By Max Hamilton
Before it had opened its doors for the first time, the West End Cultural Centre was already different than most venues. For one, the intention of the Centre’s founders was never to make a buck off the place, and to this day it remains a not-for-profit, charitable organization. It began as just an idea, one that, as work began on the run-down church at the corner of Ellice and Sherbrook, drew interested and generous citizens out to volunteer their time and expend their energy on refurbishing the building. Some stayed on for months after the first show was held, which was headlined by the folk group Spirit of the West. That was thirty years ago as of October twenty-first, an anniversary which the West End celebrated with a tribute show to that band. In the sense that it was intended from the beginning to be a community organization that supports its artists, the WECC hasn’t really changed. Although some letterheads and logos have been redesigned this year (and which now depict the sun radiating from the old church), and the building itself underwent a major renovation in the mid-2000s, the importance of the WECC has grown as Winnipeg’s musical community has grown.
“A lot of people just see the West End as a venue, but we do a lot within our community,” says marketing director, Kerri Stephens. This includes conducting sing-alongs in old folks’ homes, an upcoming tap-dance workshop, the Ellice Street Fest, a free holiday dinner for members of the community, free music lessons for anyone between the age of nine and eighteen. Often youth who outgrow the programs age range will return as mentors, and help fledgling bands get opening slots at shows around the city. The kids work with some of the major names to come through the WECC, including Polaris Prize nominee Leif Vollebeck, who came through at the start of October. Before his show that night he sat down with the kids, played a few songs for them and answered some questions about being a professional musician. The hope is that, when they are exposed to different styles of music, different ways to play and think about their instruments, they’ll be more likely to stick with it. Some of the bands to have come out of these programs have played festivals around the province and opening slots around the city.
Apart from cultivating the talents of the younger generations, the WECC does a lot for local artists. They’re often looked to as opening acts, and there is a special rate for renting the hall if you are a local band doing an album release. It’s a considerable discount. Facilities are also open during the day for anyone who wants to use the space for rehearsing, or song-writing, or whatever.
“People don’t realize that we do some of these things,” says Stephens. “We want to see people in here all the time. We’re super passionate about our local artists especially. We want to be an organization that can support artists, even the brand new and up and coming.”
Initially, the focus was on giving folk music a home, and was meant to be something of an extension of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, whose founder, Mitch Podolak, was something of a spearhead for the group of WECC founders. But the focus quickly shifted away from one style, and became more about challenging, unique music of all kinds.
All venues operate to put music on the stage, of course, but at the West End, that’s all they do. They’re not open as a bar when there’s nothing going on inside, so it’s only for music that people come out. Jack Jonasson, the executive director of the WECC says that, as a musician, it’s refreshing to walk into a room and know that the people who are there care about the music. He knows, too, exactly what’s lost when that’s missing. “Nothing is more demoralizing than pulling into a town after driving all day and finding that there’s no one there to greet you at the venue, feeling that what you do is unimportant.”
Arts and culture define a city. “It’s the thread that winds through everyone’s experience,” says Jonasson. Supporting your local artists is about more than supporting the art they produce, though. Says Jonasson, “It’s caring for your neighbour. You may not care about arts and culture, but do you care about the health and well-being of your city? Do you care about social change, or any of those things? Because all of that comes from arts and culture.”
The founders of the WECC were, as Mitch Podolak puts it, “loudly socialist.” Mitch himself came from a far-left background, learning how to organize politically as a kid. These teachings deeply informed the projects he would undertake later in life, and are at the foundation of both the WECC and the Folk Festival. A short time after they began operation, the Conservatives came to power and the Filmon government cut funding to the WECC. Instead of letting the Centre die, Mitch and others poured their life’s savings into it, and watched their home equity disappear.
They knew they were on their way to going broke without the additional funding from the Manitoba Arts Council, so they attacked it publicly with four-thousand posters, all reading that the Council spends $960 thousand on themselves every year, for shame! Today, Mitch gladly admits that, while this was true, it was taken out of context. He’d gotten a copy of the Tories’ budget, and that that amount, which went to administration, was only one seventh of the entire budget, which he feels is fair. The politics of that action was pivotal and necessary for the survival of the space, however, and allowed the WECC to continue and flourish as it never had before. But Mitch had to resign his position there in the fallout of the event. His name was poisoned. “And it still is,” says Podolak.
It should be noted that these events occurred many years ago, and many names have come and gone within the provincial government since then. Today, the conservative leaders support many artists and creative institutions.
For Mitch Podolak, his interest in political and philosophical theory grew in tandem with his desire to create a home for experimentation in and around music, and one fed deeply into the other. He describes the WECC as the marriage of two different music venues that he visited in the sixties and early seventies. One was in California, near Santa Rosa, called the Catalby Cabaret, and the other was the Vancouver East Youth Centre. It was at Vancouver East that he saw Dame Peggy Ashcroft reading the poems of Pablo Neruda with accompaniment from a string quartet.
“Now that is a nutty idea,” was Mitch’s reaction, and he took it back with him to Winnipeg. It lives on strongly at the WECC, though he notes that the Folk Fest has become kinda corporate, despite it originally being “structurally, a Bolshevik model.” This in the sense that it is composed of self-acting pieces that share a mission statement and work towards a common goal as one. The thinking behind the festival remains, though, and so does the thinker. Today, Mitch watches festivals all over the place, just to see how they work. Even commercial ones, where it’s owned by one guy and volunteers get a t-shirt.
“It’s very interesting, seeing the way people will or will not be treated,” says Mitch, “and for their love of music, people will be treated like shit. But people will give of themselves. That’s the thing about the West End.”