A Safe Haven for Kids from the Storms of Life

Arts Umbrella is embarking on ‘the biggest change this organization’s had in 40 years’ — a sign of its great progress in raising generations of Metro Vancouver’s artists and creative, confident people.

Jill Price, chair of Arts Umbrella, and Paul Larocque, president and CEO of Arts Umbrella, are preparing the organization for its biggest move yet. Photo by Kevin Clark

Arts Umbrella started with $250 in a borrowed space with four professional artists volunteering their time to teach 45 students. Its hope was to provide arts education to children and youth from all walks of life in Vancouver — and not just the paper-bag-puppet variety of kids’ art, but rather, high-level skills in visual and performing arts, along with all the confidence and creativity the arts can inspire.

Now, almost 40 years later, this “umbrella” has truly opened up widely — it welcomes about 20,000 students per year into the arts. It is moving into its new home, a 50,000-square-foot building formerly occupied by Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Its supporters and donors include alumni who have become successful artists, along with prominent designers and celebrities, such as David Yurman, Jimmy Choo, Anthony Hopkins, and Julia Stiles.

“[Paul and I] have realized what a unique program this is in Canada,” says Price. “When we go to Toronto to see donors who support us and thank them, their remark is, ‘How come this program isn’t more national?’” Photo by Kevin Clark

Jill Price, the current chair, has been instrumental in the all-important fundraising for this charitable organization. With a long career in finance, she made the bold switch to full-time charity fundraising several years ago.

After working for BC Children’s Hospital Foundation and other organizations, she turned her sights to Arts Umbrella. She was convinced of its worth by some of its alumni — her children.

Growing up under the Umbrella

Price’s parents didn’t foster the arts in her home growing up. “I don’t think my parents purposely withheld it from us, by any means, but they just didn’t realize how wonderful it would be for us,” she says. “They were very hardworking; they saw art or the time spent on it as a luxury.”

“I believe it’s an essential,” she says.

Her own children were involved in a lot of extracurricular activities — field hockey, golf, tennis, and skiing, to name a few. While they still enjoy a lot of those activities today, they have told her that Arts Umbrella “was the best program you’ve ever put us into,” she says.

“At Arts Umbrella, they felt safe. They felt encouraged,” Price says. “They were directed in such a positive way. They always came out of the classes feeling really positive and happy.”

Her daughter’s love of the arts is, to this day, so strong that during a trip to Hong Kong, she made her way to a local art gallery as a typhoon was bearing down. She was determined to see the art Hong Kong had to offer — rain, shine, or tropical cyclone. Price’s daughter also helps at fundraising events for Arts Umbrella.

Price says her children told her, regarding Arts Umbrella, “That’s the place you should be. That’s the place you should volunteer.”

Philanthropy as ‘social capital’

Although Price’s parents didn’t raise her in the arts, they were both active in charities and stressed the importance of philanthropy.

“As a child, you just go along with it, but then you realize the impact of what you’re doing and what they’re doing. You recognize that … our communities here work like this,” Price says. “They need that charitable thread going throughout for our community to continue in a healthy way.”

Artistic renderings show the new Arts Umbrella space, which is currently being renovated for its move. This 50,000-square-foot building was formerly occupied by Emily Carr University of Art + Design, so it’s long been a home for the arts. Henriquez Partners Architects
Henriquez Partners Architects

“I think charities are our social capital,” she says.

Arts Umbrella’s board has volunteer teachers, lawyers, human resource specialists, and all the expertise needed to help guide the continued growth of the organization. Its main fundraising event is called Splash, an annual art auction and gala that was held Oct. 13 this year.

Many artists donate their work to the auction, including successful alumni. One such alumnus is Krista Johnson, whose recent oil paintings, Hellebores—Hiding from the Rain, and Hellebores—Spring Dance, were included in this year’s auction. These monochromatic paintings depict in fine detail the hellebores flower. Her floral and landscape paintings often explore themes of growth and change.

She tells Arts Umbrella, “The arts give us an opportunity to feel and express deep emotions that are difficult to do anywhere else.” She quotes sculptor Antony Gormley: “Art is the means by which we communicate what it feels like to be alive.”

Johnson elaborates on the impact that arts can have on youth. “It gives kids a wide variety of tools to communicate ideas; it breaks barriers and opens communication. The act of observation forces us to slow down, learn to see, listen, and reflect. Every kid needs the opportunity to have a safe space to create and to be inspired.”

It’s not just [being] an artist, but also good citizens. That they understand how important creativity is in our world, how important art is to help us see the future and understand the future.

Art sculpts beautiful hearts

Art has a reciprocal relationship with society — it influences culture, and conversely, it is inspired by the times. Artists are intimately intertwined with the community, acting as tastemakers to propel society forward in new directions.

“Our effort is to enable every child to believe that they can be an artist,” Price says. “It’s not just [being] an artist, but also good citizens. That they understand how important creativity is in our world, how important art is to help us see the future and understand the future.”

Arts Umbrella educates students during their most formative years, from the ages of 2 to 22. Creativity and confidence are two of the major side effects of arts education that can be applied to all areas of life, Price says. “I think it’s courage to understand failure, to accept failure or to try things out that you don’t know the outcome on.”

A rendering of the new, 160-seat professional theatre. Henriquez Partners Architects

Nick Marino, a comedy teacher at Arts Umbrella, describes how he feels he can empower his students. “People often find kids funny in that kids-say-the-darndest-things way,” he tells Arts Umbrella. “But kids are intentionally funny way more than we give them credit for. … I think they’re leaving [Arts Umbrella classes] with the idea that they have a voice and there is somewhere out there in a city that wants to hear that voice.”

The classes offered at Arts Umbrella cover many of the visual and performing arts — its dance program in particular is internationally renowned and supported by the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Moving into its much larger new home next year, Arts Umbrella will be able to house all the programs under one roof, creating an even stronger arts community.

Larocque and Price walk through the hallway of the current Arts Umbrella building, where they’ve had many great years. They’ll be there for only one more year. Photo by Kevin Clark

Dancing into the future

“Children who come in, who might be coming in for a visual arts program, will be able to see the dance program, will be able to see the theatre program. They will be able to see older kids enjoying their art and doing things at a different level,” she says.

The federal government provided Arts Umbrella with $7 million for renovations on the building, and the provincial government is contributing $1.4 million to help with operational sustainability in the years to come.

“I think that will be the biggest change this organization’s had in 40 years,” Price says. “We were grassroots and now we’ve evolved, so it’s pretty exciting.”

Another big change on the horizon, announced in November, is Arts Umbrella’s decision to bring its programs to students in remote northern communities in B.C. and other provinces. TakingITGlobal, a charity that offers immersive educational resources to these communities, approached Arts Umbrella with the idea for this initiative, called Northern Arts Connection.

Together, the two organizations will use high-definition video communication and collaboration technology to bring high-quality arts education to students at up to 40 schools. Some of these students are among the country’s most vulnerable youth.