Jeremy Stewart, new executive director of Semiahmoo Arts, is no stranger to the Peninsula community.
Stewart, who took over the reins from departing executive director Ulee Maschaykh in February, was formerly communications and events co-ordinator for the White Rock BIA – where he helped oversee the 2019 TD Concerts for the Pier series, the inaugural White Rock Craft Beer Festival and the Five Corners Buskers and Comedy Festival.
His impressive resumé includes over a decade of producing, co-ordinating, developing and marketing for such groups as the Prince George Symphony Orchestra (for whom he served as general manager); the Arts Wells Festival (Island Mountain Arts); Theatre North West and Vancouver’s Boca Del Lupo Theatre Company.
Not as many people may know that he’s also a musician, a poet, a published author and an academic (currently studying online for a PhD in English Literature with Lancaster University in the UK).
And fewer still may know his record as a somewhat mischievous promoter, not averse to the occasional outlandish stunt to attract attention to a worthy arts cause.
“I’m fond of what I like to call ‘hijinks’,” he confessed, with a twinkle in his eye, during a recent interview.
In that connection, one of the events he’s most proud of was pushing a piano off the roof of The Exploration Place Museum in Fort George Park in his native Prince George, as a way to launch of the 2014 Casse-Tete Experimental Music Festival with – quite literally – a bang.
The intentionally-jarring note got huge traction on social media and YouTube, as well as attracting scores of people to the park, he recalled, but – lest he be branded a philistine – he hastened to add that it was a very average and quite irreparable instrument, already headed for the scrap heap, but donated to the cause by a ballet company that had used it for many years.
“It was actually a complex thing to put together, because we were dropping the piano off a public building in a city-owned park, and we also had to find somebody in the community to donate a crane to put it up there, and construct a ramp so that it wouldn’t damage either the building or the grass below,” he said.
“We also sold off the bits and pieces of the wrecked piano as an additional fund-raiser for the event and made a lot of money through that,” he added.
His piano-wrecking days may be behind him, but Stewart said he’s excited to be able to use his enthusiasm and ingenuity to help raise the profile of the arts in White Rock and South Surrey, in a broad mandate that includes “raising, budgeting, and reporting on an annual budget of approximately $250,000, through grants, gallery sales, private donations, and other revenue sources.”
“It’s wonderful to be back in leadership in an arts organization – and to serve in an area I live in,” he said. “I think I’ve worked in every major arts discipline, with the possible exception of dance, but even if I don’t have the depth of experience that others have, to have artistic people do the things they’re passionate about, to see people thriving and doing their thing, that makes me want to learn more,” he said.
Growing up and working in Prince George provided him with a good background in the arts, he believes – one where it was possible to get involved without feeling excluded or kept on the sidelines.
“One of the things that’s interesting about it is that it’s not a large city – around 80,000 people – but it’s remote enough that it’s a cultural capital. For instance, it’s had its own professional symphony orchestra since 1968.”
And while the Semiahmoo Peninsula may be a very different centre than Prince George, or Vancouver, he said, accessibility of the arts is just as important – and achievable.
“Accessibility is the key,” he said. “People may feel here that, for artistic things, they have to go to the city. I’m going to bring the city to them – and not just Vancouver. I want people of all ages and experience levels to have the opportunity to be exposed to the arts.”
Stewart said, however, he’s well aware of the familiar traps that communities can fall into while promoting arts activities – either reinforcing closed local cliques, or, alternatively, feeling that legitimacy can be achieved only by importing prestigious artists from outside.
Instead, he said, he favours a collaborative approach in which both local and outside artists share common ground – and mutual inspiration – to the benefit of all.
Many local groups, organizations and non-profits can play a valuable role in the process, he adds.
In this, he said, he feels that he is continuing a direction that has already been well-established by Semiahmoo Arts – and his immediate predecessor.
“I think Ulee Maschaykh dealt with it really admirably,” he said.
An inevitable challenge, moving forward, will be transitioning into a post-pandemic world – whatever that ultimately looks like, he said.
That covers many of the things that Semiahmoo Arts has been involved in – from classes, to art exhibits and openings , concerts and other special events. Like many others, Stewart suspects that hybrids of live events and online offerings may be the new reality for the organization.
“It’s a moving target as the situation changes,” he said. “But we’re going to prioritize safety.”