Sitting on the steps outside City Hall, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is an attention magnet, waving back at children, and accepting a passerby’s backhanded election-year compliment – “I hope you don’t get voted out soon!”
He responds with a perfectly timed “Thank you! I’ll try!”
In between, he answers questions about art and culture, both policy, and personal: The most recent concert he attended was The Boom Booms, the last book he read was Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda and he’s a huge Coen brothers fan, perplexed at the Oscar snub for Inside Llewyn Davis.
This interview with Mr. Robertson kicks off a new weekly Culture Q&A, which will feature artists and other cultural players in British Columbia.
A survey out this week shows issues with housing affordability in Vancouver. Are you worried about a cultural brain drain?
The lack of affordability is a big challenge for the arts and culture community, which is a significant economic driver but has lower wages and salaries. So the viability of the community requires that we continue to press hard for more affordable housing. We’re just starting to see significant progress on that through rental housing being created and far more affordable arts and culture space, but it’s too early to tell the difference that will make. I think we’ve seen some facilities close and artists leave, and others showing up, so I don’t believe there’s a definitive snapshot of whether we’re gaining or draining. But my goal as mayor is to be gaining. And given affordability challenges, that’s a big test.
Ontario’s film production tax credits are attracting work east. Do you have any hope the province might move on this?
The industry will have to keep making its case for a balanced tax credit scheme nationally, so we don’t see provinces competing. The B.C. government hasn’t budged, despite the pressure over the past year-and-a-half, but many sectors in the creative industries are still thriving. It’s been a really successful year in digital media, and film and TV studio shooting is [busy], so there is still a lot of robust activity, but I think there needs to be ongoing advocacy. The B.C. government has some decent tax credit programs in place, but Ontario and Quebec have undercut and attracted some business. But Vancouver’s strength continues to be in the talent pool and experience and quality of people and places, and that is still a big draw. That said, we can’t get completely undercut in terms of tax credits. So I’ll continue to advocate vigorously and ensure that the pressure is on the B.C. government to not only compete on the [film] industry side, but to increase their funding for arts and culture, which continues to be the lowest of any province. That’s unacceptable.
There have been quite a few cultural bummers in the city during your tenure – Pixar, the Waldorf, the Playhouse Theatre Company. Has anything hit you particularly hard?
The cultural bummers are just that. They’re really disappointing and sad and they’re part of the life of a city. Luckily they’re offset by great gains and breakthroughs by local artists and we’ve seen our share of those. The Waldorf was a great experiment; it was very well supported and looked viable, and then we lost that. Now it’s re-emerging at the Fox Theatre on Main Street. So that one’s come full circle. And the community’s very resilient. I was in the Playhouse the other night for the PuSh Festival launch and it was packed. We all mourn the loss of the Playhouse Theatre Company. But the theatre’s been quite busy. There’s a natural cycle and we were all worried that we were on the decay side, but now we’ve seen a real bounce back, and extraordinary success. The PuSh Festival right now is hitting new highs in their tenth anniversary and Ballet BC is attracting global attention; [artistic director] Emily Molnar’s done incredibly well. Every show I go to, the Queen E Theatre is packed with a really diverse audience. It’s been good to see lots of new successes happen to help us get over the losses. That’s part of the cycle of art.
Can you think of a work of art that’s been particularly transforming in your life?
Bill Reid’s work has probably been the most powerful for me. I was young during Expo ‘86; I was here for a while and then I went travelling to Asia. It was my first trip away from Canada and I’d been steeped in his work which was quite prominent at Expo 86, and that really found a place within me, shaping my identity as a west coast Canadian. The specific piece was the big canoe – art that was so deeply connected to the history of the Haida and the coast. That was the one piece that for me really brought things together. Before that, art was nice to look at, but it didn’t have as deep a significance.