January 9, 2018 – Dr. Ron Burnett, CM, O.B.C., President & Vice Chancellor, Emily Carr University of Art + Design

To experiment and play and critique and make and then to turn creative work into art or product or process, that is the essence of the engagement of students with our community of staff and faculty. Our academic programs in art, design and media are designed to be flexible and to provide students with many different pathways to learning and research. We are focused on empowering our students to gain the knowledge they need to succeed in the world around us. We are here to serve our communities of interest from the cultural sector to government to industry. We connect ideas and action, new knowledge and change, new media and all forms of artistic expression with the central goal of creating and sustaining an inclusive culture based on humanistic ideas and diverse viewpoints.

Creativity is dependent on ideas and critical thinking. We nurture multidisciplinary learning and research and student engagement to make sure that everyone in our community realizes their full potential. Our mission is to educate the best artists, designers and media practitioners in the world. Our new campus is the physical representation of that goal and will allow students of all ages, all disciplines and viewpoints to succeed in their chosen profession and to achieve excellence in a supportive and exciting environment.

– Dr. Ron Burnett, C.M., O.B.C., Chevalier, RCA

Transcript of Ron Burnett’s talk:

As Don mentioned we’ve known each other for a long time and he has been a very important part of Emily Carr’s history sitting on the board of governors and the foundation board. He tends to understate his impact, but his impact has been profound.

 

I want to tell you a couple of stories before I begin but I want to say thank you to everyone for coming out and thank you to Hugh for the invitation and thank you to the club for considering Emily Carr. I’ve been doing this for 22 years, I get a lot of invitations that are outside Vancouver. Just so you know the tendency in BC in general is to say, “we’re great, we have one of the greatest universities in the world, which we do in UBC, but what else do we do?”

 

I’m deeply indebted to you for allowing me to proselytize about art and design, so I want to tell you a couple of stories. The first story a Vancouver type story which is indicative of the importance and longevity of this school.

 

It was started in 1925 by a group of artists who desperately wanted to create something that was unique to the West Coast. In the early 1930s it ran into financial problems. In fact, the teachers weren’t getting paid, the students were paying less than their fees and there were no rules. It was the ultimate late ‘20s early ‘30s chaos. Everyone was very committed, but they didn’t know how to manage. I think you’ll agree that artists are challenged on the business side and so in 1931 and 1932 the school was about to fail. It was called the Vancouver School of Decorative Arts at that point and there was some discussion at city council about this strange school on Pender Street. What did they do there? Some of the teachers wear white uniforms even though they aren’t doctors and most of the students are women. What’s going on? The council then made a decision which was quite remarkable. Nobody knows about it but they should. The council said, “Why don’t we tax Vancouver residents to support the school?” Everybody said, “oh my God, no!” And the council said, “We’re not talking about a large amount of money, how about three pennies per resident?” They did, and for 17 years three pennies per resident kept that school alive. It’s quite a remarkable story. I’ve been unable to find out what happened in 1952 or 1953 when I think the money disappeared. It might have been some provincial government machinations, who knows.

 

The second story is about cultural renewal, urban renewal and the impact of art schools on the urban environment. It’s about the Art Institute of Chicago. A wonderful man named Tony Jones ran it for many years. He’s British and he ran the Royal College of Art in Britain as well and is very well-known in the art world. He and I have been friends for a very long time. Tony had this fantasy one day that the parking lot adjacent to the Art Institute of Chicago was wasting city property somewhat like Vancouver does. We can get into that in the questions afterwards! He said, “Why don’t we have a beautiful park?” If you’ve visited Chicago, you’ll notice that it’s bereft of open spaces and it really needs that to make it a livable city. He proposed an idea and then began to move on it. It took him many years but not as long as it took me build this new building. That took me 16 years, but his project took about five years. He assembled a wonderful group of donors and he talked to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley who was a brilliant innovator and a smart man. He talked to Frank Gehry and proposed the building of a park and lo and behold there’s a park seven years later. It’s the most extraordinary park in the urban setting of Chicago. But that’s not the reason for telling the story. The investment around the edge of that park has reached US$6.4 billion. That’s important because that says something about the extent to which a good idea situated within a creative context has an impact.

