It’s easy to miss the Victoria Event Centre.
Nestled up a set of stairs above a surf shop on the corner of Broad Street and Pandora Avenue, the only indications of the magic inside are the bright red door and a poster-covered sandwich board.
“I never know what I’m going to walk into when I walk in here at night … I love that,” said Colin McKean, current landlord and one of the founders of the centre.
VEC is celebrating 20 years as a venue in Victoria, run by the community for the community since the Victoria Multicultural Society legally formed in March 2003. Vaudeville, Fringe Fest, Jazz Fest, Rifflandia are a few productions that make use of the space, along with punk, burlesque, speakeasy, country, dance, drag, craft fairs, rock and classical shows.
The venue is run as a non-profit, with a mix of full- and part-time staff at the helm, as well as a board of directors, members and volunteers.
“This is not a place where there’s an owner taking profits. Everything that’s done here returns to the space,” said McKean.
The non-profit also welcomed a new executive director, Leyla Sutherland, in the winter of 2022.
“I really want to emphasize that the current management are really progressive and are doing a great, great job. They’re really promoting local artists, and putting in the sweat equity to make renovations happen,” McKean said.
The community space is a kaleidoscopic 3D collage of the minds and hearts of many people – reflected in the changes from pea soup-coloured walls to the colourful murals now up by local artist Emily Thiessen, lighting accents put in by an engineer volunteer, artwork by local artists and renovations done through volunteer parties.
Significant grants in the past few years brought new washrooms, improved sound and lighting, an elevator set to open this year, and expansion into daytime use of the space said Chris Fretwell, a staff member.
The VEC now rents out the space two days a week to Imagine Cafe, a PSR Collaborative initiative whose mandate is to provide a safe and welcoming drop-in space for those in mental health recovery.
All of these changes speak to how far the venue has come since McKean first bought the building with his business partners. A defunct teen nightclub at the time, the group felt inspired to turn it into a community theatre and make it a “contribution to the downtown core,” McKean said.
VEC’s growth was paired with progressivism from the start. The space has long had gender-neutral washrooms, been a space for minority groups, and been run by a gender-balanced, LGBTQIA2S+ friendly staff and board.
“The people who use it have a culture,” McKean said. “We’ve never really had incidences of violence or anything like that here, which is kind of unique in terms of a night club venue. It speaks to the community around it.”
The venue also has a significant track record of supporting emerging artists. The Dandy Lion Session series, a recent project that ran until the end of March, featured free musical performances every Friday afternoon from emerging artists, paid through a Creative BC grant.
“One of the things that performers really need is access to stage time and it’s really hard to get. This is a place that lets them get their start in an environment that supports them in a safe way,” McKean said. He highlighted Mike Delamont, known internationally for his show God is a Scottish Drag Queen. Delamont originally developed his character on the VEC stage with Atomic Vaudeville.
McKean feels rewarded with positive sentiments from both audience members and performers. “I’ve had so many people come up to me and tell me that this place meant so much to them and their community because they felt like it was a home.”
On May 5 & 6, the VEC will host a community celebration with live music, burlesque and DJs. To find out more information, more details will be coming soon to the VEC’s website at victoriaeventcentre.ca.
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