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Victoria's Fifty Fifty Arts Collective marks 10 years as hub for emerging art

Fifty Fifty Arts Collective board members Jzero Schuurman, left, and Renee Crawford in the group’s busy studio. - Edward Hill/News staff
Fifty Fifty Arts Collective board members Jzero Schuurman, left, and Renee Crawford in the group’s busy studio.
— image credit: Edward Hill/News staff

Its neighbours are auto repair shops and appliance outlets in what can be called the outer orbit of Victoria’s downtown core. An art gallery in the 2500-block of Douglas St. looks distinctly out of place.

But within its whitewashed walls decorated with neatly hung paintings, the Fifty Fifty Arts Collective has established itself as the centre for art in Greater Victoria that is distinctly outside of the mainstream.

“At night the space does seem quiet, but there is a lot of activity happening here,” says Renee Crawford, one of the four board members of Fifty Fifty Arts Collective who also works for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. “This space is an arts hub.”

The collective is celebrating its 10th anniversary today (Jan. 11) with an exhibition from 15 local artists. Over the past decade, the gallery has hosted some 300 emerging artists and 500 musicians in what has become an institution in Victoria’s arts scene.

“Our role in the community is to give emerging and experimental arts space and support and experience,” Crawford says. “Those artists on the edge of mainstream or who are totally underground have a space to showcase their work.”

“New artists in town can have a hard time breaking into the scene. We can let them give a show,” adds Jzero Schuurman, a board member of the collective.

“We want to show Victoria is more than Emily Carr,” he continued, although noting he’s not opposed to the works of Victoria’s arguably most famous painter.

The collective has seen many members come and go, but key to its survival has been a steady stream of volunteers dedicated to fostering an arts space. It also helps the rent is reasonable at their Douglas Street space.

When Schuurman joined a few years ago, the gallery was open one day a week – now it’s seven, all staffed by volunteers. “This is a major part of our lives. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it,” he said.

The gallery has allowed emerging artists to learn lessons not necessarily illuminated in art school. At Fifty Fifty, artists must assemble and promote their own exhibits.

“This is a very DIY space. The artists have to curate their own shows. They get a key (to the building) and they set it up. It gives artists a dry run on how to put together their own exhibition,” Crawford says. “Art schools don’t teach how to curate shows or how to get exhibits or create a portfolio. Being involved in an artist-run centre, in a short time you learn how the profession works.”

Fifty Fifty launched in 2003 in a retail space on Craigflower Road, and moved to Douglas Street a few years later. Allan Kollins, one of the founding members who sat on the board until 2009, said in 2003, the stars aligned. The idealism of a group of young artists to create a collective art gallery became reality, due to an affordable retail space.

He said the name “Fifty Fifty” was drawn from a hat.

“I think the person who submitted that name wanted more of the money to go to the artist. They didn’t want (the gallery) to be commercial,” Kollins said in an interview from Vancouver. “We wanted art that was conceptual, more experimental, not pretty pictures on the wall.”

Kollins said in the early days, the Douglas Street space had its struggles with the City of Victoria. A few times, evening music shows would attract dozens of people, along with police and bylaw officers. At the same time, Fifty Fifty also received project grants from the city’s arts board.

“It was different bureaucracies. The arts and culture grants board supported us. The bylaw officer wasn’t as friendly,” Kollins said.

Fifty Fifty now primarily fundraises through hosting music shows at venues around the city. Where other artist-run spaces have come and gone over the years, Fifty Fifty is looking to expand.

“It’s survived in part because of a burgeoning arts community in Victoria. Certain individuals and the community helped keep it alive,” Kollins says. “The collective has seen dire times. But we’ve also seen commitment from the community from fundraising and support.”

The Fifty Fifty 10 year celebration is  Friday, Jan. 11, from 7 to 10 p.m. 2516 Douglas St. and is free. See thefiftyfifty.net.

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