 

So let me explore this a bit further. Doug White, who is head of Finning came to see Martha Piper and me. We sat down, had lunch and had a conversation about the Finning lands. They’d been up for sale for six years and the price was $17 million which seems laughable today. So, they were quite desperate at this point because they had established themselves in Richmond and wanted to move but they didn’t know how to get rid of this dumpy land on the edge of a creek. And it is dumpy land. It’s very poor quality, it’s water-logged and if you want to build on it you have to do a lot of things. But don’t ask me those questions because I’ll go on for hours.

 

Martha and I had been talking for many years. We are both McGill grads and we connected very quickly when I came to the city. We had a conversation about what there was to be done about education in British Columbia. How do we think about it? The size is not relevant; it’s about culture, cultural exchange, education, learning and how we actually unify our activities and benefit our students. We had this wonderful discussion and Doug was brought into the discussion and during that very momentous lunch – Martha and I have discussed it many times since – we decided to reorganize post-secondary education in the Lower Mainland. We ended up in a situation where we worked out a deal with Finning which was very beneficial to them at that point. We signed everything off and invited BCIT and Simon Fraser University to join us because we felt that it needed to be the four institutions that are the heart of post-secondary in Vancouver. Well, lo and behold, the minute we owned the land, a bunch of academics took over management. I come from an academic background, but I’ve always been extremely business-oriented. I started an internationally famous journal, I made movies, I worked as a publisher and a promoter, so I had a little bit of business acumen. I wish I had invested in Apple when I knew it was going to be a big company but that’s another story. The management structure was strange for a while. I won’t get into the details because there are personalities involved and they are all still living. From a management perspective it was not an efficient operation. That’s why many over the course of about 10 years from ‘01 to ‘11 I would get comments like, “What’s happening to that empty site?” and I would sort of cover it up and say, “We’re going to get a centre for digital media built.” And we did do that finally, and eventually we set up a trust and an entire system to run it. It was, in my opinion, quite well run. There was a proper board that was objective and looked at the situation with a fairly professional, and from an economic perspective, a very careful way.

 

Let me jump for a moment, because I am going to come back to it, to talk about Granville Island for a minute. It was the worst-run CMHC property in Canada and if any of you are members of the CMHC family, don’t talk to me. It’s a disaster. When we came on to the island in the early ‘80s it was a brilliant move on the part of the school. Here was something nascent. It was a brilliant idea developed by the federal government in an extraordinarily enlightened way.  They were thinking about an area specialized in the arts. An area that would celebrate craft. We have the best artists in Canada and among the best artists in the world and there’s no one that’s been able to explain that to me or the artists themselves. But if you talk to Marc Mayer of the National Gallery of Canada he will tell you very quickly and intuitively that the UNINTELLIGIBLE of art is Vancouver and it has been for 100 years. There’s a lot going on in Toronto and Montreal. They have a lot of great artists, great designers and great creative people but in the fundamentals, Vancouver has led the way in every stage over the 20th century and into the 21st. The move to Granville Island was a brilliant decision. It was part of a dream to really create a cultural venue in this city. And why has it not succeeded? We don’t have time to get into the details but one of the fundamental core challenges from a management and business perspective is that you have to know your clientele and you have to know how to build out that relationship in a strong way. In some senses Granville Island relied on the school coming to it as a way of building its clientele. I know it sounds odd but it’s true. In a way they felt that the incoming students would keep things alive and they could build up the base from there. But as you know since 1991 nothing has happened on Granville Island. Leases have gone up extraordinarily. There is a recent plan that has been developed that I will suggest may be activated at the end of its actual projection which is Granville Island 2040. That’s when they’ll start!

 

Why did this extraordinary cultural infrastructure not get built out? Well, it’s not only their fault. It’s the fault of a lack of vision about the role of the creative economy in developing not only urban spaces but economies and how to build economies in the context of creativity. It’s a profound misunderstanding that artists are struggling, always at the edge of things and have a lot of antipathy toward mainstream thinking and so on. Some do. A lot of very established people, as we have discovered, have a lot of antipathy for mainstream thinking as well and we are in a period that exemplifies that as fully as possible. Artists are actually entrepreneurs. Designers are among the best entrepreneurs. I’m proud of saying that you are all sitting in seats that were designed. You don’t think about it. You actually, I would presume, are quite cautious about what you wear, and you are sitting in a chair that was designed and wearing stuff that was designed. In fact, everything you do most of the day from the car you drive, the teacup you drink from, the art on your walls and the walls you look at in your home have creativity at the core.

