Parks + Art: Vancouver: Artists in Fieldhouses Programme – an interview with the arts programmers

WCMT Travel Fellowship Research : Innovation in participation in public urban green space.

Meeting up to talk with Cyndy Chwelos and Danita Noyes, Arts Programmers, Park Board, City of Vancouver, and part of the Arts, Culture and Engagement Team.


I met Cyndy and Danita to find out about their unique and innovative Artists in Fieldhouses programme.

Thursday 15th September 2016 at Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre, Vancouver.

Where did the initiative for the ‘artists in residence in fieldhouses’ come from?

The first fieldhouse initiative started around 10 years ago at Moberly Arts and Culture Centre, South Vancouver.  Moberly is a small cultural hub that serves a certain geography, like all the community centres do. Moberly had a caretaker suite attached to the arts centre, which originally housed a caretaker who was a ‘steward’ of the park. This fieldhouse is unique in that it is attached to this hall.

All of the other fieldhouses throughout the city are stand alone buildings originally built in the 1950s for caretakers to be stewards of the park. These caretakers became a part of the neighbourhood – which was very much akin to the history of being a neighbourhood in the 50s – they took care of the parks and the outdoor washrooms, knew the families who lived in the neighbourhood and children that played in the park. And over a period of time, Vancouver has grown, the neighbourhoods have changed, and the Vancouver Park Board came to the realization that the relationship of the caretaker to the community and park had changed. Over time caretakers moved out and were not replaced and many of those suites became under-utilised – in fact we found that they were storage bins for sports groups or gardeners.

There was a substantial process headed up by City of Vancouver that involved artists and community members to develop a new strategic plan, and what we found out through that process was that number one, artists needed space, they need space – number one, affordable space. So that was our leverage.

So our team said – OK we’ve got these fieldhouses, and we started with Moberly. So we had to go through a process to convince senior management that this was a good idea. One of the biggest stumbling blocks was financial – as there is no monetary exchange, it is an exchange for service.

This exchange means that the artists get the fieldhouse as a studio space in exchange for 350 hours of community engagement per year. With this new model of exchange our organization needed to figure out how do we work this? – how does insurance work? who’s liability? So it sat at Senior Management for six months. And when we got the green light it more or less went viral!

We identified all the fieldhouses that were empty or just being used for storage with the intent of spreading the program across our park board system. We started with 7 and now we have 18 sites.

As community art programmers we are guided by a Park Board Art Policy that clearly affirms the value for creativity and arts for all. In this field of recreation we are particularly interested in arts programming that connects to and increases health and well being, a sense of purpose, and creating a deeper sense of belonging. Meeting this priority through the fieldhouse studio residency programme gave us a green light to proceed. The organization could see how the fieldhouse studio residency located artists in community and could recognise the value and benefit for both – the artist and the community at large.

Is the Park Board still responsible for the maintenance of the fieldhouses?

Park use has changed – all the washrooms (public washing and toilet facilities in parks) are contracted to cleaners and meet our risk and health management process.

For example – utility payment: every park requires a washroom, and therefore it needs water this means that this maintenance fee is paid. The fieldhouses are attached to the infrastructure parks in our organization, so that maintenance is covered. All upkeep of the fieldhouse is covered by the Vancouver Park Board – paint and repairs.


So what is the set up for the fieldhouse residency programme?

We have expanded the programme from artists to include sports groups, environmental groups, food groups, garden groups or a combination of those.

So the deliverable is this:

Number 1: you need the space and you work in the space. Space is valuable. Artists are required to be onsite 5 times per week. Their ongoing presence of being in the studio Fieldhouse fulfills the mandate that studio space is required for them to do their creative work.

Number 2: 350 hours per year of community engaged arts programming. This includes: research and development, meeting new people, face to face workshops, promotion, developing community networks, evaluation, and meeting regularly with a designated arts programmer. We have found that as an individual artist it’s a significant amount of hours – most of the artists in this programme apply as a collective, so it’s much easier and perhaps realistic to meet this component of the contract.

Number 3: a dedicated website – a blog – for their residency.

The fieldhouse comes with no financial award- the artist gets a studio space with access to it 24/7 but they can’t sleep there – they can nap!

The artist pays for insurance (public liability). For smaller events, there is no need to get special permits such as for a film screening outside the fieldhouse for the public, while larger events in the park – where a creative project would gather in the vicinty of 1000 people – we must get a special permit through the organization, and this is one of the administration details that the designated arts programmer assists with. It is key that the arts programmer is aware of all the programming the artists are offering in order to support this creative work in the park and make sure all processes for risk management are being adhered to.

As detailed on the website, with studio space in exchange for community arts-based engagement, artists can:

– pursue their current art making directions and try new things without the constraints of studio cost

– engage, provoke, and grow participation in the arts through imaginative social encounters with the community

– connect with other artists who also work in this field of practice to grow this form of participatory arts-engagement 

As arts programmers and commissioners, how often do you meet with the artists in residence?

