A Little Off the Top: Saluting an Icon

Anyone who comes to Yukon quickly becomes aware of several things: the vast landscape, the clean air, the soft colours, the friendliness, the compulsion of many locals to test their endurance in feats of outdoor derring-do.

Something else newcomers soon discover is the remarkable depth and breadth of artistic and cultural expression available in the Territory.

I have written previously in this space about how richly blessed we are with visual and performing artists of all kinds, both lifelong Yukoners and those who come for awhile, make a valuable contribution, then move on.

It is often suggested that Yukon may have more visual and performing artists per capital than any other Canadian community of comparable population. Whether or not that’s statistically provable is beside the point.

We are fortunate to have had governments of all political stripes that have recognized the importance of the arts to the fabric of a society and have been generous in their financial support.

To this has been added the support of several community-minded businesses. NorthwesTel and the Hougen Group of Companies immediately come to mind, but there are many others.

Besides our vibrant and growing local arts community—and despite being more than slightly off the beaten track—Yukon has also been enriched by an eclectic range of outstanding performers and visual artists from around the world.

In two years of interviewing many of these artists, I have yet to encounter one who hasn’t made a point of saying how excited they were about coming here, because of what they had heard from other artists about this place.

For the past two decades, the Yukon Arts Centre has been the catalyst for much of that artistic vibrancy, not just in Whitehorse, but throughout the territory.

What began almost 30 years ago as a dream shared by a cadre of local arts enthusiasts to see a first-class performing venue in Whitehorse culminated in a gala opening concert at the brand-new Yukon Arts Centre in 1992.

Along the way, they debated such things as where it should be, what it should look like, what should be included, how it should be operated.

In spite of the naysayers who claimed it would never fly, they persisted. They twisted arms, they lobbied, they called in IOUs, they persuaded more than 200 individuals to contribute financially by purchasing seats in the new centre.

With the full support of the government of the day, they saw their dream realized when one of the most striking public buildings North of 60 opened its doors.

Not only was there an excellent, 427-seat auditorium, it also included a versatile art gallery that met the demanding standards required to host touring exhibitions.

Inevitably, of course, some compromises had occurred along the way.

Not everyone was happy with the centre’s “up the hill” location.

For budgetary reasons, certain wished-for features weren’t included, such as a fully-equipped “black box” space for smaller-scale, more intimate productions.

Some features that were included seem amusing in retrospect—particularly the flip-up mini desktops in the auditorium’s armrests, in case it became necessary to help pay the bills by using it as a lecture hall for Yukon College.

Two decades on, the Yukon Arts Centre remains a proud accomplishment by Yukoners for Yukoners, one that continues to evolve and grow.

It has become a focal point in the community, a symbol of excellence, a place for countless Yukoners and outsiders to strut their artistic stuff, and countless others to laugh and weep and cheer and share in that stuff.

As Chief Executive Officer Al Cushing noted at last-week’s launch of a jam-packed and exciting 2012-13 season, a record 47,000 pairs of feet made their way into the centre last year alone.

That record could easily fall this year, thanks to a program that offers something for everyone—from calypso to the Cowboy Junkies, from the Metropolitan Opera to the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, from Bboys to the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

There’s even a guy who will single-handedly perform both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies.

Then there’s the structure itself, which has the remarkable ability to seem fresh and new no matter how often you visit.

Which adds a certain poignancy to Jim Robb’s delightful rendering, shown behind Cushing on this week’s cover.

When a building gets the Jim Robb treatment, it has truly made it as a Yukon icon.

So hats off to the YAC and all who sail therein. Long may your big jib draw.

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