Money Troubles for Vancouver Artists

“The challenging part has always been money and the budget to make projects.” Alex Beim, a visual artist in Vancouver says.

Beim represents the more successful visual artists in Vancouver. As the Creative Director of Tangible Interaction, he’s worked on the lighting for the Winter Olympics and created interactive public art pieces all throughout the city. Despite his many successful projects, however, he usually has to look elsewhere to make his living. 

“I hope that soon enough we will start getting calls to do work that has serious budgets,” Beim says. “We kind of live off the work that we do in the United States, but we really enjoy the work that we do here.”

Alex had a wealth of experience before he moved to Canada. He ran his own graphic design firm in Montevideo, Uruguay, for 10 years before immigrating to the Great White North. For emerging visual artists, however, who grow up in Vancouver, study in the city, and aspire to make a splash in its local art scene, opportunity is limited.

“For people who start from scratch,” Beim states, “the doors are not open.”

It’s not due to a lack of creativity or skill in the upcoming visual art scene. In fact, from the outside looking in, Vancouver is bustling with enticing public artworks and new, exciting artists for the city to appreciate. In reality, the doors are closing on artists in Vancouver due to its affordability crisis.

Affordability is the single main factor that is crippling almost everything in the city. In fact, Vancouver is ranked as the third least affordable city in the world, behind Hong Kong and Sydney respectively. When it’s hard to find work, difficult to find a low-cost apartment, and strenuous even for the upper-middle class to stay afloat, it’s no wonder fresh, young visual artists are leaving for greener pastures. A staggering 35% of millennials are considering leaving Vancouver, based on a survey by Insights West.

The numbers speak for themselves. According to a study by Vancity, while 93% of millennials in Vancouver plan to own a home sometime in the future, the average home value between 2001 and 2014 increased by 211%. And while information from Statistics Canada shows that art, culture, recreation, and sports are the highest occupational growth groups in Canada, their growth is marginal compared to the rise of housing costs in the city. The fact of the matter is, most individuals may have to forgo opportunity in BC to relocate to a more favorable labour market. 

In cultural hotspots such as Toronto and Montreal, local governments have been effective in cultivating creative growth. Susan Brinton, a Vancouver Media Consultant, argued in her paper From the Margins to the Mainstream that other areas in Canada have superior employment opportunities, tax credit regimes, and competitive funding that makes them more attractive for young artists than Vancouver. In essence, this is the issue that’s driving talent away from the city-- if better opportunities arise, then it would be more logical for capable people to move. There is a growing sentiment that visual artists would rather move to cities that can fund their passion than cities that could stifle it.

The BC government has a pivotal role to play in the growth of Vancouver’s creative structure. Currently, its ad hoc nature in programs and funding for creative industries limits young artists to reach their full potential. Thus far, British Columbia has failed to recognize the economic opportunity they have in investing in the art industry. Despite significantly less funding from provincial and federal government sources, BC art organizations have increased in total revenues similar to peer organizations in other provinces from 2009 to 2014.

British Columbia lags behind other provincial governments in arts funding, while the city’s economic regulations have made it difficult for its future generations to reside there. In a field where accumulation of wealth is uncommon, how are emerging artists supposed to sustain their art when the mere idea of owning a home is a distant daydream?

Vancouver is at a crossroads. Its artists are youthful, gifted, and idealistic. Yet, they need healthy financial structures in order to continue their development and growth in the city. There are sectors of its economy that are developing quickly such as in technology, but it continues to fall behind in its creative economy. It is time for its government to reimagine its commitment to the creative industry. Without a shift in policy approaches, Vancouver is set on a course that could drive away its very best and brightest.

Alec Regino is a Montreal based author.