 

Now I want you to imagine a city “undesigned.” That’s not a word in the English language, by the way. But let’s pull design away from it. Let’s pull art out and imagine… Palm Springs! Sorry.

 

You begin to get a sense of a problem. Somehow or another we’re not able to bring together the way we live, what we live with and the objects we buy. The phone, for example. The greatest designers from Emily Carr are key members of Sir Jonathan Ive’s team at Apple. Why are they there? Because as industrial designers they have learned what design is about and they have learned how to build creatively interesting and aesthetically provocative tools and technologies. Imagine not having all those things. I know there are some people who would love to go back but we are in the 21st century and we generally tend to move forward. The issue is that there is a misunderstanding of what the creative economy produces. Somewhere between eight and 12 percent of the economy in British Columbia is creatively based. It’s larger than natural resources, mining and forestry. Most of that activity is generated by artists and creative people in an entrepreneurial sense. The film industry is a rare example because there are subsidies. And by the way, British Columbia is the worst funder for artists in Canada even though we have the best artists. Per capita the amount of money we spend on cultural infrastructure is zero. You’ll notice that we don’t have a new art gallery or a symphony hall. We don’t have a multitude of the types of infrastructure that we need to express who we are to ourselves, our communities and the world. The big question is why.

 

One of the key arguments that I faced when I was sitting in meetings and having lunch with Christy Clark and her cabinet and talking to various ministers and trying to make them understand the need to build a new campus for Emily Carr was that they saw it as a cost. I kept on saying that it’s an investment. The same as a gallery is an investment. You do not go to New York and wander around looking at the high-rises. You go to the Met, you go to the MoMA. You go to the places that constitute the cultural fabric of the city that you are visiting. When you come to Vancouver you are told, “take a look at the mountains and by the way you will have to cross a bridge that is so old you have to cross it very carefully.” You’re supposed to go across and enjoy the mountains. Great! You take a walk and what do you do? You might want to find a good restaurant and you don’t want to walk into a dump or a shed, you want to walk into something designed. You want to walk into something that’s actually got a sense that it’s respecting you and inviting you as a client. The question is why is it seen as a cost and not an investment.

 

I really think that if you want to ponder one of the cores of what I’d like you to think about over the next few hours, days, weeks, months or years is why is this the case for British Columbia not Quebec? When I was at McGill, Martha and I discussed this at great length because we were puzzled by this Vancouver and British Columbia attitude. When the game industry was being dominated on the West Coast and Electronic Arts was at its peak, a simple series of investments both private and public would have given us the game industry for North America. What did Quebec do? They took $800 million and invited 16 companies to the party and said, “this is our investment.” Today it’s producing $7.8 billion. It’s investment. The tendency to see it as a subsidy is correct up to a point if it maintains that subsidy and stays dependent on government for a long period of time which I think is not a good thing. But they don’t get any money anymore, they are generating the money they need and the income tax and so forth.

 

I want to tell you the story of this theatre. Theatres are extremely difficult to design. Aside from a few small theatres here and there and getting back to Granville Island with some deteriorating spaces where you can barely hear the actors on the stage and where the sound systems are decaying. I’m very proud of SFU’s downtown campus where they’ve built some infrastructure, but it’s hidden away deep underground and don’t get me going on the architectural decisions there because I don’t agree with them. The challenge is trying to just simply design a 400-seat theatre in this case. The challenge in this room, the challenge of designing something where you feel personally engaged. This is actually a really good-sized auditorium and it’s well-designed for the purposes for which it’s used. It’s quite an extraordinary building but nobody takes pictures of it. If you stand in the parking lot, you should look at the way the dome is constructed. This is quite a brilliant example of good architecture in a bad city for architecture. This was not what was being paid for by government or our donors. This is not what the original planners suggested should be our theatre. I consider a theatre in any public or private institution to be one of the constituent elements. I always tell developers, and I know many of them in the city, to put a small theatre into their buildings and create presentation spaces for shared environments and shared experiences for your employees and your clients.

 

This was the fight of the entire project. You’ve never seen me hysterical and hopefully you will never will, but I walked out of many meetings. Something in the range of 480 meetings built this project. I walked out of many meetings because I was so upset. If you’ve been to UBC you’ve seen lecture halls. The lecturers are so far away that even if you are a really good student you go into dreamland. By the way, how many of you are in dreamland? Building this theatre was a fundamental core element of my approach to try and figure out how to make this building very active. But at the same time the key to it was investment in cultural infrastructure. We cannot now meet the demand for this theatre so what that suggests is that we have a place, Vancouver, as well as a culture and a community that wants this. We don’t have a community that says, “I don’t want a gallery.” We have a community that says, “I want to have a gallery. I want something to be proud of.”

