In 1973, a group of eight artists and friends cobbled together money and bought the former Knights of Pythias building on East Eighth Avenue off Main Street to establish an artist-run centre where they could live and work.
They named it the Western Front for its distinctive false-front, Western-style architecture and because it was a far west outpost of an international avant-garde movement, according to executive director Caitlin Jones.
The collective rejected the established art scene. Members wanted to create a space for the exploration and creation of new art forms. What could have been a gallery space became their dining hall and social centre of the Western Front, and it quickly became a centre for poets, dancers, musicians and visual artists interested in interdisciplinary practices.
Forty years on, the Western Front continues to support interdisciplinary and experimental art practices. It produces and presents visual art exhibitions, new music concerts and workshops, media art residencies, performance art and other artist-driven initiatives and maintains an archive of audio-visual materials. The institution will celebrate its anniversary March 9 with a gala dinner and auction.
New Music director and curator DB Boyko says the Western Front brought art to Vancouver that had never been seen here before.
“In the early ’80s, that was the first time I saw Butoh dance,” said Boyko, who has been involved with the centre for 20 years.
She said Martin Bartlett, Kate Craig and Hank Bull spearheaded work looking at Asian performance, with Bartlett eventually bringing Indonesian gamelan instruments to Simon Fraser University.
“There’re so many different movements that happened within that period of time… In the earlier days the disciplines were quite transparent in terms of working with one another,” she said. “That’s starting to make a return.”
The Western Front group grew out of the Intermedia group, which also spawned Video Inn, now VIVO Media Arts Centre. Boyko says other companies that stemmed from the Western Front’s programming include Vancouver New Music, the New Orchestra Workshop Society, the EDAM contemporary dance company, which shares Western Front space, along with Kokoro, Mascall and Lola Dance.
The Western Front has survived four decades despite the fact that it has never been properly zoned. It’s zoned for residential use and Jones says she’s been working with the city since 2009 to make it a test case for artist-run centre zoning.
Artists continue to reside in the building, which Boyko says once celebrated labours of a different kind.
“Hank Bull used to always refer to it as young men came west to work in the mines and the forest industry and if they died, they would throw a good party for them,” Boyko said. “So there still is a coffin storage space on the first floor and there’re all these little peepholes when you go into the second floor studio/concert hall where, obviously, there had to be certain passwords to get in and out of the building.”
One of the original landlords, Eric Metcalfe, continues to lives at the Front. The four remaining landlords who got involved early on continue to support the work of artists with reasonable rent.
“Their support of the institution by being landlords and offering us a reasonable rate, that has allowed us the financial freedom to continue all this time,” Jones said.
She says a healthy turnover in staff keeps the centre “dynamic” and believes the Western Front’s interdisciplinary makeup with “exceptional curators” (Boyko in new music, Sarah Todd in media arts and Jesse Birch exhibitions) has been a key to its relevance and longevity.
“Each of them, as have their predecessors over the last 40 years, brings their own energy, intelligence, critical thinking and artistic interest to the table,” Jones said. “And that makes us a really strong institution. In fact, it’s critical to our long-term success.”
Sixty-five per cent of the Western Front’s funding comes from government sources and the remainder comes from self-generated revenue, membership fees and private donations, so the annual auction is an important fundraiser for the centre.
The gala and auction will happen in the Western Front’s newly renovated Luxe Hall with a cocktail reception, dinner by Hawksworth Restaurant, music performances, a silent auction and Bull auctioning off works by renowned and emerging artists, including Rodney Graham, Mona Hatoum, Liz Magor and Elizabeth Zvonar.
Western Front New Music will celebrate the 40th anniversary with a special concert and the release of a limited edition LP called Vaincu.Va! Live at the Western Front 1978 on March 22. Saxophonist Evan Parker plays a solo performance at Western Front that will hearken back to his groundbreaking performance there in 1978.
More info at front.bc.ca.