Wendy Welch (left), Vancouver Island School of Art founder and executive director, says the school is more than just its classes, it’s a community. Board president Colette Baty regularly attends classes at the Quadra Street location, where her work is currently displayed in the ground-floor gallery. Kristyn Anthony/VICTORIA NEWS

Vancouver Island School of Art looking for new home

Increasing SD61 enrolment prompts district’s termination of lease with Quadra Street facility

The iconic building at the edge of Quadra Village, home for the last 13 years to the Vancouver Island School of Art, is at the heart of some significant shuffling as the Greater Victoria School District has announced it plans to reoccupy the site.

The move effectively terminates the lease with the private post-secondary art school.

“We’re really saddened,” says founder and executive director Wendy Welch. “Artists really need space.”

Welch started VISA with just 47 students and four instructors back in 2005.

Now, with over 3,500 part and full time students having painted, drawn, sculpted and studied in its classrooms, it’s the only contemporary, art-focused school in the city attracting students from across the Island.

The school, which houses a non-profit gallery on the ground floor, is unique in that it also offers transfer credits to Emily Carr and the University of Gloucestershire in England. Welch says there are currently students studying at VISA from Belgium, Brazil, Germany, India and Mexico.

“VISA is more than its classes, it’s quite a community. Our students never really leave,” she explains, pointing to a portion of custom-built studios the school rents to artists, students both past and present.

Built in 1921, the historic arts and crafts style building is in need of repair; SD61 estimates it would cost between $1.5 million and $2 million to seismically upgrade the space and update the heat, plumbing and electricity.

Barring that, SD61 secretary-treasurer Mark Walsh says, the plan is to move students of Artemis Place secondary – young mothers and mothers-to-be – to the Quadra Street location, where there is ample room for a daycare.

Transferring students from Artemis, currently housed in the Dean Heights Annex on Richmond Road, would free up space for Lansdowne middle school, located on the adjacent property.

RELATED: Bigger student body, smaller classes putting pressure on school district

“Generally, the school district is facing significant space issues, partially because of increasing enrolment and partially because of B.C. class size and composition standards,” Walsh says.

While some of the issues can be addressed by redrawing boundaries, space is still needed – particularly for middle-schoolers, he adds.

In the last year alone, SD61 created 90 new classrooms (the equivalent of 15 Quadra Street-sized locations) to accommodate increasing population.

“We’re ahead of our projections because of an influx of folks from Vancouver and Alberta,” Walsh says. “You can see it in the cranes on the ground in downtown Victoria.”

RELATED: Vic High needs seismic upgrades

The school district let VISA know of its intentions more than a year ago and has given the school until Aug. 31 to vacate. Both Welch and Walsh acknowledge there has been some conversation around building learning studios for VISA – similar to portables – if the school was able to get the capital together.

Welch is appealing to the community to help find a suitable, permanent space, ideally in the same neighbourhood. Or, she’s open to donors or community partners who are able to help finance the move or who have space to donate or rent to VISA.

Walsh isn’t ruling out an extension for VISA to stay in the Quadra Street location, if for some reason the district was unable to upgrade the facility in a timely manner. But, SD61 plans to have upgrades underway as early as fall 2018.

“We want to stay here, the neighbourhood wants us to stay here,” Welch says. “There is a struggle for arts in Victoria, but no matter what, we’re going to continue the school.”

kristyn.anthony@vicnews.com

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