 

I’m not a fan of iconic buildings. If we got into a discussion on architecture I would say immediately and quite honestly that iconic buildings are a challenge. Most of the time they fail. If you look at what Emily Carr is today, it’s beautiful but inside and outside it’s just a warehouse. That’s how we built it for $122.5 million. It’s just a warehouse. We had proposals including one from Frank Gehry who was a friend of mine who said, “I will come up there and do the project for nothing.” I said, “That’s fantastic Frank, but I can’t afford even one tenth of what you’re suggesting.” He was suggesting something beautiful, but it costs a lot of money and we just don’t have that on the West Coast. We need functional buildings that are iconic, not iconic buildings that are dysfunctional.

The theatre in some respects represents the core of this new campus because it exemplifies that the best way of doing this is to fight for them, which we did, but you must have a design in mind. This is my design. The architect Donald Schmitt, who is a wonderful man, will begrudgingly admit that his first design was crap. He called me the worst client that he’s ever had in his life and he said he was delighted that I was his client because I never let him get away with anything. Architecture is a fight. I won’t get into the P3 nature of this because that’s a whole other discussion and presentation. I can tell you everything about private public partnerships; I’m Canada’s expert. I mean it. I never want to think about it again.

 

This is one of the galleries facing out the east side. As you notice it has massive windows with light coming in everywhere. The space is actually larger than this image is able to show, and it is part of the character of the building. These are the basic principles here. They were developed, related, understood, talked about and built into the actual process of construction and architectural design. It took 186 meetings to get to this. Art schools are impossible to manage, I hope you know that. After 22 years I have scars up and down my body.

 

Students at the centre – was the core. How do you build something that celebrates the student’s capacity to engage in the work and craft? If you come to visit the building, it’s massive in size. It’s got high ceilings and wood everywhere. It’s extraordinary in its actual mass and the students therefore have a lot of room and space to engage in what they need to in the work they pursue.

 

Bringing the public in – It’s open, there are no guards at the door who say you can’t come in, you just walk in. Hopefully that will not lead to any problems. There are a lot of security cameras everywhere for which I get a lot of crap thrown at me by radical students who say we are surveilling them and I say, “only so I know exactly what you are doing!”

 

Closer to home – Most of our faculty, staff and students live in areas that are east of the dividing line. Today’s article about multi-million-dollar homes tends to change that a bit but bottom line, it’s closer to areas where students can find housing. I should say that although I’m leaving in the spring, I’m trying to sign a number of agreements with developers around residences and my hope is that I will be able to get one agreement signed so that we can have a residence for Emily Carr students. This is a big problem.

 

Making and remaking – The entire campus is designed around the principal of allowing everything to change. People who walk in say it’s wonderful, but I know that it’s just gyprock and cement and you can tear it up. I would love to see all the four floors emptied and say, “Come on in and build it again.” The best benefit of P3 is that in 30 years they have to give us back the building as it presently is, and I don’t know if I’ll be around in 30 years to see that but that’s a rather interesting challenge. Will they give us back something as it exactly is? No, of course not. Buildings deteriorate and wear and so forth. But that’s a really important part of making and remaking, it can be remade.

 

Twenty-first century infrastructure – That’s an obvious one.

 

Access and diversity – Emily Carr is now 62 percent Asian, 74 percent female and 350 of the total students come from 62 countries. So, this is a place that is actually international, diverse and represents the future of this city and community in many ways.

 

Visibility and transparency – With the windows everything is visible, and this is driving faculty insane. They can be seen in their classes teaching and I make a point of looking around and saying hi. But it is visible and transparent. There was a lot of glazing which was a big challenge from a cost perspective, but that’s another issue. There’s creative work everywhere so every part of the campus is built out as a spill out area. You may walk into a studio and adjacent to it is a spill out. The students are already doing this, and you discover all these galleries popping up throughout the building. They are displaying their work and showing the extraordinary extent to which they are engaged in a creative enterprise.

