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Arts centre, now 40, is 'bursting at the seams'

Like all good things, it started as a dream. In the late 1960s, a group of dedicated volunteers - led by Centennial art teacher Don Portelance - dreamt aloud it was time the arts had a permanent home in Coquitlam.

Like all good things, it started as a dream.

In the late 1960s, a group of dedicated volunteers - led by Centennial art teacher Don Portelance - dreamt aloud it was time the arts had a permanent home in Coquitlam.

Among those in the group was Leonore Peyton of the Coquitlam First Nighters; Jim Kirk, School District 43's music supervisor; Coquitlam Fine Arts Council president Fern Bouvier and his wife Cecile; and council secretary Gloria Orr.

"We made it our job to quietly or noisily pressure the powers that be to find us a place to have as a home for the arts," Portelance remembered. "Everyone supported us but no money was forthcoming."

Then, one day, Bouvier pitched the idea to then-mayor Jim Tonn to take over the old police station and courthouse on Brunette Avenue, close to where city hall used to be.

Bouvier recalls that meeting clearly. "Jim Tonn told us we had six months to make it or we would be out," he said.

And so the group corralled some teachers and soon the music, dance and arts students came to the buildings that were in such disrepair that one of the ceilings had to be held up with two beams so it didn't cave in.

Still, at 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 1, 1972, Bouvier - then the head of the French department at Centennial secondary - 26 teachers plus staff officially opened Place des Arts to the community.

And, since that date, its success has never slowed.

Four years later, the talk of expansion started "and it took us 23 years to get there," Bouvier said with a laugh.

In 1994, a capital campaign was launched to grow the non-profit centre that would incorporate Ryan House, the 1908 one-and-a-half wood framed home of Fraser Mills' manager. Bouvier recalls having to send a letter to Lou Sekora, who was just elected as Coquitlam's MP, to request an additional $180,000 in federal funding.

"It was the first letter that came across his desk as an MP," Bouvier said, "and we met our goal in short order after that."

By 1996, Place des Arts had another 11,0000 square feet at its disposal.

Today, the expanded Place des Arts boasts a $2-million annual operational budget - of which 38%, or $827,974, came from the city of Coquitlam last year - for its 2,000 visual arts, music, drama, dance, creative writing and other artistic students, 80 faculty and nine full-time staff.

It also has a nine-person board to guide the vision. And president Barb Hobson is well aware of the pressures Place des Arts faces. "The board knows the centre is bursting at the seams," she said, "and that's wonderful for the arts."

Dance and theatre programs are especially strong. "If we had a bigger facility, we could do incredible things," said executive director Joan Roberts, a classically trained dancer who is also a board member of ArtsConnect, which used to be the Coquitlam Fine Arts Council. "We need space for performance. We need a new Leonore Peyton Salon because it's just too small. The board is looking at solutions and ways to stay competitive."

She added, "We are not going to stand still. We want to keep the quality and the vitality that this community has nurtured."

Bouvier said Place des Arts' success is because it has stayed true to its core values of keeping classes small, contracting top-notch instructors and mixing the arts in a single facility, creating a hub for inspiration.

As for its 40th anniversary festivities, which kicked off this month, Roberts said a number of activities are lined up to celebrate the centre like concerts, lectures, a community banner project (led by artist Joy Kirkwood), exhibitions and fundraisers. One signature event is called Impromptu, which is in its second year and will be held on Oct. 13 with a 1950s Newfoundland kitchen-party theme. Last year's fundraiser brought in $15,000 for the facility's scholarship and bursary program.

Meanwhile, fall registration is now open with most classes starting this Sunday. To sign up, call 604-664-1636 or visit

As part of Place des Arts' 40th anniversary, the centre invites the public to take part in The Social Fabric Project. The end result will be a commemorative, hand-woven tapestry that will remain at Place des Arts. Spearheaded by PdA fibre arts teacher Catherine Dumaine, a loom will be set up in the atrium for the 40 weeks of sessional classes, available to anyone who would like to add their own "thread" to the design. Participants are encouraged to choose something that carries special meaning: ribbons from baby booties, a favourite shoe lace, even fishing line, guitar strings or audio tapes - anything that can be woven into a tapestry.

Catherine Dumaine or visual arts programmer Michelle Chan will be on hand to facilitate the project and answer questions on these dates in 2012:

Sept. 30 (Family Day)

Oct. 18 (exhibition opening reception)

Nov. 15 (Positively Petite exhibition/Christmas Boutique opening reception)

Nov. 18, 2012 (Family Day)

Founding year teachers:

Moyra Burnett: Acrylic, Batik

C. Chappell: Art of Elementary School Teachers, Drama

C. Embacher: Fabric Art

Audrey Hitchens: Rhythmic Dance, Ballet

Bill Sclater: Drawing and Painting

G. Chappell: Experimental Drawing and Painting

M. Eddison: Fabric Art and Design

J. Dorman: Guitar

Linda Yap: Advanced Ballet

R. Radzikowski: Voice and Recorder

Julie Lusk: Music

Helen Price: Puppetry

Linda Berry: Singing and Dancing

Madeleine Darling: Weaving

Eric Iles: Music and Orchestra

Roger Loubert: Photography

Linda Burrows: Pottery

Marg Wight: Pottery

Ruth Meechan: Pottery

G. Uritam: Stained Glass

Shirley Steemers: Weaving

Ray Thompson: Choir

Bev Cressey: Choir

Sinikka Allen: Preschool Art

Terry Mooney: Jewellery Fabrication

Earl Hudson: Guitar