“What do you mean, stop?”
Before the curtain dropped in March 2020, the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts was going full tilt. For staff at UBC’s premier venue, spring is normally the busiest time of the year. From the Chan Centre’s own programming to the School of Music’s year-end performances to community organizations that rent the venue several times a week, there’s a relentless pace of activity that leads directly into UBC and local high school graduations. But within a matter of days, all of that stopped.
“The impact was very acute on us,” says David Humphrey, Production Manager for the Chan Centre. Studies have shown that the arts, entertainment, and recreation industry has been hit harder than any other in Canada.
It quickly became apparent that live performances, at least in the form and scale that had been the norm, would not be reinstated any time soon. They needed to find a way to share performances with audiences at home.
“We realized really quickly that recording is expensive, and doing good quality recording is very expensive, and there was almost no ticket revenue. So the numbers were really not working,” says Wendy Atkinson, the former Rentals and Programming Manager tasked with managing the budget. Many comparable venues across Vancouver have remained closed to this day for exactly that reason. “It’s not financially viable,” says Wendy.
But the Chan Centre had two advantages that other venues did not. The first is that the Chan Centre is used by the School of Music, which was facing its own COVID-19 challenges. “If you require two- or three-meter physical distancing,” says Pat Carrabré, Director of the School of Music and the Chan Centre, “the biggest room we have will only fit three people in it.” The Chan Centre became essential to the university’s plan to maintain in-person learning for music students. This provided a revenue stream along with the expertise of safety teams working collaboratively on protocols.
The second and arguably more important factor was that the venue had annual revenue from the Chan Endowment Fund. Created by brothers Tom and Caleb Chan at the launch of the Chan Centre that bears their family name, the endowment’s mandate is to support cultural and performing arts groups, both from UBC and the wider community, that don’t have the financial resources to perform or record at the Chan Shun Concert Hall. The endowment’s purpose was uniquely suited to providing exactly the kind of support needed at this time.
By July, the Chan Centre was able to once again open its doors to community partners such as Early Music Vancouver, the Vancouver Opera, and Vancouver Recital Society, as well as engage smaller organizations that under normal circumstances wouldn’t be able to fill the 1200-seat venue. Vetta Chamber Music, Music on Main, musica intima, and others all recorded performances within the Chan Centre over the past year.
For the Chan Centre’s own annual series, Wendy and her team re-envisioned the programming. In a typical year, the series focuses on artists from all over the world. With travel restrictions in mind, the Dot Com series—as it came to be called—included a lot more local artists. The digital format also allowed for new and exciting forms of creative expression that the Chan Centre had never undertaken before—most notably the theatrical work Ridge created by poet and musician Brendan McLeod. This project was transformed from a modest stage monologue to a high-quality feature film with dynamic scenes shot throughout the Chan Centre including dressing rooms, the basement, and even atop the acoustic canopy. In addition to an overwhelmingly positive response from audiences, the work made the Globe and Mail’s “Best of 2020” list. “It was the endowment fund that enabled us to present a digital season that continued to support our community of artists and the important work that they do. Without it, none of this would have been possible.” Wendy says candidly.
And if the Chan Centre had not reopened, the School of Music classes would have been completely online, limiting the learning experience for music students to studying repertoire without the benefit of playing music. And students in the Department of Theatre & Film, who have made use of the TELUS Theatre housed within the Chan Centre, would have been limited to Zoom.
“We were fortunate to have the endowment to support really, quite a relentless pace of small but important and necessary academic and artistic work at the Chan Centre, that from a density perspective on our calendar was as dense as pre-COVID,” says Dave. “It was really a lifeline for so many professional artists in our community.”
All of this has been made possible by the incredible foresight of Tom and Caleb Chan. “It’s really hard to express the contribution the Chan family makes, because they’re not only giving financial support, which is important, but they continue to support the Chan Centre as a connection point between the university and the community.” says Pat. In this long, hard year for artists and the art community, the endowment has provided sustainability and flexibility for the Chan Centre and its partners. “It’s such a broad-ranging and deep level of support for the arts.”
“It’s a real legacy.”