 

I want to get back to this notion of the creative economy. It’s not possible to think about the future of our community if we don’t collectively shift the ground for it. When Tony Blair took over in Britain in 1997, some of you don’t like his politics, but what he did was create a ministry of creative industries and people laughed. What are the creative industries? At that point they represented about 2.5 percent of the British economy which was worth billions of pounds. Today it’s 14.8 percent of the British economy, 22.5 percent of the Dutch economy and 16 percent of the Australian economy. I could go on, I know these figures backwards and forwards. In Canada we are in the same league, somewhere between 10 and 12 percent. Why would I say “somewhere?” Because the system of classification of what constitutes various industries and then what constitutes the jobs that make those industries work was developed in 1950.

 

Statistics Canada hates me because I keep on telling them that they don’t know what they are doing. They don’t understand design. Design has about 260 different sub-disciplines. Our students are getting jobs in the most extraordinarily named things around the world. They are not getting them in Vancouver or in British Columbia, by the way. If you noticed our system of classification many of you would be very aware of various movements at different levels within government to create a skills environment and link jobs and education more directly. That’s another discussion I’d love to have because I’m not convinced that that’s the way to do things. But put that aside for a moment. The system of classification they use for most skills is from 1950. They don’t know what the new economy is about and they don’t understand what the creative economy implies. It implies something that we are visibly seeing in our statistics. I’ve had discussions with the BC Business Council about this and Jock Finalyson and I are good friends, we talk about it all the time. It took me years but I got Jock on side.

 

People in the creative sector are entrepreneurs. Even the so-called struggling artist is building a small company and that small company says, “I sell stuff.” Now they hate it when I say that to them because somehow or another they have transcended all those constraints. Okay, you can live in a fantasy world, just be successful when you’re fantasizing. But the bottom line is they are entrepreneurs and they are successful at it.

 

Geoffrey Farmer, who was at the Venice Biennale, is one of our greatest artists. He represented Canada in such a fantastic way in Venice. He’s internationally famous and he’s so bloody wealthy. It’s sickening… he hasn’t given us a cent! He operates exactly as many entrepreneurs do: I earned it, I keep it.

 

From a policy perspective government presumes that there’s a direct line between input and output. How many of you are in the careers you trained for? There’s a few of you. It’s the usual three percent, that’s the statistic.

You were not trained to become the person you are today. In fact, training as a concept is absurd because it suggests that there’s a linear relationship between input and output. If in fact we were that dumb we would all be in love with each other which hopefully we are not because we would be this loving input love and output love, input anger and output anger. We do have a President of the United States who thinks that way, but please, let’s not do that.

 

Innovation can’t be manufactured. You can’t create a linear relationship between an input and an output. What you can do is create the conditions within which people can flourish, within which communities can feel secure, within which communities can feel that they have a purpose and direction, within which people in those communities can feel they have a career they see. If I had said in 1981 when I got my PhD, “coding is the future,” people would have said, “you are dumb.” In 1977 I said the Internet was the future and I will never forget the laughter. It was this deep laughter as if to say, “What is this idiot saying?” In 1996 Kevin Griffin, a Vancouver Sun reporter, came to see me. He’s still there and he’s probably the last remaining archaic element of the poor Vancouver Sun. When we had the opening of the campus Kevin asked, “how did you know in 1996 that the Internet was the future?” and I said it was 1977.

 

We have a context in which we undervalue the fact that things are fluid. Innovation is fluid. Innovation is not epiphany, inspiration. Innovation is hard, hard work and endless repetition, prototyping, iterative rethinking. It is actually what creativity is about which is iterative and non-stop. If you know anyone who works in industrial design you know that they spend hundreds of hours for what looks like a very simple project, but it’s not simple – it’s complex.

 

We can’t generate public policy that just creates this input-output model. We can create the conditions and that’s what this building is about. This building is very much the creation of the conditions within which smart young people can flourish, hopefully. Discover more about who they are, discover more about what they can be, discover more about their community, learn about where they are and then most importantly at the end of the day, feeling empowered enough to actually seek some results. If that’s what the outcome of this building is I will be very happy.

 

Q&A:

  1. You talked about the open concept at this university. How do you recommend one who is interested in seeing the campus and the new building?
  2. Just come down as you would to UBC. Is UBC well-designed? Hmm… It’s a lot of building and it’s hard to actually make a judgement on it. But the point is, come down. You can walk around. The main second floor is a gallery floor, an exhibition space. Most of the time there are exhibitions in circulation. There is a new gallery in it called the Libby Leshgold Gallery, which is the product of a wonderful gift from the Leshgold and Stovell families. It’s probably one of the most exciting contemporary galleries you will see in Vancouver. It’s extraordinary. So, just come in. Schools are strange, they tend to be kind of inward looking. If you encounter problems walking around then come see me. Frankly, it’s open.

