The 2nd annual Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF) goes down from August 7-12 with local and international artists making their mark on walls around East Van. The week is also packed with events (lots of which are free) in conjunction with the festival, including talks, performances, live music, parties, a pop-up tattoo shop, a Main Street bazaar and a special Snag live painting night featuring VMF vets. In anticipation of the 2017 festival, Scout chatted up Founder and Executive Director, David Vertesi, to gain some insight on how the festival started, his opinions on the current state of Vancouver’s public art scene and VMF’s vision for Vancouver’s public art future.
In ten words or less, why is public art important? Inspires connection, humanizes urban space, visibly represents community investment.
Where did the inspiration for VMF stem from? It really grew out of conversations around combatting the “no fun city” stigma that has existed in Vancouver for so long. As a longtime musician/artist and a life-long resident of Vancouver, I’ve had the opportunity to witness the rich emerging arts and culture scene in our city. Yet there is a popular narrative that there is nothing cool going on. Artists and non-artists alike seem to continually refer back to this self fulfilling prophecy. We felt that murals were a great way to make the incredible wealth of talent visible in a really meaningful way that contributes to the long term cultural legacy of the city. Bringing artists out of the underground and into public space.
What is the curatorial process for choosing the 2017 mural artists? There are sort of two sides to our curatorial process: the artists and the walls. The initial unedited list for both of these categories is derived from both submissions (of which we received more than 300 this year) and our own selections. A blind review of their work settles into the first shortlist that begins a long and fluid process. With our walls we strive to choose locations that can make a major impact on their neighbourhoods through place-making. We then of course look at cost, technical difficulty, and other mitigating factors. Once both long lists are established we then begin a sort of match-making process between artists and property owners. This takes a long time, but is intended to allow artists as much creative freedom as possible by pairing them with a property owner who is already a fan of their work. Our final list of artists highlights a wide variety of artistic styles and cultural backgrounds. We believe that the strength and potential of Vancouver’s art scene really lies in its diversity. Each artist has their own unique story to tell and way of telling it.
How important is it to support local and/or up-and-coming BC artists to VMF’s mission? It’s in our name – we’re not just a mural festival. We are Vancouver Mural Festival. We truly believe that Vancouver and BC have a world class art scene that deserves public celebration. This is why more than 85% of our artists are local to our city and province. Despite having more artists per capita than any other city in Canada many artists feel like they need to leave for a larger, grittier metropolis, like Montreal or New York, to establish their careers. We hope to help change that by giving local artists a public platform to contribute to the ongoing legacy of the city.
There seem to be a lot of already established artists, with large commercial clients, involved in the festival this year. How important is notoriety to the VMF mission? To be honest, the majority of our artists are painting their first mural for the festival, and we are proud of that. Notoriety itself is less of a priority for us aside from trying to harness the excitement and attention to make a significant impact on the perception of, policy related to, and investment in the Vancouver art scene. This year, we’ve brought on five international guests, but most participants come from different disciplines in the arts: local animators, designers, gallery artists, concept artists, commercial painters, illustrators, tattoo artists, graphic novelists, high school art teachers, and even art students. Many First Nations artists are talented jewellers, weavers, carvers, and painters, but have yet to attempt a large scale mural. It’s a very cool and fortunate position to be in where we can provide training and support for all our artists to transition to working on these kinds of projects now and in the future.
What is more important, that public art be provocative or aesthetically pleasing to the masses? To us what is most important is that artists are enabled to express their stories, visions, and ideas in public space; whether those are provocative or aesthetically pleasing should be up to them. Unfortunately, in Vancouver, we’ve found it hard to find building owners who will permit more controversial work on their properties. We’re hoping that this changes as people get used to more art in public space. For now we’re still fighting to let artists do their thing instead of always just the staple images of whales, landscapes, and scenes of people snowboarding or mountain biking. In many other cities, people accept that not all public art has to be their favourite and that space should be created for artists to make bold statements and provide social commentary. They also understand that the artwork doesn’t have to be permanent to be important; murals can provide a canvas for experimentation and temporality. Vancouver is getting there, but one step at a time, I suppose.
In a city notorious for razing and rebuilding itself, why do murals matter? This is a big question. Largely for us I would say the answer to this relates to both neighbourhood identity and the need for culturally sustainable development practices. In a practical sense, murals tend to be much more cost effective and accessible for artists than most other mediums of public art. This means community centres, neighbourhood houses, and artists at any level can self-start and create highly impactful pieces that help to preserve, cultivate, and communicate the identity and values of their communities. Murals also help build both conversation and action on more culturally sustainable development practices by creating a visible cultural presence which developers and property investors tend to understand. They in turn respect the need to preserve or maintain this in some way, shape, or form. We’ve seen it happen and it’s been a big theme with our work in 6 blocks of alleyway in Mount Pleasant this year.
Name three things that you’d like to see changed in Vancouver. 1) Retroactive permitting process for street art. 2) Program for legal moderated graffiti free walls/zones. 3) Establishment of Cultural Zones Districts with revised by-laws and best practices for developers, businesses, city services, infrastructure and more.
Three favourite Vancouver buildings? 1) Any Vancouver Special – widely resented but totally iconic. 2) 312 Main Street – The old police station is a point of pain for many in the area, but is being transformed into a community hub and shared space for businesses, artists, and more. All done through genuine collaboration with local organizations and residents. 3) Vancouver Public Library Downtown – Designed by Moshe Safdie as a totally unique and inspiring building for Vancouver. It houses one the largest accessible covered public gathering spaces in the city.
What makes Vancouver’s art scene relevant in a global sense? To us, the strength and potential of Vancouver’s art scene lies in its diversity of people and their stories. Our unique combination of cultures, histories, traditions, and experiences bring real weight to our voice on the international stage. The rich traditions and art of our First Nations are an important part of this. Vancouver’s ongoing battle with our own identity as both a big city (2.5 Million in GVA) and a small town (less than 700,000 in COV) is also an important parallel with larger thematic issues currently being experienced around the world in relation to globalization.
All photos courtesy of the Vancouver Mural Festival