It varies, the degree with which we meet, depending on their experience. We meet with them at the beginning, and introduce them to the neighbours, the schools and community centre and then we develop an ongoing communication process with them. Sometimes this means meeting face to face, other times it is through email. There’s a reporting system in place where the artist or artist collective provide us with qualitative and quantitative data on all of their activity, four times a year. We are trouble-shooting with them when necessary and assisting with promoting their work through our communication system.

The designated arts programmers assist to make things happen – we reduce the barriers to them bringing creative activities into parks. For example – an artist collective desires to work in another park outside of the region their fieldhouse is in, in another public space that the Park Board oversees, then we’ll help to make that happen through administation and permitting processes.

We also encourage them to work out of the community centres as a way to bridge the park usage and the community centre. This programme aims to increase the role of the arts into everyday life. Artists provide hands on participatory creative encounters for this to happen – sometimes at the community centre, other times at the Park. Often the artist takes over a bulletin board at the community centre for promotions and communications as well as the blog – in this way they expand the communication about their project into the community.

What’s interesting about your approach is that you’re not pinning the artist solely to that park or fieldhouse. And it also strikes me that there is a real opportunity here for the artists to really zone in on that park, and that neighbourhood. Do artists do this and do they do it with varying degrees of success?


Different artists approach the residency in different ways

We’re in conversation all the time with artists, and some residencies yield a greater success than others.

Risk taking is part of what we do – like making art – the residencies take on a life of their own in response to community, creative ideas, the seasons…

Can you give me any examples of residencies where this really happened?

rusch_1-league-ongoing-since-2012The project League was a great example – this project was led by the artist Germaine Koh – League was wholy based upon on making games in the park- and we mean ‘making-up’ games. These would be games you had never encountered before- check out her blog to see more


Mark Haney – a musician, was located in Falaise Park Fieldhouse from 2012 to 2105 with his project Falaise Park Music. Falaise is a unique neighbourhood built for war veterans post WW2.  When you drive through this neighbourhood you will notice that all of the streets are named after WW2 battles. Mark identifies as a ‘new music’ musician guy, who is classically trained as a double bass musician and composer.

falaise-park-fieldhouse-artist-in-residenceWhen he accepted this residency, Mark had little to no social practice of working with community in creative encounters. Throughout his 3 year residency he surprised and delighted us in his approach to learning how to work along side with community producing multiple significant projects. It was amazing what he created. A musical with young kids in the school – a September 11th remembrance day project, with 11 horns, playing an original score based on interviews of veterans and their families: 11 veterans, 11 minutes, with over 2000 people attending in this rather sleepy neighbourhood!!!  This project attracted all ages, all abilities, all diversities, economic and cultural – it rooted itself in the hood. Mark’s presence in this neighbourhood opened the door for a monument to be placed in the park that the veterans had been trying to get placed in the park for years. He along with community members mobilized change which coalesced the neighbourhood strengthening community capacity. Mark discovered and built a new skill that he didn’t know he had, and it’s changed his life as a practicing artist. He is now an artist in residence at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver- another very interesting community engaged project!  There are so many good examples of how the Fieldhouse Studio Residency has increased the role of the arts in community life and provided the opportunity for artist to expand their practice.

Each artist approaches community engagement (the 350 hours per year) differently.

For example – some artists have a regular gig – like David Gowman who opens his studio every Tuesday evening at MacLean Fieldhouse – everyone and anyone is welcome to just show up!  David’s focus is making horns from natural material and hand carving – learning new hand skills!  Another example – like League, the artist invited the public every Saturday morning to show up to make/create games together. Sometimes they hosted these very quirky tournaments!  Every artist has their own way of doing it which means that this model of practice is very open to multiple forms of practice – there is no one set way for engaging community – an artist’s work develops in response to who shows up and over time it can morph and change.

What are you looking for from a residency? And could you talk a bit more about the expectation of the exchange of space for artists time?

There is detailed information on our website from the most recent Fieldhouse Activation Programme application round in May 2016.  All the details are there about the Healthy Local Food Fieldhouse Residency Programme and the Artists Studio Residencies Programme. There’s also information about eligibility, and about the roles and responsibilities involved in the partnership between us and the artist or group.

From all our arts programmes, we want to see the boundaries pushed and of course we want to see exceptional art come out of it.  The process is really important but the end product counts – whatever that is.  Every artist has their own way of doing.

The studio residency also acts as leverage for the artist to support their work, because it’s free space – if you add that up in rent, you can use it as an in-kind cost. Artists can apply for grants to support their work using that leverage.

We are always trying to find additional sources of funding to support the artists, and we invite artists to apply for opportunities that we see coming up.

