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Facing displacement by condos, should Vancouver artists ‘bite the hand that feeds?’

Local creatives question ethics of accepting money from condominium developers — and call on artists to join community groups fighting displacement

Vincent Tao wants artists to join groups fighting for rent freezes, a living wage and an end to “renovictions.”

Jesse Winter/Metro / Vancouver Staff

Vincent Tao wants artists to join groups fighting for rent freezes, a living wage and an end to “renovictions.”

In an increasingly unaffordable city, where low-wage earners are struggling to find housing and artists are struggling to find affordable studio space, some members of Vancouver’s artistic community are calling on artists to get involved in anti-gentrification and housing rights advocacy.

The call to action came last Wednesday, during a community forum at the 221A arts space in Chinatown, where artists with varying political views debated the ethics of accepting developer money. After the event, Vincent Tao, a librarian at 221A who helped organize the event, told Metro that artists, who have to pay rent for their homes and studio or practice space, are in a tricky situation.

“Many of the city's opportunities for emerging artists to make a few bucks are kind of attached to or funded by real estate developers,” he said. ”Artists find themselves in a bind because they have to take these jobs, yet they understand at the same time the real estate corporations that are funding their projects…are eventually going to displace themselves as artists, but also the Lower Mainland's poor and working people, that have been fighting to remain and fight for the right to housing in the city.”

During the event, artist Rebecca Brewer – who is also involved with the Vancouver Tenant’s Union - spoke about the guilt she had felt for accepting a financial prize sponsored by the Royal Bank of Canada.

Tao told Metro that many artists feel conflicted about accepting grants and prizes from large companies and developers.

“A lot of them want to take action but are also trying to work through a lot of guilt and shame around the fact that they have little choice but to take these deals and take this money from the developers,” he said.

Tensions rose at the meeting when some people, including Zachary Hyde a University of BC PhD candidate, spoke about the Vancouver Mural Festival, and suggested its work may have contributed to gentrification in Mt. Pleasant.

The VMF, a non-profit organization – which prides itself on providing fair pay to local artists — has accepted money from Low Tide Properties Ltd., the Chip Wilson-owned development company. It’s a sore point for some in the arts community because Low Tide is in the process of renovicting Vancouver’s beloved non-profit Red Gate Art’s Society from its East Hastings location.

A supporter of the Vancouver Mural Festival spoke up and defended the organization by pointing out that many other arts organizations also accept money from developers.

VMF declined Metro’s request for a phone interview, and offered an emailed statement on the topic. Organizer Adrian Sinclair told Metro that his non-profit thinks developers have a responsibility to go above and beyond what the city normally requires them to contribute to neighbourhood initiatives when they build new condos.

“Additional contributions should be made available to local cultural organizations, artists, residents and businesses to empower them in shaping their neighbourhoods as they change,” he wrote.

In light of the ethical questions and conflicts that artists face, Tao told Metro that using art to fight gentrification and oppression is a “dead end.” Artists can use art to critique development in the city, but when the people funding their work are developers “in the end it’s their playing field. Art is not enough,” he said.

Instead, Tao wants artists to get engaged with citizen action groups such as the Vancouver Tenants Union, the Carnegie Community Action Project, and the Chinatown Action Group (of which Tao is a member).

“Artists don't see themselves as part of that (struggle in the wider community) but they need to, because something like a complete rent freeze in the city or an end to evictions, will really in the end benefit artists.

"Imagine if the rents were frozen and the warehouses hadn’t been ‘upzoned’ into a brewery district (like they were in Mt. Pleasant), then everyone could (afford to) have a studio and everyone could have a workspace, have a place to make music, make art.”

Correction - March 12, 2018: This article was update from a previous version that inferred Vancouver Mural Festival declined any type interview. Organizers requested an email interview but Metro declined, and instead agreed to accept a written statement from the group.

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