 

  1. Are there guides or docents?
  2. If you are interested in a more formal visit we can definitely arrange for a bunch of people to take you around and tell you about the facilities. For example, I do a lot of tours and I take a people up to our health design lab. Did you know that creative people are absolutely fundamental to the future of health? This effects all of us.

We are working with St. Paul’s on remodeling . . .  how to care for people over 70 in a hospital setting. By the way, for those of you who have experienced it and we all have to varying degrees, what is the worst place to be but a hospital? It doesn’t have to be; good design would change that. So we have a health design lab that has somewhere between 30 and 50 programs every semester. The person who is running it is a very young person and she’s devoted to it as a concept, a practice and a process. She’s changing how St. Paul’s is seeing what is being built and hopefully that will be sustained.

 

  1. You talked about iconic buildings. What is your opinion on the proposal to build a new Vancouver Art Gallery?
  2. I was hoping I wouldn’t get that question! I don’t like it. The reason I said I’m not a fan of iconic buildings is not because I don’t love beautiful buildings because I think the built environment, the urban space is how we renew our sense of purpose and self. When people come to Emily Carr, they smile. It’s really interesting because I take so many groups on tours and everybody is smiling. That’s more important to me than iconicity.

Iconicity costs a lot of money. There’s a whole thing about Bilbao, about the impact of The Guggenheim, Gehry’s building in Bilbao. It’s not true, it’s a myth. He is the most wonderful man in the world, there is no architect that I admire more. But he is a myth maker, a storyteller and the reality is that, yes, they have more tourists but that economy, by the way, is in disastrous shape – tourism is not the way you think about these things. You have to think in 50 to 100 year stretches. They can’t maintain that building, it’s costing them a fortune. They can’t even keep it clean.

So it is with all of those circles and lovely things you see at the Disney Center in Los Angeles. It’s a gorgeous building in Los Angeles if you’ve seen it, unbelievable acoustics inside and built to the specifications of the best concert hall I’ve ever seen. We dropped an actual pin onto a piece of glass in the back of it and it was heard on the stage. I was there. It was extraordinary . . . . . but they can’t keep it clean. I was discussing this with some architects in Los Angeles and we talked about the irony that the reflective impact of the building’s curves were causing some of the sidewalks to melt. Cement is softening. That’s how sharp it is.

I think that the Vancouver Art Gallery should be built. We need something Downtown that says something. I mean Moshe Safdie did do something for us with that library which everyone, by the way, was very ambivalent about but it turned out to be smart with that inner courtyard which is kind of an open space for people.

We need more of that kind of controversy just to get us going a bit, to juice us up and say, “This is the urban environment, this is the place we want to be excited about.” I’m tired of the snow on the mountains! People come and visit and they take out their iPhone show me their mountain photos. That’s sort of okay. It’s nice, once. If you don’t ski then what is the point? Let’s redesign it.

  1. You are producing a supply of young people with the skills required for this creative economy but you say they can’t get jobs here so there must be a demand problem in BC or Vancouver. How do you solve that?
  2. It’s not easy to get a good job so the pool of actual head offices in Vancouver as we know it is very low. The pool of companies is very large but they are generally quite small so innovation happens when people cluster together, develop ideas and then take the risk. People who don’t have the money to take that risk will go somewhere else. A lot of them come back. We have a lot of art grads at Pixar. When Pixar was here they were hiring our grads. A lot of the key animation companies right now are hiring our grads so more are staying.

So it comes down a question of the actual economic infrastructure we are creating. We are still so focused on GDP in a way that may not be the best way of thinking about how economies in the 21st century evolve and change.

What I say is we need to build a basket of possibilities. We need to have money that’s invested in entrepreneurial activities. We used to have more. When I got here in the ‘90s there was a lot more money for entrepreneurial investment than there is today, ironically, even though the chances of being successful are not that much greater but a tiny bit greater. We need to create baskets, companies, clusters and contexts. I haven’t heard of that word from either party. I haven’t heard anything about a 21st century economy and what it means and how you build it. I come back to Tony Blair’s example. He said, “We have all these creative industries so let’s at least cluster around here and build some infrastructure.” And it took off. It took off because of investment. They invested hundreds of millions of pounds and today the notion that there wouldn’t be a creative sector in England is nonsensical.