At the end of the 3 year cycle we stage an exhibition here at the Roundhouse – the residencies conclude with an exhibition. State of the Practice is an annual exhibition here at the Roundhouse – this year it has been about Dance in Community – next year in 2017 it will be about the residencies in the fieldhouses.

Is one of our goals to expand and include community? – absolutely. Do all the artists manage to get everyone involved in the way that Mark did? – no.  We’re open to the fact that each one is different. We all come from the arts, our whole team. Having ‘trained’ staff that understand what it is to create is really part of the success of our team.

I can see the pressures that the parks are under from the homeless problem here in Vancouver. Parks become hosts to all kinds of things that are challenging?

Luckily there are programmes that work with the homeless and transient population, for example Soul Food.  The homeless tend not to engage with the artists – except in Oppenheimer – it hasn’t really been an issue. We have Park Rangers who are amazing and they bridge those gaps and they help people out all the time.

This year we invited all the Park Rangers to Sharon Kallis’ pancake breakfast. And it was very good!  Now we have reserved one of the Fieldhouses for a junior ranger programme so they are going to get youth that are interested in becoming rangers to work out of a fieldhouse, and take them round to see what is happening in the other fieldhouses to learn what is happening in the parks.

When we have champions across our system, it works much better. We’ve worked hard to build relationships, for example with the gardeners, because of course some of the gardeners were displaced by us using the fieldhouses – they lost their lunch break places. Some of the artists share – like David – he shares his space with the gardeners.

Do you do anything specifically to bring in people who aren’t engaging with parks?

We’re trying with some big initiatives, for example with First Nations people – that’s a city wide initiative. It’s in our mind all the time – who’s not showing up, who’s not coming. We use all kind of strategies. And we work in larger contexts, for example on Canada Day in a public event, we’ll bring in an art project that will extend it – yes we will have face-painting and yes we’ll have cake, but what happens if we bring in an environmental artist too. Inclusivity is always on the front burner!

There is a growing re-wilding movement in the UK and concerns about depletion of biodiversity.  Parks in Vancouver seem to be prioritising sport – there’s a lot of mowing!  How did they come into being?

The majority of our parks were made as playing fields. They were a post Second World War project, built to bring neighbourhoods together, and to provide the widows places for their kids to play. Recreation is a post Second World War project.

There is a big movement of community gardens and there are big sections of parks where there are community gardens. There is a growing movement around biodiversity. Sharon Kallis’ project is a good example of a project with this concern – Sharon helped to design the park that she’s working in.

We’ve got a long way to go.  The Park Board has hired specialists in their team to look at these issues. Pollinators are on the agenda. How a park looks is changing here: use of water, mowing, growing, the culture is changing, how playgrounds are built. Vancouver wants to be the greenest city by 2020!

Have you got a long term ambition of the fieldhouse programme?

Every three years we put a call out to the artists for the fieldhouses, so we are now in our second iteration, our second term – 6 years. In 2018, our call will go out – our third cycle.

Just recently we had a new Fieldhouse allocation – about 7 of them. So we, together with sports and food people and parks planning, came up with a strategy for the fieldhouses, and one of those includes social enterprise but that’s a further phase. So this time we opened it up to all these groups. The application process had the same criteria, the same deliverables. We’ve just gone through that process, just chosen the projects and we don’t know how that will work right now. It’s a new model, a new initiative.

What’s interesting about the programme is that we have to look at things that come up from the studio residency programme.  Cloudscape Comics for example, have had a fieldhouse residency for two terms (Cloudscape are based at on the top floor of the South Memorial Park fieldhouse, also a heritage building). Now they want a place, a hub to continue their work.  We are figuring out how we can respond to these initiatives that come up as a result of the residency programme.

And we are constantly looking for new opportunities.

Can you talk a bit more about the variety of artist residencies you have?

We have everything, we have a diversity.  We have everything from artists who want to work internationally to an emerging artist.  We take a risk on people, on artists, on emerging artists.

We have one fieldhouse that has been awarded to an organisation – Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG) Vancouver – and they use the fieldhouse for invited artists, international artists. We don’t supervise that one!

Also, it’s important to understand that the process is all juried – there’s a selection panel. It’s transparent: there are staff, community members, peers, other artists. We go through an entire process so it’s accountable and the applicants can get the feedback from the jury notes if they require it.

For the last 7 fieldhouse residency round in May this year, we had applications from art, sport, culture, environment and food.

My thanks to Cyndy and Danita for generously giving their time to share the information about this programme.

Links to the programmes and policy:

– The current (2015 – 2017) Artists in Residence in Fieldhouses Programme

The Fieldhouse Activation Programme

– See the Arts Policy of the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation

Community-engaged dance residencies at Vancouver Park Board facilities bring together people of all ages, abilities, and cultural backgrounds to explore, create, and perform dance with professional dance artists.

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