Under the illumination of handmade lanterns and glowing art installations, wide-eyed toddlers, teens and parents began to gather silently in awe, watching a double-bar trapeze artist swing her body around glowing horizontal bars installed in Langford’s Westhills community.
It was this moment, during the annual Light Up the Hills festival, that nearly brought tears to the eyes of organizer Laura Davis.
“It was magical for me,” she says. “I thought, ‘yes, this is what we want.’”
At that time, Davis was the president of the West Shore Arts Council and Light Up the Hills was her creation — an attempt to bring accessible, dynamic art to West Shore families with an outdoor festival of light, visual art and performance.
The project was, by all means, a victory for local arts. In its first year, more than 600 people attended and by 2018 the festival drew roughly 3,000 visitors. However the event, like many others, was halted by COVID-19.
Despite the clear demand for local art, physical spaces for affordable, community-accessible arts and culture are limited on the West Shore, Davis says, and outdoor programming comes with limitations.
But Davis — now president of Arts and Culture Colwood Society — is working to change that. As the region grows and new developments emerge on the West Shore at break-neck speeds, Davis is turning her mind towards collaboration. She’s reaching out to developers in the hopes that they’re interested in creating an arts facility alongside their developments.
“If you look at body, mind, heart and spirit, those are the key things I believe in and I believe communities need that,” says Davis. “The festival that I did in Langford…people come and they forget about their mortgage, they forget about all the problems they have. And we need that release valve. We need it.”
Arts on the backburner as population booms
The steady upward trend of development across West Shore communities has been marked with the opening of large-scale sports facilities and initiatives such as the newly-expanded Westhills Stadium (now Starlight Stadium thanks to a $500,000 corporate sponsorship) and the Langford-based Pacific Football Club, founded in 2018.
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Commercial growth has been booming, too. On its website, the City of Langford boasts that since incorporating, the municipality has operated “more like a business than a government,” working hand-in-hand with developers and businesses to support economic development.
Laura Davis, president of Arts and Culture Colwood Society. <b> Photo courtesy of Arts and Culture Colwood Society </b>
But as the West Shore expands, a small but determined number of arts lovers, like Davis, are pushing for small, usable, permanent spaces devoted entirely to arts and culture.
“I’m not talking (about) big infrastructure,” she says. “I’m talking small, like an art gallery, teaching space, office space and rehearsal space.”
Davis notes there is a newly-completed 500-seat auditorium in Colwood, the Learning and Teaching Auditorium at Royal Roads University.
“We do have a couple of inside venues that are limited in use,” she says. “But brick and mortar (spaces) for small programs – we need to work hard on that.”
Buy-in from government, developers key for the arts
Davis has been running outdoor programming for Arts and Culture Colwood, but she’s begun reaching out to developers and gauging their interest in participating in the creation of a local arts facility. Without funding, talks are just talks, but the response has left Davis feeling hopeful.
“I think the important thing is that they seem to really appreciate that the arts need to be part of the social fabric of a neighbourhood,” Davis says. “ And they’re building neighbourhoods.”
Davis is attempting to take a lead role in forming a team for future discussions. She says it’s part of a plan to bring developers, council, and eventually the province to the table, with a focus on including infrastructure for the arts that is practical in size and affordability.
“After understanding where the city is at and where the developers (are) at, can we go sit at the provincial level and try to achieve this? Or does our organization need to just do that on our own?” Davis wonders. “I’m not sure, but that’s the investigative process I’ll be looking at.”
“We just need to leverage all the different funding – federal, provincial, local – and volunteer time,” Davis adds. “I think we can do it, but we need to do it while there’s still land and developers to talk to about it.”
Community groups work to build the arts
Davis isn’t alone in her fight to give the arts a home on the West Shore. But recent efforts still seem far from reach or fall short when it comes to addressing an immediate need for arts spaces.
In May 2020, the Juan de Fuca Performing Arts Centre Society brought ambitious sketches of Colwood Place to city council. The designs – 15 to 20 years in the making – include an Emily Carr Centre for the Arts, complete with a theatre, gallery, classroom and maker spaces, to be built in Colwood’s city centre at the corner of Island Highway and Ocean Boulevard. The society is still working with the city on a memorandum of understanding to enter a 99-year lease.
