Playhouse closure a symptom of pressures facing city’s arts organizations

Last summer’s council decision to inject nearly $1 million into the Vancouver Playhouse through a combination of debt forgiveness and grants was not an easy one. Why the Playhouse? And would it work?

Yesterday’s announcement that the Playhouse will close its doors after 49 years showed that even $1 million was not enough.

As councillor Heather Deal explained, the emergency funding was justified by a number of factors: the Playhouse’s critical role as “keystone” institution in the city’s arts infrastructure; the strong community support demonstrated at the box office; top leadership in artistic director Max Reimer; and the commitment of the Playhouse board to reduce debt.

Debt did come down and ticket sales continued strong, despite the leak of in camera council deliberations that undoubtedly made Reimer’s job harder. The intractable problem was a continuing debt driven by the Playhouse’s loss of rehearsal and storage space combined with provincial arts cuts.

Ironically, the Playhouse had hoped to move into brand new space on the site of its old facilities in False Creek. That space, created with community amenity charges by new development, needed millions of dollars in leasehold improvements the Playhouse did not have.

Council’s decision last summer was deplored by some in the arts community who questioned such a big commitment to one organization when everyone needs support. Those concerns are legitimate, but I, for one, believe the decision was the right one. I might not feel the same way about the next arts organization that finds itself trapped by financial problems.

It’s clear that Vancouver’s arts infrastructure needs careful support right across the spectrum from informal creative space through to properly-funded performance facilities and operating funding. What the city can do will be done. Reports are due before summer on how bylaws can be realigned to be more supportive and a pilot program to open up more production space.

But people knowledgeable about the condition of many city arts organizations believe the Playhouse is just one example of the strategic problems being faced even by the city’s best-managed and long-lived organizations.

The Playhouse closure is a very serious loss. Let’s hope it’s the last.