Saturday, May 25, 2024
May 25, 2024

Road to arts centre opening recalled by panel

A gathering held in ArtSpring’s gallery on Saturday afternoon may not have been an “official part” of the arts centre’s 25th anniversary celebrations set for April 17-21, but it was a perfect kick-off to get the ball rolling. 

The Pre-history of ArtSpring panel event saw the gallery packed with people who had both lived through all or part of the arguably challenging 10-year process to fund and build ArtSpring, and those who have come to use and appreciate the facility in the past 25 years.  

And judging by the warm applause and laughter— sometimes occurring spontaneously in response to a specific anecdote or phrase — and comments made in the Q&A portion of the event, all the blood, sweat and tears required to create ArtSpring were worth it. 

The panel discussion was the first in a series of events being organized by the Community Roundtable Committee, which formed as a result of a “listening session” with members of the public hosted in May of 2023 by ArtSpring’s executive and artistic director Howard Jang, who took on the post in January of 2022.

“As we all know, this is a community that is not short on ideas,” said Jang in describing the beginning of planning for how to celebrate the centre’s 25th anniversary. “I mean that in the nicest way possible.” 

After Jang’s introduction, four people involved with different aspects of advocating for the arts centre from its birth to opening shared some of the history, which was followed by a social break and then questions posed or memories shared by attendees. 

April Curtis, who was the artistic director of Off Centre Stage in the latter 1980s, was in the original organizing group and on the first Island Arts Centre Society (IACS) board, which was formed in 1989. She recounted how various art groups were discussing the need for a large, centralized space for their activities “when a miracle happened.” Two large government grant possibilities — a $200,000 “Windfall” grant from the Capital Regional District and a $434,000 Go BC (provincial) program grant — came available and were acquired by 1990, after support for the project was proven with a well-supported petition. At that time the centre was estimated to cost $1.3 million, so local fundraising activities — often with fun themes, as audience member Debbie Magnusson noted — took place. The initial volunteer committee, formed in November of 1989, consisted of Curtis, Bill Cowan, Arvid Chalmers, Bob Hassell (the building’s architect), Trish Nobile, Simon Rook, Mary Koroscil, Lawrie Neish, Stan Lam and Geoff Swift. 

Curtis described how the ArtSpring name was chosen. 

“We were actually building over deep springs that fed Ganges Creek, and we also hoped to build a space where the community could come to be absorbed and refreshed by the essences of art, music and creativity. So I suggested it be named ArtSpring, and the majority agreed and it was passed.” 

Sue Newman, a dance teacher, choreographer and head of Newman Family Productions, gave people a sense of the high level of local performing arts activity that existed in the 1980s, which was the major reason for the push to create a centre to be shared by many groups. After detailing a fulsome list of dance, theatre and music initiatives and events, Newman asked, rhetorically, “So was there a need for a dedicated place? I don’t know!” 

That one of the pre-ArtSpring fundraisers was a Salt Spring Academy Awards (and Chair-ity Night) — with tiny golden gumboots handed out to winners — was an indication of how much was going on in the various community halls and churches, at Off Centre Stage (where the Lady Minto Hospital Auxiliary Thrift Shop is now located) and the Salt Spring Elementary School gymnasium, AKA the Activity Centre. 

Newman also reminded everyone that while the official opening of ArtSpring took place on April 16, 1999 with a ribbon-cutting by Birgit and Robert Bateman, who were major supporters of the project, a soft opening event was held on the weekend of Dec. 5-6, 1998, with non-stop local entertainment. 

Victoria Olchowecki, who joined the Salt Spring Weavers and Spinners Guild when she moved to the island in 1993, recounted the various guilds’ financial contributions to the centre. Some guilds were raising funds right off the bat, with Salt Spring Weavers and Spinners Guild meeting minutes from 1991 noting that $75 was being budgeted for the ArtSpring project that year. In 1999, guild president Ida-Marie Threadkell presented a cheque for $6,000.  

“So when these weavers put aside $75, and then $500, and $250, we’re talking about a meeting, we’re talking about a raffle, we’re talking about deciding how much money goes where and how you pay your bills. So that sense of ownership of ArtSpring is very, very strong,” said Olchowecki. 

The Salt Spring Island Painters Guild paid for the gallery lights — both initially and for an upgrade — and the Salt Spring Potters Guild bought a special trap for the sink and provided the plinths. 

For Saturday’s event, the gallery walls were hung with work by weavers/spinners and painters guild members. 

Tom Toynbee was general manager of Mouat’s Trading Co. in 1998 when fundraising to complete the building had stalled. 

“I began to hear comments in the community like, ‘Oh, it’s like another [Ganges] boardwalk and we’ll never get it finished. I thought this was really dangerous and was concerned about it,” he said.

Toynbee said he was then approached by Bob Weeden, IACS president at the time, for Mouat’s to not only provide a financial donation but for Toynbee to chair a “Funding to the Finish” committee with a goal of raising the final amounts needed within a one month period. 

“In addition to his many talents in academia, Bob proved to be a very good salesman, because he said the things that I was really wanting to hear,” said Toynbee.

With a realistic but conservative number of dollars — $375,000 — set as a fundraising target, Toynbee agreed to be the committee chair, and especially because his wife Yvonne had a career in theatre as a vocalist and they were big supporters of the arts. 

Mouat’s Trading made a contribution, he said, and then he asked a part-time island resident of means named Robb Peters if he and his wife Ruth would consider donating to the cause. Peters offered a donation of up to $50,000, conditional upon matching funds coming from other contributors. That was a quickly successful effort, and Toynbee was then contacted by Susan Bloom, who said she wanted to do the same.

A further $195,000 in federal-provincial infrastructure funds were promised during the campaign, which sent the fundraising total over the top. 

“It is certainly something that we’ve been so pleased to be associated with and continue to be pleased to be associated with,” said Toynbee. “I was just looking around today at the building and its condition, 25 years later, and it’s top notch. Look at all the performances that have gone on here, and all the exhibitions, in the last 25 years. It’s a wonderful achievement and I’m so happy to be celebrating the 25th anniversary.” 

ArtSpring supporter and past board member Joan Farlinger recounted how in the early days of ArtSpring a committee did the programming and looked after the visiting artists. One occasion saw a classical ballet company willing to perform, but only if a hot meal could be provided to all the dancers before the show. 

“Now today we just would have gotten take-out, but there was no take-out in those days, and even then we couldn’t have afforded it.”

Farlinger said the volunteers ended making a spaghetti dinner in ArtSpring’s tiny kitchen and serving it to the troupe in the gallery.  

“The audience loved their performance and wanted them to come back, and we received thank-you notes and Christmas cards from that company for years to come,” she said. “So, one of the things that an organization such as ours must have — and I think we have shown — is imagination. And with imagination, you can achieve almost anything. It was a very happy occasion.”

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