So there’s no easy answer to that question. But government policy hasn’t helped us. Getting the money for this building took 16 years of work. I was standing with Gordon Campbell at one point in Shaw Studios around the Creative Achievement Awards and I was saying, “I don’t understand why you haven’t given me the money yet.” That was in 2005 and I didn’t get anything until four or five years ago. It took a long time.

Somehow we don’t know how to fit. The great advantage we have is somehow, and I don’t think there’s a linear answer to this, we produce these amazing creative people. We don’t know how to fit that with policy so we need a change in thinking. The BC Arts Council gets $5 million a year. How do our graduates get access to that money if they want to build a project? We don’t have a design council, we don’t have a design Vancouver approach. I’ve talked to the city about this endlessly. We need an approach to design. All of the major cities in the world now have design councils. They invite architects and designers in and develop notions and ideas of which industries will succeed and which won’t. We tend to be happy with the notion that we have a service industry in the cinema. It’s great for employment, it’s not great for the future because that’s not where creative jobs are going to be developed. As we know service industries will grow and economies will always be dependent on them. But service industries in the creative sector fly up and down. So how do you create some stability? I don’t know at this point how to answer that question in a richer fashion because from a policy perspective, I’ve been stumped. I cannot get people to move.

 

  1. You made a very critical comment about Granville Island. I think that I and most of us think Granville Island from our approach is very successful. It attracts a lot of people, it’s physically very attractive and I think it’s a wonderful place. Why do you think it’s the worst disaster in Canada?
  2. Have you ever seen any kind of report on the economies of scale on Granville Island or any kind of report on the economic value it produces for the city?

 

  1. No, not I’m not talking about the economic side.
  2. I am to some extent because I really feel it’s a creative space that needs to have a fundamental economic model to guide it. There are no subsidies happening on Granville Island. The CMHC stopped investing in it long ago. The reason I said that is because in 1996 it was really clear that it needed infrastructure. It needed renovations. The market needed to be renovated and so on. We’re in 2018, has a new building of any consequence been built since the Emily Carr south building? No.

Who are the main visitors to the Island? Tourists. What do they buy? Nothing. I know all the merchants, I’m very good friends with the craftspeople and they moan about the fact that the actual range of products they offer is fantastic and the amount of income they make is minimal. They struggle because leases are high and there isn’t a plan. Now, I’m hopeful that this 2040 plan will be activated and bring it back. I love Granville Island, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s mismanaged and I don’t see how it can be managed from Ottawa. We need local management that understands the local community. It could be a beacon of light. It’s on the water and it has every component that would allow it to be fantastic, everything’s there. But I know that in the summer, for example, it’s busload after busloads of tourists who flow in and flow out. They walk around, they buy some food and they’re gone. I think it was a disaster when the CMHC got all scared and killed the cinema idea. Many of you may remember that. There were six cinemas that were going to be built on the island. Famous Players at that point was actually investing money that it was not in any way worried about losing. I can’t remember the name of the CEO at that point but I was very impressed with him. He said, “Let’s go for it. We’ll see what happens. It will be six small cinemas. Let’s take Rail Spur Lane and turn it into a kind of European street.”
Why has none of this happened? So there’s something static. It has the potential to be our real cultural centre. There’s something statistic about it. Maybe it’s the management, maybe it’s the CMHC, it may be a variety of factors. I’ll tell you an anecdote. When I got there in 1996 the hotel was for sale. As a Montrealer who was new to Vancouver I couldn’t understand the city at all. The prices at that point were astronomical to me and I had never owned a house so I was in complete depression about the impact with my income having purchased a house, having with two children. I looked at the hotel and thought, “this is actually a residence, an administrative headquarters and a cafeteria for the school.” It would probably cost $10-$15 million just to fix it up and it had a $5.7 million sale price at that point. I went on my knees to my board chair but he couldn’t see beyond a limited vision. I don’t think it was his fault, it was just the reality. The people who own it now are sweethearts. They are lovely people. It’s worth $60-$70 million. That is an example of the economy of the island.

