Local artists have a proposal for empty commercial space in downtown Campbell River.

Creative use of vacant space proposed

With the City of Campbell River launching a survey asking for public feedback into what they’d like a redesigned downtown to look like, one local business owner, co-chair of the Downtown Business Improvement Association and fixture in the Campbell River arts community has another idea that might add some vitality to the core of our city, as well.

Heather Gordon Murphy, owner/operator of RainCoast Creative Performing Arts Studio, says the upstairs of the building at 938 Island Highway, which used to house Pier Street Billiards, has been sitting vacant too long, and she has an idea to get some use out of it that she thinks would bring huge benefit to the community – especially downtown.

“How great would it be to get a bunch of artists in here?” she asks as we walk around the echoey space. “This is such a waste, having this amazing space sitting here, overlooking the water, just empty – when it could be full of life.”

The idea isn’t a complicated one, nor is it the first time it’s been suggested that surplus, empty space in the downtown core be utilized by artists to inject some life into otherwise dead spaces or areas.

“The Cube,” an empty storefront on Alder Street between Beech Street and 10th Avenue is currently being used as a community arts space operated by the Campbell River Arts Council, for example. But having artists cohabit one larger space could bring even more benefit than having them spread their art over the area in small pockets, according to Ken Blackburn, executive director of the Arts Council.

“Anybody in the arts knows the value of the other arts,” Blackburn says. “If you’re a musician, it’s important to see visual art; it’s important to see film. If you’re a dancer, it’s important to see theatre. All of the arts, at some point, pollinate ideas that are adopted to your medium, even though they’ve come from seeing them in another one.”

The idea would see artists of all mediums – painters, musicians, dancers, jewelry makers – move into the large vacant space, creatively feed off each other, collaborate, and inject some much-needed life into an area that needs it, Murphy says.

They could form a cooperative or society, or just be independent. There are lots of ways it could work, she says.

And she also says there’s really no downside to trying it, because artists, by their nature, are a fluid and adaptable folk.

“If the building sells or something, it’s no problem, because the artists just pack up and go somewhere else,” she says with a laugh. “They’re kind of used to it.”

Sometimes, however, when this has been tried in other places, things work out even better than “no downside.” It turns out there’s also a huge possible upside.

“This is happening all over the world,” Murphy says. “It’s happening in big cities and small towns – they have an empty building downtown and nobody knows what to do with it, so they put some retail on the bottom and they create an arts space upstairs. Sometimes the building itself actually ends up being bought by the art collective that has formed around it, because they end up doing so well.”

Murphy openly acknowledges her conflict of interest in this, as well. Her business is downstairs from the potential site, so the additional through-traffic could be of benefit for her, but she says it’s almost irrelevant where it happens. It doesn’t need to be there – what’s important is that the conversation happens about the concept, because it’s something we need as a community.

“I just think there’s an opportunity here that’s worth looking at,” Murphy says.

Blackburn does, too.

“It’s all the things the city says it wants,” he says. “Whether it happens there or somewhere else, we should be paying attention to that kind of thought, because that’s the kind of thing that would be really, really good in terms of furthering this idea of cultural place-building and community identity.”

It would also be good for other downtown business, he says.

“What would revitalize downtown more than a positive change in the energy down there?” Blackburn wonders aloud. “You can plant all the trees you want, and pretty up the storefronts, and make it more ‘walking friendly,’ or whatever it is the city is going to look at doing,” Blackburn says, “but those things, by themselves, aren’t going to be enough to really make a difference – to give the area enough energy to really improve things at a core level. People want to go where there’s vitality – and that vitality, that energy, is going to come from your arts sector.”

And it’s that vitality that people remember when they visit a place, as well, Blackburn says.

“If you come to a place like Campbell River, sure, there are a few things you can go do, but if that’s one of them – that mosaic or kaleidoscope of artistic things going on in one place – it’s extremely impactful and memorable because that’s the kind of experience you would’t expect to be seeing here.”

He also says it’s one of the most glaring gaps in arts offerings and services in town.

“If we’re talking about increasing cultural tourism and build places where visitors can come to get a sense of the art scene here, where would they go?” Blackburn asks rhetorically.

After all, the Campbell River Art Gallery’s mandate is to show exhibiting artists from outside the community – the more renowned the better.

They carry out that mandate very well, Blackburn says, but it’s not a place where people would go to see local work by local artists.

The prospect of having a shared arts space would fill that service gap – for both local artists and those visiting our great community – perfectly, Blackburn says, wherever it ends up being.

Anyone interested in how they could be a part of this idea can contact Murphy at heather@coremoves.ca or Blackburn at arts.council@crarts.ca to get in on the conversation in the early stages and see what it turns into.