A group of Swiss artists, flying through Vancouver, took pains to ensure their layover would accommodate a visit to the art gallery.
They rented a car at the airport, but didn't drive north to Vancouver. It was the Surrey Art Gallery – particularly its renowned, ambitious digital and media art program – they were interested in seeing.
Visitors from overseas are not, of course, the primary target market for cultural institutions on the geographical fringe of cities. It's the locals: urban refugees, perhaps, driven out of Vancouver by choice or economics, who are looking for cultural experiences close to home, a night out that does not force them to drive downtown and pay for parking, but better than the community arts experience usually associated with suburbs.
"You're starting to get: If it's here, it can be good, rather than if it's here it must be mediocre," says Ian Forsyth, president of the Creative City Network of Canada and director of the arts office for North Vancouver.
Suburban – or so-called "edge" cities – are developing cultural infrastructure that, if not necessarily on par with what is downtown, is bound to impress. As they grow to view themselves less as bedroom communities and more as cities with cultural identities, these municipalities are focusing on the arts as a way to help them grow, and to demonstrate their maturity.
Surrey is in the midst of a building boom in which culture figures prominently; New Westminster is planning a state-of-the-art performing arts centre; Chilliwack recently built one.
On the north shore, a proposal for a West Vancouver arts centre has passed an important preliminary hurdle, and in North Vancouver, Presentation House Gallery and the Museum of North Vancouver are planning moves to better facilities.
"I think from a planning and also from an economic development perspective, these [types of] communities want to be evolving into places where people live, work and play," says Greg Baeker, director of cultural development for the consulting firm Millier Dickenson Blais. "If you want to attract talent and economic activity, you'd better have a place that's interesting to live."
Dr. Baeker points to Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto. He developed Vaughan's cultural plan guided by two questions: "One was how do we stop being a suburb? And how do we use cultural facilities and amenities and opportunities to create a sense of this being an urban centre, not a suburban area?"
This is a key issue in Surrey. After the completion of a stunning central library and with construction of a new City Hall under way, an ambitious $40-million cultural plan released last year suggests bolstering the arts can diversify the local economy, reinforce a sense of pride in the community and its appearance, and can "significantly contribute to achieving Surrey's urbanization aspirations."
"For us, a city of half a million people, we really have to make sure that the arts and culture community is very significant," Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts says. "We've always had a really strong arts community, but this is just taking it to the next level."
In the works: a splashy performing arts centre (with Bing Thom Architects acting as architectural consultant) with a 1,600-seat theatre, a 250-seat studio theatre, and possibly a museum and art gallery. (A report is due at council this fall.) There are also plans for a new arts centre in south Surrey.
And Ms. Watts says the Surrey Art Gallery may expand or move – its neighbours include trailer parks and a U-Haul storage facility, but no SkyTrain station.
"There's really, I think, an open-minded and hungry audience for contemporary art," says Jordan Strom, curator of exhibitions and collections at the Surrey Art Gallery, which attracts about 50,000 visitors a year. "They want to see work that's being shown in downtown Toronto or other parts of the world. And they want to see it right here."
Mr. Strom keeps a close eye on the ever eastward population shift in the Lower Mainland – Surrey skews young and diverse and is growing at a rate of nearly 10,000 a year – and has presented shows dealing with this idea of the centre and the periphery.
"That's at the heart of modernity," Mr. Strom says. "Think about people like Manet or the other French Impressionist painters. They would go out to the fringes of Paris to take the pulse of the changing nature all around them. And certainly there's a history of that in Vancouver."
Mr. Forsyth, who has worked for mid-sized municipalities and institutions, says that, about 20 years ago, these communities began to embrace culture. "They started to look and say that it's crazy that we simply have bowling alleys and driveways and garages. This is not a complete community. And I think everyone started to man up and look at their community and ask what does it need?" Since then, progress has been steady.
In West Vancouver, a geographical fringe that is more moneyed than marginal, artist Gordon Smith, 93, is fighting for an arts facility that can celebrate the district's rich history of art, design and architecture. He names artists and architects with local connections – E.J. Hughes, B.C. Binning, Lawren Harris, Arthur Erickson, Douglas Coupland – in emphasizing the need for an architecturally significant venue to exhibit the work where it was made, or inspired.
"A city is known by its art, really, whether it's Florence or New York," says Mr. Smith, who has a show opening at Vancouver's Equinox Gallery in September . "We need a gallery desperately here."
This spring, it came one step closer: the district approved in principle the concept of building a $25-million arts centre on publicly owned land near the Ambleside waterfront, currently a parking lot . The plan calls for funds to be raised through federal and provincial grants and donations from West Van philanthropists and collectors.
"That's exactly where we are now, determining how deep the support is," says Merla Beckerman, co-chair of the development committee. "We know that everybody thinks it's a good idea. There's momentum."
The arts centre would be the new home of, among other things, the West Vancouver Museum, now operating in a retrofitted heritage house. With only 1,100 square feet of exhibition space – the former living and dining room – the museum's current show, The New Design Gallery on the frontier 1955-1966, was a challenge.
"We compiled a lot of research and information and because of our space limitations, we were only able to present a small number of artists who exhibited at the [New Design] Gallery," says curator Darrin Morrison. "We couldn't … realize [the show] in its full potential because we're limited by what we can include, both in size and number."
In North Vancouver, Presentation House Gallery resides in a heritage facility so hot it can't offer programming in August, and devoid of walk-up traffic.
"It takes devotion to get to it," says director/curator Reid Shier, who was hired in 2006 with a mandate to move the gallery. This year, the city gave $500,000 to explore a possible move to site next to Lonsdale Quay. This would make the gallery accessible for suburbanites and city-dwellers who are interested in its photo-based work whose reputation extends far beyond North Van's borders .
"I think the suburbs are changing. I think there's a much more urban audience in and around Metro Vancouver than has historically been the case," says Mr. Shier , who points out urban epicentres are developing in cities such as North Van, Burnaby, Surrey and Richmond . " That demographic is shifting expectations. The expectation is that people can have this type of amenity in those urban cores, rather than having to travel to Vancouver to get it."