By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Feb 17, 2017
A few weeks ago, local musician Ian Brown slipped under my office door a pamphlet with an invitation to meet and talk about the Brackendale Art Gallery. A member of The Brackendale Art Gallery Theatre Teahouse Society, Brown invited me to “talk sometime in person” about the society, whose goal is to “acquire, purchase or otherwise, operate an art gallery, tea house theatre and workshops. To do so, the tea house society suggests two options: district funding and a community amenity contribution from a developer.
Curious to find out how and why the district would fund BAG, I emailed Ian Brown only to be surprised by his reticence on this topic. “I am happy to meet with you, but I don’t want to get into any kind of a political discussion about the art gallery. You would need to talk to Thor about that.”
Speaking on Thor’s behalf, his wife, Dorte, wasn’t too keen on answering questions about why the society was seeking district funding. “We are not prepared to comment at this time. I hope you will respect our need for privacy as we move forward,” he said.
But didn’t they themselves invite me to talk ? After sending an invitation to chat about the BAG and its plans for the future, why was there such reluctance to discuss the questions around funding?
When asked why they first invite to talk and then seal lips, Dorte replied: “The newly revived Society has been investigating possible scenarios for the future looking at art centre models and fiscal structures. They are also helping with programming going forward with us and hope to be involved with whatever the new incarnation of the BAG may be – which none of us can predict at this time. You have known for a long time that the BAG is for sale. Beyond that there is nothing to say.”
It’s still intriguing why they would ask to talk when they have nothing to say ? There is no doubt that the Brackendale Art Gallery is a more than just a building. It’s a meeting place for locals and artists alike, a place where you can enjoy talks, theatre, and art all under the twinkling eyes of its eccentric owner, Thor Froslev. Thor, the owner, himself is a local icon. His friend Mayor Patricia Heintzman has written about his life. The BAG has operated as a commercial venture for a long time, and went up for sale as a private property for a whopping $2.7 million in 2015, but art lovers and Brackendale residents have also been urging the district to step in and purchase the gallery. Writing to the district in June last year, Mary Mitchell, suggested the district should buy the property to retain its present use as an art gallery. “I am writing today to encourage you to consider purchasing the Brackendale Art Gallery as a public asset for the community. As noted in the OCP planning, we need more public spaces to gather, and what better gathering place than the BAG. The BAG has been a focal point of Brackendale for years, and it is only fitting that its history is incorporated into the community,” she wrote to the district. Mitchell said a similar example could be found in Vancouver, where the city had the option to purchase a former church, which it did. “Vancouver purchased the church, which was officially called St James Community Hall, and has leased it back to the society to manage on a 30 year lease. There is a list of improvements to be done and the city will match fundraising dollar for dollar and supply manpower if available.”
Astrid Lackner of Brackendale wrote to the district as well, asking it to support the preservation of the BAG as a vibrant cultural centre for the arts in the town and establish it as a heritage building. But should the taxpayers’ money be given for a building that has operated as a private business, albeit one that has provided a unique meeting space for the community. For artist Pat Robinson, the answer would be a resounding yes. She moved to Squamish six years ago and found it a welcoming place where she could connect with artists and the community. “For me, it was key to becoming involved in the community. It’s a real hub for our town, and it’s not just for artists only. I’ve met people from all walks of life there and still continue to meet and form friendships through the people I met there,” she said. Pat has also taught an intuitive art class at BAG and says the gallery felt like the heart of the community. Art, she says, is a key to having a sense of community and BAG is a unique creative spot where art intersects with community.
The gallery would be a great artist incubator, where prominent artists live and create a project that benefits the community and the artist’s creative pursuits, said local artist Stan Matwychuk.
“The larger benefit that the community would pull from this cultural iconic place would be the stories/ history/ network connections to the community. I believe if the funding and board involved has the motivation to position the BAG as a cultural centre for all of Squamish, the community will get behind it. It has a historical past that is pertinent to Squamish’ cultural future,” he said.
Coun. Ted Prior says the BAG is a great meeting place for the community, but he isn’t sure if that is enough for the district to put up taxpayers’ dollars to purchase it. He said the Cliffside Pub is a great gathering place for the community, but it has been shut down because of lack of business. “Should the district go ahead and buy the pub because it’s a great meeting place for the Valleycliffe community? I don’t think so,” he said.
Local resident Toby-Ford Kelcey was part of the group that looked at buying and converting it into an elementary school, but he said the estimates for buying and renovating were greater than buying land and building a whole new building. “I am sceptical that the costs of DOS buying and renovating the BAG could be more attractive than a new purpose built theatre and art complex elsewhere in Squamish. Given the relatively recent acquisition of debt necessitated by the over-spending on Oceanfront, I would like to see the council focused wholly on reducing costs for the next few years rather than spending on these kinds of vanity projects,” he noted. Similar were the views of Coun. Susan Chapelle, who said the BAG has sentimental value but it would cost the district millions to purchase and remediate it.
“I looked at the purchase with a group. We thought of running the BAG as an arts space and using some development to pay for the property. Not enough capital so we couldn’t do it and they are not budging on the price, and the land being close to the railway will be difficult to make an economic model for. The only way is either an arts grant with the federal government, or an angel investor,” she said.