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The Waldorf was a special plant, alive innovation and fun. man makes his way past the Waldorf Hotel in East Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, January 9, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak For the Globe and Mail)
The Waldorf was a special plant, alive innovation and fun. man makes his way past the Waldorf Hotel in East Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, January 9, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak For the Globe and Mail)

On Culture

Waldorf closing a ‘gutting’ of arts scene Add to ...

It was two weeks ago in this space that I offered a New Year’s wish for 2013: no more closings in Vancouver’s arts sector.

Well, so much for that.

The Waldorf Hotel was – I guess still is, for a few days – a truly special place, alive with ideas and innovation and – you know what? – fun. There was a sense of whimsy to the place that was palpable, which emanated from the guys operating and programming the joint with such care and excitement. Daniel Fazio, one of the partners operating the hotel, and its director of brand and design, called it a sort of “Disneyland” during a tour he gave me in 2011, and that’s exactly how it felt. If you’re the kind of person who gets excited by art and ideas, you were like a kid in a candy store in that cultural playground, to mix artistic metaphors.

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Upstairs is the tiny art gallery, an important little venue for emerging artists that made great use of a former guest room – even the washroom is an exhibition space. Downstairs, the Cabaret: an excellent music venue with an eclectic range of offerings. In between, that beloved Tiki bar. And always the coolest cultural programming throughout.

I remember exactly where Mr. Fazio made the Disneyland comment. We were on our way to the parking lot, to visit a shipping container that was being turned into an art gallery by Dida Zende, a visiting artist from Berlin who reclaims old spaces and turns them into creative venues (he usually uses gas stations). Inside, fellow Waldorf operator, entertainment director (and musician) Thomas Anselmi was working on a video installation. For me, Vancouver never felt more world class than it did inside that tiny, dark shipping container.

Outside, the parking lot was busy; they were building a midway, complete with a Drop of Doom, for what was to be an artistic amusement-park installation experience, with classical carnival games re-imagined artists. Not exactly your average Halloween party.

This is just one example, a tiny slice of the smart, eclectic programming happening at the Waldorf. Insiders often referred to it as “the compound,” and that’s how it felt: this hotel (where the guest rooms played second a fiddle to the art) was a sort of innovation laboratory, a breeding ground for ideas.

This is why the city – or a segment of it, anyway – is reacting the way it is. Petitions have been launched on change.org attracting thousands of signatures; activists Lindsay Brown and Sandy Garossino have started a “Vancouver Loves the Waldorf” group, calling the hotel “the heartbeat of our city” and “a unique cultural institution whose contribution to arts and entertainment in Vancouver is unprecedented and broad.” The venue as it is, run by this team, can never be replaced, they say in a news release.

Even city hall is reacting, possibly to the reactions, with a report coming to council Tuesday about protecting the Waldorf and discussing options for continuing an arts and culture venue, possibly at the hotel.

People talk about the Waldorf being the centre of cultural life for East Vancouver. I think it goes beyond East Van: It’s a cultural centre, period, attracting artists both established (Douglas Coupland, Michael Turner, Paul Wong) and emerging, who would create or show work there that was often offbeat and thrilling. This was not the arts institution you grew up on.

For musicians, it has been a great place to play, but also to just hang out. And they did.

“I’m feeling pretty gutted,” wrote Vancouver-based musician and Waldorf regular (she’s a fan of the Monday night Ice Cream Socials) Louise Burns in an e-mail this week from Los Angeles, where she’s recording an album. “Watching Vancouver slowly commit cultural suicide is a difficult thing to do.”

In a profanity-laced tweet, Polaris-nominated musician Grimes, a Vancouver native, expressed similar displeasure, criticizing the city: “you’ve destroyed nearly every piece of culture that you had.”

In the many, many discussions (interviews, casual conversations, passionate e-mail exchanges) I engaged in last year over the closing of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, one of the comments that really gave me pause came from someone who works in theatre. Though devastated, he argued that models for cultural institutions evolve, and as awful as the Playhouse closing was, there was exciting theatre happening in the city that had grown out of it, and could fill that void.

I’ve thought a lot about that argument this week. Because the Waldorf is exactly the kind of next-generation, grassroots, from-the-ground up alternative art scene that should be flourishing here. And it was.

The Waldorf was a place I loved to go – for performances, parties, interviews, whatever; a place I was proud to be able to walk to from my home; a place that made Vancouver better – even beyond the so-called cultural community.

I can’t think of a more appropriate word to describe how so many of us are feeling – or what’s happening to the city – than the one Ms. Burns chose: gutted.

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