And recently, the City of Langford identified a patch of land running adjacent to a portion of the neglected Island Rail Corridor as the future site of an “inviting cultural precinct.” As previously reported by The Discourse, plans for the property – currently a park-and-ride site for the Langford Bus Exchange – include formalized parking, a dog park and artisan huts, rented out at below-market rates for commercial use by local artists and businesses.
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While arts are certainly part of the $1 million Station Avenue project, they aren’t its central focus. And for Davis, accessible and immediate community involvement in the arts is a primary goal for future development.
“When we’re talking smaller infrastructure, it’s not so daunting,” she says. “Some of these big, grandiose ideas that have come up have not come to fruition for many, many years. We need to let go of that. Let’s try to get some realism going and get something to happen within a three-to-five year period.”
Pandemic exacerbates need for arts spaces
What did exist in the way of arts spaces on the West Shore became a casualty to COVID-19. Without income from programming, the Coast Collective Art Society’s Wale Road location was forced to close, and the already small supply of community-accessible centres dwindled further.
Originally a for-profit business, the Coast Collective Arts Society (formerly called the Society for Arts on the South Island) became a non-profit in 2014. From fibre arts, poetry, visual art and children’s shows, the gallery – always free admission – was open to non-members. The collective funded the space through its programming, which operated at a reduced rate thanks to grants and municipal funding.
Now, even without the space, the collective hasn’t given up on its mission to connect the community with arts and culture.
“Our focus is to get the community involved in arts and give them the opportunity to go and view art, buy art from local artists and participate in classes,” says Kathryn Fudge, director at large. “And of course, that’s why COVID did us in. When you can’t have 12 or 14 people in a room together, you have no income.”
Fudge says running arts programs without physical space is difficult, and in many ways, decentralizes the efforts of community organizers and artists.
“If you don’t have a centre, if you don’t have a space for people to go to, it’s pretty difficult,” she says. “We don’t even have an office space at this point where we can try to set up community activities.”
It’s unclear what comes next, but the collective hasn’t given up.
“We’re in a holding pattern,” Fudge says. “We’re hoping that there will be a space available to us where we can go into and continue our programming.”
Fudge says the Coast Collective Society’s blue sky vision is a space that goes beyond a gallery, gift shop and classroom. It’s a gathering space where artists of all kinds can come together, whether that’s for making music, visual art or simply connecting.
Community benefits abound
When she was about 12 years old, Davis sang a duet in a school talent show with a friend.
The sixth-graders sang Yip Harburg’s ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and when they had finished, found that the audience had tears in their eyes.
“It was overwhelming,” she recalls. “After that moment, I have sang ever since.”
That one opportunity to participate in the arts changed the story of Davis’s life, and it’s driven her to try and create those same opportunities for her community.
Art has been intrinsically linked to public health through research dating back decades. In the World Health Organization’s 1981 Strategy for Health for All, the strength and nature of local culture was determined to be an important indicator of health, and a 2015 study in China connected creative arts to psychological, physical and social health, particularly among older adults and low-income community members.
Throughout recorded history, people have used images, stories, dances and song as healing rituals, notes a 2010 literature review published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine. In four primary areas – music engagement, visual arts, movement-based creative expression and expressive writing – researchers found the potential for art to promote healing.
There’s plenty of arguments for economic and social development benefits, too. In his book, The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators, Charles Landry writes that “the creativity of those who live in and run cities will determine future success.” He conceptualizes “third spaces” – neither home nor work – where people can be together, find connection, exchange ideas and network.
“Culture provides insight and so has many impacts; it is the prism through which urban development should be seen,” Landry writes.
Importance of arts must be recognized
The time is now, Fudge says, to incorporate art spaces into growing West Shore communities. “Anything that’s creative needs to be nurtured,” she says. “I keep hoping that, with the focus being so much on mental health right now, maybe this is the start of that.”
That focus needs to be municipality-driven, she adds. “Councils need to recognize the importance (and) the value of art in the community, and how much it can actually pull the community together.”
“We need a physical place to be,” Fudge adds. “But we also need funding to make the programming happen.”
This Delving Into Development article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content.