British Columbia's landscapes have long attracted and inspired artists from many cultural backgrounds, working in a myriad of genres.
The result is a vibrant and accessible arts scene, with major international touring exhibitions at the urban galleries, and local work on display in galleries and studios throughout the province. Many artists and craftspeople welcome visitors to their studios, often found in some of the more visually inspiring parts of the province.
Vancouver boasts several major galleries, including the Vancouver Art Gallery, which features innovators from the contemporary art scene alongside Vancouver's internationally renowned artists, and the Museum of Anthropology, located at the University of British Columbia, renowned for its collections of Northwest Coast First Nations art and artifacts.
At Granville Island, a thriving multi-use urban park just south of downtown Vancouver, visitors can pop into any of dozens of studios and watch artisans create everything from handmade paper to kinetic sculptures and blown glass. The Charles H. Scott Gallery, part of the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, is one of the many notable galleries located on Granville Island.
For details about cultural events in Vancouver, contact the Alliance for Arts and Culture (www.allianceforarts.com) or pick up a copy of The Georgia Straight, a free weekly paper distributed in coffee shops and newspaper boxes around town.
Across the water in the provincial capital, cultural highlights include the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, which has one of the most important collections of Chinese and Japanese artifacts in Canada as well as a permanent exhibition of works by Emily Carr, arguably BC's best-known homegrown artist. Carr fans may also want to visit Emily Carr House, the artist's birthplace, which has been restored to look as it did during her childhood.
Other urban galleries in British Columbia include the Kelowna Art Gallery, an expansive facility with four exhibition spaces and two classrooms designed for children and adult art classes. It's at the heart of the Kelowna Cultural District, where six blocks of waterfront boast five art galleries, four museums, and three theatres, including the Kelowna Community Theatre, home to Ballet Kelowna and the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra.
In Northern BC, Prince George's Two Rivers Gallery, situated in a striking post-modern building, has a changing roster of shows by local, national and international artists, with a focus on Canadian works. The Museum of Northern British Columbia, showcased in a longhouse-style facility overlooking Prince Rupert's waterfront, has one of BC's finest collections of coastal First Nations art, with some artifacts dating back 10,000 years. At Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, the Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Llnagaay houses the stunning collections of the Haida Gwaii museum, as well an interpretive centre, theatre and art school all dedicated to preserving and celebrating Haida culture.
There's also a great deal of creative activity happening beyond gallery and museum walls, in studios and public spaces across BC. Some places, where artists have congregated, drawn by scenery, architecture and each other, have morphed into "Arts Towns," rich with galleries, studios and arts events.
BC's best-known arts town is probably Nelson, a historic mountain town in the Kootenay Rockies region. Home to the renowned Kootenay School of the Arts and to many working artists, this scenic lakeside spot is so rich with cultural life it's been named, by John Villani in his book, The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America, the “number one small town arts community in Canada.” Each summer, Nelson’s ArtWalk event exhibits the work from local and regional artists in select venues around town. Works can be viewed year-round at the Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History, which opened in the city's former Postal, Customs and Inland Revenue services building built in 1902.
Chemainus, on Vancouver Island, is itself an art gallery. During the 1980s, when the local mill was set to close, residents decided that art, not industry, would keep the town alive. They invited painters from all over the world to create murals representing events from local history on walls around town. The ever-expanding outdoor art (today there are over 40 murals), along with a dinner theatre, a theatre festival and a variety of galleries and craft shops, has made Chemainus a favourite stop on any Vancouver Island arts tour.
About an hour and a half north of Chemainus, the Oceanside region, encompassing Parksville and Qualicum Beach, is home to a great many artists and craftspeople. The Old School House Arts Centre in Qualicum Beach houses studios for photography, pottery, textile arts and painting, where visitors can meet the artists and see the works in progress.
On Vancouver Island's west coast, arts and the outdoors are dual passions in Tofino and Ucluelet, two coastal villages along the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. The many craftshops and galleries here include the Eagle Aerie Gallery, a traditional Northwest Coast longhouse highlighting the works of acclaimed artist Roy Henry Vickers.
Sechelt is the main town on the Sunshine Coast, a region with more artists, artisans and craftspeople per capita than almost anywhere else in Canada. The Sunshine Coast's Purple Banner Tour leads to dozens of studios and galleries from Gibsons to Powell River; studios fly a purple banner when they're open for visits. Visitors can also see local works at dozens of shops and galleries in the area. Each August, book lovers flock to Sechelt for the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, Canada’s longest running summer gathering of Canadian writers and readers, featuring established literary stars and exciting, new voices.
Equally intriguing is the offbeat — and off-the-beaten-track — arts towns of Wells, a mere few kilometres west of Barkerville Historic Town on Highway 26 in the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region. Wells, a small village of brightly painted heritage buildings, has changed little, physically, since its days as a mining town in the 1930s. Wells, with a population of just a few hundred, is home to several art galleries, performance spaces and coffee houses, as well as to Island Mountain Arts, a school and gallery offering courses in anything from poetry to pottery, creative writing to Celtic harp playing. The on-site gallery and gift shop has an eclectic mix of local and regional works, from pottery and jewelry to hand-woven baskets. Plays and film run in the Sunset Theatre, a recently restored 1930s movie house.
Besides its many arts towns, BC also boasts an arts archipelago: The Gulf Islands, a sprinkling of rural islands in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver and Victoria, have long attracted artists, craftspeople and other urban escapees. Salt Spring Island, the most populous, has the biggest concentration of galleries and studios, with at least a dozen art galleries and untold numbers of studios and workshops tucked away in the woods. A Salt Spring Studio Tour map, available free at the Visitor Centre in the main town of Ganges, leads to dozens of studios, from jewellery makers to basket weavers, which welcome visitors. The week's highlight, between May and October, is The Salt Spring Island Saturday Market, where everything sold at the dozens of stalls must be made or grown on the island and are displayed in booths and stands in a park. Other islands in the chain, from Saturna and Galiano in the south, to Hornby and Quadra in the north, are home to many working artists and craftspeople.
Like Salt Spring and the Sunshine Coast, many of BC's arts-rich regions offer self-guided studio tours. Though summer is the peak time, many artists keep their studios open year-round.