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Program puts art in the public eye

Downtown hotels offer lobby space for artists to work while you watch

Europe has a reputation for nurturing its artists. It's something retired real estate agent Kerry Liggins noticed on her regular trips to France - in the open-air markets, in the buzzing gallery atmosphere.

She discussed it with friend Barbara Adams, who ran a self-funded art program at Monterey School.

They talked about how local artists are often approached to donate to fundraisers and contribute to the community in other ways, while funding cutbacks have meant fewer opportunities for them.

"You just see the artist contribution time and time again. They're Victoria's treasures here and a lot of them are hidden treasures, working away at their home studios. They don't get a chance to meet with the public and it's all about connection and community-building," she said. "Barbara and I were talking and said, 'Well I don't know why we can't do something in Victoria to support the artists.' "

They got in touch with Martin Leclerc, general manager of the Fairmont Empress hotel, who invited portrait artist David Goatley to be artist-in-residence there late in 2010.

The result is Artishow, the second annual artist-in-residence program that the two volunteers co-ordinated with hotels in downtown Victoria.

This year, 23 artists will set up their easels, potters' wheels and sculpting tools in five downtown hotels.

They'll work publicly in lobbies Monday to Friday during regular working hours (about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) for an average one-month stint each. Participating hotels are the Fairmont Empress, the Inn at Laurel Point, the Hotel Grand Pacific, Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort and Spa, and the Chateau Victoria Hotel and Suites.

Artishow runs from May through October.

A companion event will see 45 artists move outdoors to the lawn of the Empress, for Artishow's Plein Air Saturdays, June 30 to Sept. 1.

Feedback from last year's participants has been positive.

"It was win-win-win for everyone," said Judy Elder, executive assistant to the managing director for the Inn at Laurel Point. "The artists get to showcase their stuff, we get a rotating collection of art and the guests get to talk to the artists, see them painting and ask them questions."

She said it was a nice addition to the hotel's art collection, which largely includes about 200 pieces from Asia and the Pacific Northwest.

Mark Paul, director of sales and marketing at the Chateau Victoria, said tourists want to meet local residents, and Artishow helps make that happen.

"The Canadian tourism commission has indicated that tourists, and especially international tourists, are looking for authentically local experiences," he said. "This puts some of our local artists right in the palms of their hands."

Nicole Mackinnon, director of sales for the Delta, echoed his perspective.

"It just adds another link between the community and our hotel guests," she said.

While some of the hotels have hosted similar programs - the Inn at Laurel Point once had a poet-in-residence and most host regular musicians in their restaurants and have some kind of permanent art collection - most said the artist-in-residence program was something fresh.

"Many of our guests said they've never seen anything like that and they're pleasantly surprised," said Mackinnon.

Many of the artists who participated last year said it was well worth their time, arguing all exposure is good, whether or not a sale is made. And while most made only modest sales, if any, some got a significant payoff.

"I guess we can hide in our studios, but if we complain that nobody's buying our stuff, I guess we only have ourselves to blame," said artist Nathan Scott. He estimated that he interacted with between 50 and 100 people each day during his residency at the Chateau Victoria, where he sculpted a cowboy and a horse.

While he didn't make immediate sales, he is negotiating a $65,000 commission now with a client on the Lower Mainland - a direct result of his hotel residency last summer.

"Someone was staying at the Chateau on completely different business and from there, I was able to sell him on a life-size commission," he said. "Was he wanting to talk to an artist that day?

No. It was just that I was right there working and I took the mystery out of it for him."

Painter Sharon Stone said the most memorable part of her experience last year at the Inn at Laurel Point was getting to know the staff.

"One staff member stopped by where I was painting and basically said to me, 'You have no idea what a difference this has made in our lives,' " recalled Stone. "To say that to someone who paints?

Wow, you're just blown away by a comment like that."

She also said she took on secondary concierge-like ole. "Informally, [hotel uests] start to talk to the rtist and ask questions bout the city," she said. "I ive in James Bay and was ble to direct people to this, hat and the other thing."

Potter Nancy Alexander said she believes in the concept of having artists in public spaces. Kids would sit cross-legged, watching her wheel as she worked.

One couple in their 70s, who were on their honeymoon, approached her holding hands and bought a piece - so she gave them an extra as a wedding gift.

The plein-air event was also a great opportunity to meet other artists, she said, although there are obvious challenges to working outdoors, such as wind and rain.

Painter Marlene Howell found creative ways to interact with guests - for example, by inviting them to put their mark on her apron with a paintbrush.

"By the time my stint was over, my apron was quite colourful," she said.

Annie Pelletier, who has also participated in the 18-year-old artistinresidence program Painters at Painter's (at Painter's Lodge in Campbell River), said working in public changes the creative dynamic for artists.

"Some people won't talk to you; they don't want to disturb you," she said. "And others will jump in and want to help with your painting."

She echoed Scott's philosophy that working in public plants the seeds for future sales.

"Any exposure is good exposure and it always pays at the end," she said.

Liggins said that she and Adams hope to eventually expand Artishow to include a walking tour of the hotels that would include checkins with each active artist in residence. She hopes it makes local art more accessible.

"People can be intimidated going into galleries and things, so this gives them a new opportunity," she said. "They can just walk into the lobby of a hotel and if they don't even want to do that, they've got visual artists on the lawn of the Empress."

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