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on culture

Sometimes cultural innovation takes forever. And sometimes things come together very, very quickly. In Whistler, which is eager for economic diversification through cultural tourism, there is the tale of two cultural infrastructure projects: an art museum and a film festival venue – the former sprung upon the town this fall by developer and art collector Michael Audain and moving full steam ahead, the latter in the works for years and stalled.

The Whistler Film Festival is on right now, once again without a proper permanent cinema. For years, the festival has been working toward transforming the Rainbow Theatre – an outdated 1985 facility within the Whistler Convention Centre – into the state-of-the-art digital Festival Theatre. But it has been an uphill battle in this downhill town. Festival executive director Shauna Hardy Mishaw had hoped to have the renovation finished for 2010, Whistler's Olympic year and the festival's 10th anniversary. Then, in 2010, she vowed it would be done in time for 2011. Well, it's 2012, and the squeaky, plaid, almost 30-year-old seats are still there. Plans hit a big snag last year, when a $1.1-million grant application to Canadian Heritage was turned down.

"This theatre is a critical success factor for us, as a presentation facility," says Ms. Hardy Mishaw, who is using the theatre this year anyway. "One of our challenges is that in order to get the films we want, we have to have the right venues to put them in."

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has identified cultural tourism as an important factor in economic diversification – a way to fill hotel rooms without relying completely on skiers, golfers and mountain bikers. This is particularly important as occupancy rates this weekend, for example, hover around 60 per cent – "not very healthy," as Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden puts it. A 2010 report called the Whistler Film Festival a "lead" cultural experience, and said the renovation of the Rainbow Theatre "promises to enhance Whistler's international cultural profile and build cultural tourism."

The WFF is an important economic driver. Last year, it generated $5.1-million for the province, $2.8-million of that in Whistler, according to a study commissioned by the RMOW. Then there's the all-important publicity generated by a festival, which this year has attracted as big a name as Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe to the mountains.

The way the RMOW helps finance the film fest is complicated, but it basically comes down to this: From a $6.5-million fund provided by the province to grow tourism, the RMOW has given the festival $125,000 this year and has an additional $350,000 earmarked for the $3-million renovation. Those funds will not be available until other funding is in place, so they haven't been released yet. But festival officials say another government agency is considering a major investment, and there's interest from private donors. They say the funds could come in time to renovate the theatre for next year's festival. But we've heard that before.

Meanwhile, plans are moving along for the privately built Audain art museum, with a public information session and presentation at Whistler City Council scheduled for Tuesday. It's been just over two months since developer/philanthropist/art collector Michael Audain toured the area with the mayor and others, and chose the spot to build what will no doubt be an iconic facility to house his impressive collection. The municipality, eager to attract the project they consider game-changing, is working out a deal with the province to give the land to Mr. Audain. He's already hired an architectural firm, they've spent time investigating the site, and municipal staff and the Audain Foundation are discussing the terms of a memorandum of understanding that is expected to be signed on Dec. 18. Shovels are to be in the ground next spring, as soon as the snow melts, and an opening date of late fall 2014 is expected.

"We've got to get cracking on it," Mr. Audain, 75, told The Globe and Mail when he went public with his plans. He has said he wants the museum built in his lifetime.

"We can't do anything with [the land] other than have it as parkland because of the restrictions that the province has placed on it. So we could never sell it for somebody to put a hotel on it or something," says Ms. Wilhelm-Morden, who has in her office a copy of Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art from the Audain Collection, the catalogue for a recent Vancouver Art Gallery show that featured some 170 works. Approaching the parcel of land, I'm instantly reminded of the painting on the catalogue's cover, Emily Carr's War Canoes, Alert Bay, with its coniferous beauty.

With the art museum, Millennium Place – which houses an art gallery and performance theatre – the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, the Whistler Olympic Plaza, and, maybe, the Rainbow Theatre, Whistler is creating a cultural precinct that it hopes will lure people to the mountains – and those hotel rooms.

There is a belief here that a state-of-the-art movie theatre – and a world-class art museum – will help lift this mountain resort to the next level.

"I really hope this Audain Museum happens. I think it's going to raise the profile of Whistler as a cultural destination and that's going to benefit everybody," Ms. Hardy Mishaw says. "It's those kinds of initiatives along with what we're doing that will help put Whistler on the map for arts and culture, and take us beyond just being a town renowned for recreation. … I believe this is an absolutely important and critical factor for us going forward. So I'm very inspired by the fact that it's being embraced, and I hope what we're doing is going to be equally embraced."