The Western Front is one of Canada’s oldest artist-run centres, providing artists of varying disciplines with gallery and performance space, multimedia production equipment, media-art residencies and assistance in other initiatives. It also houses one of Vancouver’s premier dance companies, EDAM (Experimental Art and Dance) and maintains an archive of all their exhibits. The Western Front serves the community by providing rental space for classes (e.g. dance, yoga,) events and performances.
How did the Western Front begin?
The Western Front began in 1973 when a group of eight artists banded together to purchase a 1922 Knights of Pythias lodge hall. Influenced by other Vancouver collectives, such as Intermedia, their goal was to use the building as an artist collective with live/work space and to encourage collaboration among interdisciplinary artists. The collective was named The Western Front to reflect multiple facets – the building’s Boomtown, pioneer façade (see also the Arbutus Grocery), its location in Canada’s far west, and its goal to resist the official art system and nurture avant garde movements, like Fluxus.
The History of the Building
In 1922 the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization, built this lodge hall and social club. It contains two large assembly halls and a dining hall as well as two apartments (one added to when the artists bought the building but the other being the original custodian’s apartment). The building still retains some of its original features, including wood wainscoting, some original gurney radiators, a private wood-paneled telephone booth, built-in folding cottonwood chairs, and doors with peepholes (likely used for the Knights of Pythias’s secret ceremonies).
Who were the Knights of Pythias?
The Knights of Pythias was founded in the U.S. in 1864 by Justus Henry Rathbone. The motto of this fraternal organization (which currently still exists around the world) is “Friendship, Charity and Benevolence”. These principles are to be spread through lessons, ceremonies, and members’ work and business. Among their many services, the Pythian Knights from this Mount Pleasant Lodge No.11 supported members and their families when they were sick or in need, organized funerals arrangements, provided insurance, and ran an employment bureau. They offered classes, such as public speaking and bible study, and they also organized social activities such as tournaments, annual picnics, and benefit dances featuring their own Pythian orchestra. One of the lasting legacies of the Knights of Pythias was their annual British Columbia Musical Competition, which eventually fell under the stewardship of the Kiwanis Club of Vancouver in 1961 and which still runs as the Vancouver Kiwanis Music Festivals.
Mount Pleasant Lodge No. 11 was instituted in 1892 with 19 members, and in 1895 had 41 members. A lack of members brought about its disbanding in 1897 but it was revived and rechartered in 1903 and continued its operations until the 1970s. Two members, Robert Townley and John Mitchell are buried in the KOP (Knights of Pythias) section at the Mountain View Cemetery. Robert Townley lived on 9th Avenue but came to Vancouver in 1889 from Toronto. In 1895, with brothers James and Archibald, he started a business in Mount Pleasant for the manufacture of mirrors, beveled and ornamental glass work.
Experimental Art and a Lasting Impact
Although the building’s activities differ from its origins as the lodge hall for the Knights of Pythias, it still maintains a similar intent in its support of fraternity, community and culture.
[One of the]… richness of the Front, combined [with it being]…a meeting place is the fact that it serves many different audiences. There is a vibrant dance program…..which…[includes] yoga, tango classes and the resident dance company. There is the whole thing about the body and body movement…as well as the music community, the poetry community, the visual arts community, the new media/experimental/video and film-making community – all of these different audiences, which sometimes overlap but often don’t… There are a lot of different user groups that claim a certain kind of ownership there and that creates a feeling of cross-fertilization and makes it a diverse and rich place… [There is] that sense of being connected to different communities and different traditions both local and global [that] has always been there. – Hank Bull, Artist and Western Front Resident
The Western Front has been on the forefront in interdisciplinary, experimental art in Vancouver, Canada and internationally. It was here where Mr. Peanut, Vancouver’s famous 1974 mayoral candidate was first conceived and where Paul Wong’s controversial 1984 video was screened after being censored by the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was also one of the first institutions in the world to loan cameras to artists. The Western Front is supported through membership fees, space rentals, grants and private donations. In 2016, through a City of Vancouver agreement, developers of a nearby residential development (RIZE at Main/Kingsway) contributed funds, which helped The Western Front Society purchase the building. Visit an exhibition in person or peruse the online archive at Western Front.
- Antliff, Allan. The Mr. Peanut Mayorality Campaign of 1974. Canadian Art, Fall 2005, Vol 22 (3), p. 140.
- ArcPost: A Project of the Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres.
- Hank Bull. Interview with Shona Lam. 2017
- Maurice Guibord. November 2011 research on lodge history.
- Rossi, C. “All’s not quiet at 40-year-old Western Front.” Vancouver Courier Feb 27, 2013.
- Tejeida, Aurora. Western Front showcases 40 years of experimental art. Ubyssey, October 13, 2013.
- Vikander, Tessa. Western Front Society set to purchase its historic space. Georgia Straight , Jan 6, 2016
- Wallace, K., Knights, K., Wood, W., Culley, P., Varty, A. and Radul, J. Whispered Art History : Twenty Years at the Western Front. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1993.
We celebrated with the Western Front at their 40th Anniversary party by presenting the plaque and reminiscing about the 40 year history. See more about the June 16, 2013 event.
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