By Deanne Beattie
Milton K. Wong is, in person, every bit the leader you might imagine him to be. By reputation, he is known as a quick and resourceful businessman and community leader, and a fervent dragon boat supporter as well. He and his wife—arts patron and philanthropist Fei Wong—have supported various initiatives ranging from national art exhibitions to community-based art galleries. Until recently, Milton was Simon Fraser University’s Chancellor, and he now remains a leader in the SFU capital fundraising team.
What’s surprising is that this lifetime of community service was accomplished in addition to a very successful business career. A graduate of University of British Columbia (1963), Milton went on to found his financial firm, M.K. Wong and Associates, a preeminent financial service provider in the Lower Mainland of B.C., in 1980. The firm became a solid success, and was eventually bought by HSBC in 1996. Since then, Milton has remained a leader in the financial sector. But to meet him, like I did, in his home on South Cambie—a modern home, with sweeping windows and an eyeful of art—is to affirm that this man has vision. Observing his firm handshake, unassuming demeanor, and slow, warm smile for his wife Fei, one can see precisely why the couple is spearheading community support for the School for Contemporary Arts facilities at SFU in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, located within the new Woodward’s development. Opened officially in January 2010, the facilities house the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. The development will be the first of its kind in Western Canada and a landmark achievement for the Olympic city.
Vancouver’s Woodward’s district has been pushing boundaries—and buttons, and budgets—in myriad ways. The retail centre-turned-squatter territory has been re-imagined in recent years as a social and economic panacea for Vancouver’s desolate Downtown Eastside. In addition to the School for Contemporary Arts, the Woodward’s building will come to house community art studios, flexible performance spaces, and offices for arts organizations and social enterprises. The development, however, is also juggling a few lofty goals. Outwardly, the government agents and community leaders behind the project aim to revitalize a crime-ridden area through social investment. “It’s like another language,” says Milton of the power of art. “It’s another means of communicating with each other in a social sense. So, we might have seemingly disparate groups in our community, but they tend to come together [where community-based art is involved]”.
“Art is one element that is not static. As new people come, new experiences come, and the fusion of disciplines also comes.” – Milton Wong
In the city’s Olympics-focused era, sensitivity to the implications of a gentrification project rockets political correctness to an all-time high. The cynic might object that the Woodward’s development accommodates the growing appetite of a cultural elite in Vancouver as they move to devour the edgy cool of a historic city centre and flush out a poor community before tourists arrive for the Olympic Games. As a result, the building and the programs they become home to are promised to be sustainable, ethical, participatory, interdisciplinary, and yes, culturally sensitive. The Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre is no different. The multi-purpose performance space allows for dance, theatre, and music to be performed by students, community groups, and touring professionals due to its flexible seating arrangement with 450 moveable seats and stages that can accommodate any performance requirement.
“It should be a catalyst, on an on-going basis, to continue to cause the evolution and development of the Downtown Eastside,” says Milton of the art space. “Art is one element that is not static. As new people come, new experiences come, and the fusion of disciplines also comes.” Forgetting for a moment that the vision for the Woodward’s arts factory is at best complicated (and at worst, conflicted), the entire project is made vulnerable to a few significant economic factors. In a few short years, the budgets that the Province of British Columbia has made available to education and the arts have radically diminished, prompting schools to cut services and hike tuition fees, and reducing some arts organizations to survival mode in 2010 with less than 10 percent of the government funding they received in 2009. Even if the Woodward’s launch is successful, it’s difficult to imagine what will become of the arts and education centre in the years that follow. The circumstances around Woodward’s launch raises important questions for British Columbians. When social investment in arts and culture through public funding is reduced, where do we go from here? Who do we listen to in the war between a cash-strapped government and an irate arts community?