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Keep the people coming

Sunshine Coast Arts Council
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Jan DeGrass Photo

Outgoing director Frances Wasserlein chats with current Arts Council president Bruce Milne at her farewell party.

During the last week of Frances Wasserlein’s five-year tenure as executive director of the Sunshine Coast Arts Council, a drainage problem caused a flood of water to issue from the Arts Centre, threatening to disrupt the Nov. 30 farewell party that board members had planned for her.

Fortunately the Arts Centre has a solid volunteer member base, and one of the Arts Council’s board members plus a neighbour with a backhoe were able to resolve the problem. It’s a good thing, because Wasserlein is a strong proponent of accessibility to art.

“Keep the people coming in the door,” were her parting words for the Arts Centre, a focus that has earned her the respect of her colleagues.

At the Nov. 30 farewell party, Bruce Milne, currently Arts Council president, referred to the solid base that Wasserlein had built for the future. Milne told Coast Reporter that the board would not be hiring another co-ordinator right away, but would be stepping back for a time to assess the situation.

Wasserlein thanked the approximately 75 well-wishers who attended, and she accepted a gift of her portrait painted by Russ Tkachuk for whose class she had once sat as a model. It was also her chance to scotch rumours as to her reason for leaving: “No, I’m not going away,” she said in her farewell speech, “and I’m not sick.” Electoral politics may be in her future — she will continue as an alternate director for the Sunshine Coast Regional District and will serve on the Sechelt library board.

Though Wasserlein admits to some disputes with the board and with artists, in a later interview with Coast Reporter, she recognized that the confrontations come because there’s a strong sense of ownership among the members for their arts organization.

“There are those with a passionate love for the arts,” she said, “and they have a strong commitment to stay connected.”   

Wasserlein decided to move to the Coast in 2004 after a career with the Vancouver Writers’ Festival and more recently as producer of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. It was the arts that drew her here — when she and her partner stopped in at the Gumboot Café and looked at a highly original show of work on the walls, they both knew this was the place to live. She was hired as the Arts Council’s director, half-time, in early 2008. They also hired two part-time people to curate and assist. But later that year the economy nose-dived and in 2009 gaming grants to the arts were cut, leaving Wasserlein as the only employee. Her main roles were volunteer co-ordination and management of rentals for the venue.

The Arts Centre in Sechelt was built in the 1960s and was expanded in the last 20 years. Just about every Coast artist has shown there.

In her farewell speech, Wasserlein noted its significance in our lives. Owning a building is a “difficult blessing,” Wasserlein said, since, like any home, it needs maintaining.

“The roof can’t leak; the toilets must work,” she said.

The last year has brought building challenges. (The Arts Council owns the building while the land is leased from the District of Sechelt for a nominal fee.) Fortunately rental of the building has proven popular and fits with the organizations’ desire to be useful to the community. It also raises money along with the two big fundraising fairs: Hackett Park in the summer and the arts and crafts fair in the winter.  

“Just about every book launch is held there,” she said, reeling off other organizations that use the space: the Natural History Society, the Astronomy Club, Artesia coffeehouses, yoga, memorial services and a Sunday spiritual meeting. Several life drawing and painting classes gather each week, and in the Doris Crowston Gallery, artists show their work in ongoing exhibitions.

Currently, the Young People’s art show and banner project is on the walls. The annual Friends of the Gallery exhibition opens in January and all are invited to participate with one piece of unjuried artwork to be delivered to the centre by Jan. 6. For more see

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