To sit in the office of Jennifer Bate at the McMillan Arts Centre is to feel the pulse of a vibrant and growing arts community happening all around you. Paintings of Rathtrevor Beach and snippets of recent past exhibits grace the walls of the executive director’s space in the Parksville art institution.
Programs, people and place are the cornerstones of the MAC – and that ethos is clearly reverberated throughout the building.
As we speak, a volunteer comes through the door to start setting up for a potluck, the phone rings, and a peak into the hallway offers a visual snapshot into the minds and lives of dozens of Parksville Qualicum Beach artists.
The past year has been a big one for the centre, and Bate only sees things going up from here.
“2019 was a phenomenal year, on so many different levels,” said Bate.
An obvious highlight was the Soft Shore exhibit – the gallery’s big summer show, created exclusively for the MAC, that brought together seven artists from different disciplines to create an immersive experience showcasing the unique habitat and biodiversity of central Vancouver Island.
Soft Shore also saw the debut of the MAC’s digital art space, dubbed the Cloakroom Gallery. The name is an homage to the funky space, which used to serve as – you guessed it – a cloakroom, back when the building was a schoolhouse.
“That’s another huge plus for us this past year, because it meant that we introduced another medium of gallery exhibits to our community. I was super excited. And you can’t beat the fact that we had National Geographic photographer[s], Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen as our first people in our digital media gallery,” said Bate.
“I’m going to say the summer on so many levels was incredible for us – I think that it meant that the MAC was growing, that we’re continuing to explore new ideas and new programs, and how to make this community arts centre more inclusive, be able to explore more different mediums.”
Though Soft Shore is over, a piece of the exhibit will still live on in the city of Parksville starting in early 2020.
The centerpiece of the exhibit – a glass herring-ball created by Robert Held flanked by steel bull kelp by Nelson Shaw and glass salmon by Christopher Smith – will be set up in the atrium of Parksville’s city hall. All of these components will be on display for the remainder of the city’s 75th anniversary year.
Bate has been at the helm of the MAC for three and a half years now, and she’s proud of what the centre has been able to accomplish in that time.
“We have probably exponentially grown since I started, and everything that we’re doing is just going to continue to grow, I think,” said Bate.
The gallery has been working on its social media and online presence, a component that Bate says is incredibly important in today’s arts world. The more connected that the Island’s artists and art spaces are able to become increases the chances that Vancouver Island will become a hub for the arts in Canada.
“The Central Vancouver Island area has always been rich with the arts. It’s been incredible to see how not just the Island central part, but also the Gulf Islands have all sort of created … a very, very healthy environment here as far as the arts are concerned,” said Bate.
“The arts are alive and well here. I think the arts are an important part of who we are as a healthy community. I think that the future is bright in that respect.”
The building that the MAC inhabits holds a special place in Parksville’s history, and has always been primary part of the community’s landscape. First serving as a schoolhouse, the building has morphed through several different phases. Bate’s daughter grew up practicing ballet in the space, and it also served as as a rehearsal studio for Bard to Broadway Theatre Society in its early days.
In 2020, the building will celebrate its 107th birthday, making it the oldest building in Parksville according to Bate.
“We’ve got to keep it up. This building is an old lady and she’s going to be expensive to maintain. We run as a non-profit charity in Parksville, and so that’s always going to be a primary focus of the [Oceanside Community Arts Council] who owns the building,” said Bate.
“The MAC back in the day was the biggest building, and it is the oldest building in Parksville. And of course it’s at the foot of Memorial Avenue. And so, when the Memorial Avenue… trees were planted, and the cenotaph was installed, it was installed in front of the MAC. This was a central area, central building in the community.”
She says people often wander into the studio and share their stories of what the space meant to them growing up in Parksville, especially those who went to school in the building.
“This is a historic place. Having the Parksville 75th anniversary next year means all of us get a chance to share our stories, and our history. And the MAC is certainly part of that history,” said Bate.
As for the year ahead? Bate has plenty up her sleeve, some of which is still under wraps. One program that will continue in the new year is a free arts program for seniors that runs at different seniors’ centres in the area. The next session will take place at Berwick in Qualicum Beach.
In terms of New Year’s resolutions, the executive director will keep on striving to make the MAC a beacon of, and facilitator for creators of all mediums in Parksville Qualicum Beach.
“I guess maybe my New Year’s resolution is continuing to put our artists’ work out there, to share their stories, and share their work. That’s always been a primary focus for me,” said Bate.
“How to give them more exposure, give them opportunities to create their stuff, maybe improve on what they’re doing, share their knowledge – that’s what a community arts centre is all about.”