Illana Hester’s vision for the future of the arts in Qualicum Beach is bright.
The former New Yorker has settled into her role in the driver’s seat at The Old School House Arts Centre after taking over from former director Corinne James in the spring of 2019.
“It’s been kind of an amazing year. Six months ago, TOSH didn’t have Wi-Fi. And every single program except for our gift shop is online now,” said Hester.
Hester’s vision for the future is 20/20, and she’s already accomplished some of the goals she had set for the beloved community art institution.
Digitization, accessibility and intergenerationality were her three guiding principles for the centre in 2019.
“I think I did that – I think I really hit those three marks,” said Hester.
Every facet of TOSH is online now except the gift shop, which is still a work in progress. Interested folks can now view and sign up for workshops and classes, see upcoming musical offerings, buy memberships and make donations on the TOSH website. The digitization helps with accessibility – one no longer has to leave the house to be able to stay in the loop with the arts centre.
“Increasingly, I’m trying to pull TOSH away from being a commercial art gallery, and really stress that it’s a community art space. And yes we do have gallery spaces and we show, and we have a high level of artists and professionals that work there, however it is a community space, and it is a community art space, and that’s the focus of it,” said Hester.
She also wants to bring TOSH up to a national standard of a public space, upholding values of being a non-denominational safe space that’s accessible to all.
“I really want TOSH to increasingly be a place of connection for everybody. And yeah – I think that’s the way we’re going,” said Hester.
On the docket for 2020 are a host of new workshops, including more art classes covering the basics (think 101-level courses on a variety of subjects), more kids programming, including a spring break art camp, and accessibility classes for people with disabilities, one of which is already fully booked up.
“There’s definitely a need for these programs in our community,” said Hester.
The spring of 2020 will also see a student works exhibition from May 25 to June 21. Alongside that, Hester has curated a project involving students all over the Parksville Qualicum Beach area. So far she has 710 students from SD69 signed up to create watercolour butterflies that will hang from the ceiling of the centre during the exhibit.
She’s also been working on developing a strong relationship with both the Town of Qualicum Beach and Qualicum First Nation.
So far, Hester says that the Qualicum Beach community at large has been a fantastic supporter of the work her and the strong team of TOSH volunteers have been doing.
“The community is really open. Everyone thinks TOSH is really important. … It’s a pretty amazing place to be at. And to definitely feel that love from the community, that they love the arts, they love community. They think it’s important, they think that music and the arts is an important part of pushing forward any kind of agenda we want that’s approachable, and interesting, and fun. Fun I think being the key word for 2020,” said Hester.
Hester also has plans for next year’s Grand Prix d’Art to be a bit more of a community celebration, with a big concert and barbecue instead of the usual art market.
Phil Dwyer, co-director of the Music on Sundays program alongside Theresa Whitely, says that the two are having a great time working with Hester.
“She’s just got so many interesting ideas, and good follow-through. She’s not just somebody who comes up with some random idea. She comes up with a good idea, and then has the wherewithal to make it happen,” said Dwyer.
He lauds her for her forward-looking vision and adaptability to the changing scope of the world.
“I know she’s been working hard with respect to creating space for the Indigenous community. … I think she’s working hard to try and make it a very inclusive environment, and open up opportunities to as many different types of artists as possible. Which I think is, that’s pretty important for having a sustainable operation,” said Dwyer.
“She has connections all over the world, all over the art world. So there’s lots of possibilities that are pretty exciting. We’re just thrilled to be involved, and see where it all leads.”
When asked about her New Year’s resolutions, Hester says she doesn’t believe in the sustainability of trying to overhaul your entire life based on one day. She’d prefer to work on something small every day, focusing on tackling the big challenges of life and planning a better future for herself bit by bit.
Growth is never easy, and Hester is quick to acknowledge that failure is a very necessary part of the process of developing both as an artist, and a person.
“It’s so hard. But I think also as leaders, the more vulnerable and open we are, about our condition, and how real life actually looks like and works, it’s like shame-destroying, right? Not everybody has it together. And this idea that we have to, you know what, that’s just more colonialist patriarchy. That’s not the Artist’s Way,” said Hester.
“I just hope people are really creative in 2020, and look for interesting solutions to their problems. And be more kind - I think people can be gentler with each other, knowing that everyone is just flailing and failing.”
Hester says that so far, her experience at TOSH has been one of accepting new challenges and growth, including learning how to be a leader, and hold space for people around her. And of course, there are more things in the works, to be announced as the new year unfolds.
“I of course have some fun things up my sleeve. So check back! There’s lots of stuff going on that I can’t really talk about,” said Hester with a laugh.