Andrew Petter who is the president of SFU was a minister then. I had this lovely discussion with him and said, “I want to build a new six-storey building adjacent to the Arts Umbrella in the empty lot. It will activate the island, get things going and allow us to increase and grow in a measured fashion.” I gave him a ten to 15 year plan. I told him he could choose whichever point of entry and exit and he agreed. The money was there from the province but I couldn’t get Granville Island to agree. Four and a half years. I tried but they were worried about parking. I said we would build parking. They were worried about traffic. I told them traffic would be a problem whether we build or not. I don’t say these things superficially. This comes from hard experience knowing that at the end of the day unless there is a different governance structure, unless there’s different control exercised over it we will lose one of our gems. And we shouldn’t. We mustn’t.

 

  1. I understand that the federal government wanted to give Granville Island to the City of Vancouver at its centennial, but this was a political problem. Can you can comment on the fact that it is a political problem in terms of the ownership of the island and who owns it and the negations that never took place?
  2. When Ron Basford thought of the island, there’s a little Basford Park on the east side of the island, as a federal minister he was an extraordinary man. I’ve looked at some of his papers around the island. They are exactly what he would imagine that place could have been. I don’t know what happened with the city. It was a window that opened and closed. I don’t think it was well-handled on either side, to be frank. I think the city should own it. I think it’s a city facility. I don’t understand why the feds are involved. It’s a minor part of a multi-billion dollar portfolio in Ottawa. What concern would they have for it? If the city were interested it could be a benefit to the city to learn how to make it into something, how to think about a cultural venue.
    It comes back to some of my earlier comments. I’m not sure that we collectively understand how culture works. Because of this notion that it’s a cost and not an investment. Let’s say we get rid of traffic, build some parking lots, create a pedestrian area and put in a variety of new cultural infrastructures such as theatres, small music venues and so on, I think it would be mobbed. It’s not rocket science.

There’s some ideas about our north building. The old building, I showed you a stripped-down version of it. It needs to be stripped down again, by the way. It’s in terrible shape. I’m fond of saying every time I go back, “I think I see a thousand more rats because I can’t see the floors.” I am not joking. The mice and rats have taken over the north building. They were there when we were there. When people ask, “Why did you leave Granville Island?” I say, “In my office a day did not pass when a mouse didn’t walk across my shoes.” My wife was very scared of mice and anytime she’d come she would look around nervously. It looks terrible now and I don’t want that. I am supporter and a builder of cultural infrastructure; give me the tools and give me Granville Island and I guarantee you that we would have a spectacular environment in five to 10 years. I don’t think it’s rocket science. I think we just have to just take hold of it. Many of you are influential and you may want to consider talking to people about it. If we let it keep going like this I am very worried that it’s just going to deteriorate further.

 

  1. What would you do with the cement plant?
  2. I’m a fan of industry, I’m not your prototypical art school president. I’m not that fussed with the cement factory. I don’t think it’s ideal, I think they should move it but fundamentally it’s part of the island’s history. Vancouver was built with cement so there’s something important about a cement factory so I’m not against or for. I think a broader vision of how Granville Island could evolve into something richer and more of service to the citizenry of this city and the communities that we are part of that doesn’t have to exclude that. There’s no quid-pro-quo here. We can play. If I were given control I wouldn’t say, “go away.” They signed another ten-year lease by the way so who has control anyway.

    A. They’ve got nice art on the tanks.

  3. Yeah, we did that. These twin Brazillian artists who are completely mad. Unbelievably insane. I could not talk for 30 seconds with them before going completely crazy. They spoke very good English, but I didn’t know what was happening with the conversation. It was amazing. But they were extraordinary. The cement factory is deteriorating in colour so we actually did repaint them before we left. Why is Vancouver so bereft of that kind of project? We used to have this project with Telus where we painted all of their boxes in the city. You may have seen them in the city as well. What’s happened to that? It’s very hard to maintain these things. It costs money. Three pennies on the dollar is what it costs.

Somehow from a community perspective we need to come together as different groups and a community as a whole and say, “Let’s do something interesting.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed the building being built in front of Emily Carr. That building, if you come by on Great Northern Way, is a seven-storey building and about 180,000 square feet, we are about 300,000. Samsung just signed a lease for the top floor. A major move for Vancouver to have Samsung. Why did Samsung sign? Well, we have all these college students next door. Blackbird Interactive which is a very smart interactive company involved in mixed reality and virtual reality, has taken three quarters of a floor. Why did they do it? Why wouldn’t they do it; they are next door to the creative hub.

Finning is coming back. Doug White came to see me and we did a tour. He was in tears by the end of the tour because his vision was always for this place to be something. He wants me out… he thinks he’s tall!


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