Bill Usher (standing)

How can Revelstoke augment our arts and culture scene?

Does Revelstoke need a full-time arts coordinator? That seemed to be one of the key questions raised during an arts symposium held to help create a cultural strategy for the city Tuesday afternoon at the Regent Hotel.

Does Revelstoke need a full-time arts coordinator? That seemed to be one of the key questions raised during an arts symposium held to help create a cultural strategy for the city Tuesday afternoon at the Regent Hotel.

The question came up following a talk by Bill Usher, the executive director of Kicking Horse Culture. He is credited with transforming the Golden and District Arts Council from a small, struggling organization to a thriving professional group.

“I think Bill has provided us with lots of fresh ideas and some good observations about how things work,” said Carol Palladino, the chair of the Revelstoke Arts Council following the day’s events. “Everyone has their own way of doing it. Revelstoke has always created its own path but as we go through this new cultural plan update, in the room there seems to be energy to move things to another level.”

The symposium began with a workshop set up to look at the city’s current cultural strategy, formulated in 2006, and come up with ways to update and improve it, as well as set a new vision and goals.

The workshop was a somewhat chaotic affair with about 30 people divided into five groups. It was led by consultants Caroline Miller and Doris Haas.

In attendance were people from the arts community, business community, city, media and more. Attendees were broken up into five groups and then asked to to craft a new cultural vision for Revelstoke as well as look at the strategies and actions in the 2006 cultural strategy to see what’s been accomplished, what still needs to be worked on and devise new strategies.

The workshop definitely produced lively discussions at each table and each group came up with different visions and ideas on what could be done.

In an interview following the workshop, Miller said she and Haas would now work on getting things “hyper-focused.”

“Working across a range of organizations, it’s easy for activities to become a little bit fractured,” she said. “We’re going to keep things hyper-focused, putting a real pointy end on the objectives so they can cut through time, cut through government funding challenges and keep everyone involved.”

Usher’s talk was about the transformation of Kicking Horse Culture from a small, volunteer-run organization with only 35 members to a thriving group with $370,000 in revenue, 3.2 full-time equivalent staff and 650 members over the span of the past seven years.

Usher said he joined the board in 2004 and agreed to be the chair after stipulating some changes.

“We couldn’t be an arts club or a clique, we had to be for all the community,” he told the gathering of about 50 people. “We had to be a fit for the community’s aspirations.”

First he changed the name from the Golden and District Arts Council to Kicking Horse Culture. Then he went out and go the support of some local politicians and city administrators.

After that, he went to the local government and, after waiting a year, was able to secure $80,000 in funding from the city and regional district.

“I didn’t go and ask them for a job. I got a job, but I didn’t go and ask them for one,” he said.

Usher then worked on making the programming more professional, increased the advertising and promotion, conducted a cultural scan and community consultation, opened the Art Gallery of Golden, and assumed management and rebirth of the Golden Civic Centre. He told the gathering that he was able to raise $900,000 for the city to renovate the civic centre – an excellent return to the city for their annual investment.

“My mission is not to make money for artists. My mission is not to put on shows,” he said. “My mission is to engage, energize and enrich. Artists will make a ton of money if I can do that.”

He had some advice for the people in the room. “You do need to have someone or someones with vision, entrepreneurial skills, someone comfortable with risk, proactive and with tactical hustle,” he said.

Currently Revelstoke does have a strong cultural scene, with a range of visual and performing arts and museums in the city. Still, the Revelstoke Arts Council has only one part-time staff member – executive director Garry Pendergast, who earns $12,000 for co-ordinating the organization’s activities and budget (which stood at $132,000 last year).*

I asked Pendergast if he though having a full-time employee would help the arts council.

“If there is to be an arts coordinator, it should be a municipal thing. Whether it’s full-time or not, I don’t know but there would be plenty to do,” he said. “It would mean all the things we talked about this afternoon would actually have a driving force. Part of the reason things don’t move forward is what you saw in the room today – six tables with ideas, things they want to do but no driving force.”

Palladino said a lot of it came down to the lack of resources.

“I think there’s new energy and there’s a new level of expectation and I think the Arts Council certainly wants to engage with all of that but our challenges are resources,” she said. “We have no problem putting together programming that we think people appreciate but its really hard to do with a director who works on a part-time basis.”

“There’s always more things to do than there is people and money to do them, at least at this stage of the game.”

Councillor Chris Johnston, who listened in on Usher’s talk, said there would have to be a business case made if the arts council wanted municipal support.

“From the city’s point of view it adds to the cultural strength of the city, but our goal from that cultural strength is there has to be that economic return,” he said. “It has to bring something in. It can’t be just for the sake of being an arty community where you can’t afford to live.”

Councillor Steve Bender agreed: “There’s got to be a good balance. I think Bill Usher pointed that out so well – the two have to work well together. The pursuit of filthy lucre and the pursuit of art have got to work together.”

*His wife Jackie earns a similar part-time salary for her work running the Revelstoke Visual Arts Centre.