedom might be nurtured and sustained is a question that will test Vancouver’s coming generations, particularly as growing wealth pressures the city into a more adamantine form. For now, younger artists have learned to carry experimental ethos that has driven the city’s energized art scene on their backs as they shuffle from place to place and even city to city, while continuing to produce ambitious, contextually specific artworks inscribed by histories of place and claims of ownership.” — Reid Shier

Like the stories we learned to compose in grade school, our story has characters, but if Vancouver is the protagonist in our tale, let’s not as citizens play the antagonist. We’re talking about the Mythology of Vancouver, and while there are certainly challenges, we already have a fantastic story—a success story by most measures.

UK mythologist Dr. Martin Shaw has a great essay called Small Gods. He talks about our role in the story of place. And he challenges us to consider whether we own our stories or if they own us.

I love his quote “To be of means to be in. To have traded endless possibility for something specific. That over the slow recess of time you become that part of the land that temporarily abides in human form. That your delightful curvature and dialectical brogue is hewn deep, wrought tough, by the diligence of your service to the sensual tangle you find yourself in. It means not talking about a place but with a place – and that’s not a relationship available indiscriminately, wherever you travel, but something that may claim you once or twice in a lifetime. It means staying when you don’t feel like staying.

I loved my friend Ian’s response when I told him about this topic recently, “Who cares if some who identify as creative leave the city? We don’t need any more ‘lilly dippers.’ We need people will to thrust their paddle deep and pull hard.”

So let’s embody Vancouver in human form, a vibrant form energized by its potential, and let’s own our own story—a story about an inclusive city that attracts not just artists, but people of all kinds who are every bit as energized by that potential, who live and breathe imagination and possibility—creative people like us.

This article was originally published on HCMA Architecture + Design. It has been reposted on Daily Hive with the author’s consent.

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