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British Columbia

Historic buildings all over BC now are galleries


In every region of British Columbia, there's an old school house or railway station, private home or grain elevator that has been rescued from the ravages of time and transformed into a museum or gallery. Renovated, restored and revitalized, these charming old buildings with their columns, porticoes and historic ornamentation have become vibrant modern centres for creativity and social life. For the visitor, they provide a welcome introduction to the local community, to its past, its present and its hopes for the future. Here are a dozen you'll want to visit right across the province.

Cariboo Chilcotin Coast

Station House Studio and Art Gallery: When it was built back in 1919, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway station was destined to be the vibrant heart of Williams Lake. Nearly a century later, it is the oldest public building still in use in the city. But it has taken on a whole new role.

In 1981, local art groups came up with an idea that would both preserve part of the city's history, and give them a place to tell its story. They formed the non-profit Station House Studio and Gallery Society, and began restoring the old railway station. In 1982, the main floor gallery and gift shop opened and, a year later, the upstairs gallery and workshops did, too. And today the Station House is one of the most important tourist attractions in a city best known for its rugged cowboy culture.

Island Mountain Art Gallery: Spectacular mountain scenery, fascinating history and endless outdoors activities would be enough for most communities. But not for Wells. This tiny former mining community (pop: 245) has also transformed itself into a Mecca for arts and culture. It is home not only to the annual Arts Wells Festival of All Things Art, but the terrific Island Mountain Art Gallery.

The gallery was established in 1988 in a bright and airy restored heritage meat market. It hosts a variety of art exhibitions, and offers professional development for both emerging and established artists and craftspeople. It also stages special events year round, including concerts, coffeehouses, literary readings and artist presentations.

Over the past three decades, the gallery has become both a creative outlet and a must-visit destination — no small feat for the small, far-flung community in BC's beautiful Cariboo Mountain foothills.

Vancouver Island

The Robert Bateman Gallery: The Steamship Terminal building is, along with The Fairmont Empress Hotel and B.C. Legislature, one of the historic landmarks of Victoria's Inner Harbour. One architect — Francis Rattenbury — played a role in designing all three, but only the Steamship Terminal has become a monument to art inside as well as out.

The terminal was constructed in 1924 (architect Percy James also had a hand in the building's design), and its neoclassical style intended to pay homage to Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. After decades of heavy use, the building closed in 2009 for seismic reinforcement and reopened three years later with a whole new role.

Today its marquee tenant is the Robert Bateman Foundation, which promotes conservation and awareness of nature and wildlife issues. The Robert Bateman Centre also displays the largest exhibit of original works by one of the world's greatest wildlife artists, more than 100 magnificent pieces spread throughout 10 galleries.

The Old School House Arts Centre: Qualicum Beach is one of Vancouver Island's prettiest communities, known for its award-winning gardens, cosy chowder restaurants and this wonderful gallery.

Built in 1914 for the British Columbia Department of Public Works, The Old School House is a two-storey Classical Revival-style building located right in the town centre. Like so many old buildings, it fell into disrepair in the latter half of the 20th century. Restoring it took years, but in 1988 The Old School House re-opened as an arts centre that encourages the development of artists and musicians throughout central Vancouver Island.

The Old School House has also become a significant tourist attraction, each year welcoming more than 30,000 visitors to its exhibitions, concerts and other events. No question, this landmark building is once again an integral part of the cultural life of Qualicum Beach.

Vancouver, Coast & Mountains

Burnaby Art Gallery: Burnaby's historic Ceperly House is one of the province's finest examples of Edwardian architecture, and one of its most idyllic places to spend an artful afternoon.

Around 1910, the English architect R.P.S. Twizell designed Henry and Grace Ceperly's dream home, Fairacres, with a grand river rock verandah, handcrafted woodwork, stained glass and tile throughout the house, which was located amid eight hectares (20 acres) of lawns, terraces, rockeries, greenhouses and stables.

But the 20th century wasn't always kind to Fairacres. It was a Benedictine monastery and a fraternity house before the City of Burnaby purchased it in 1966. Thirty years later, the city began restoration work, and when Ceperly House reopened in 2000, it was as the new home of the Burnaby Art Gallery.

Today the gallery hosts art exhibitions and offers art education for children, adults and seniors as well as projects throughout the community.

The Fort Gallery Artist Collective: Just over a century ago, as the village of Fort Langley was undergoing a building boom, one of the community's leading entrepreneurs built what would one day become The Fort Gallery Artist Collective.

Charles Edward Hope, who was an architect, civil engineer and financial agent, designed The Coronation Block in what has become known as the Boomtown style: a large, two-storey wooden building with retail stores on the ground level and living space above. It became an instant landmark for the community, and today is part of Langley's first Heritage Conservation Area, which includes the Fort Langley National Historic Site.

But the building's story isn't all set in the past. It is a vibrant and essential part of the community, providing space for artists to display their works and engage with the community where they live.

Kootenay Rockies

Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History: For a city with a proud mining past, the metaphor of the touchstone — a device used to test the purity of gold or silver alloys — is particularly apt. But Touchstones Nelson is not just the cultural touchstone for the area; it is also a means of preserving one of its most historic buildings.

The stone Chateauesque-Richardsonian Romanesque structure on Vernon Street was built in 1902 for the Postal, Customs and Inland Revenue services. In 1956, the Post Office moved out, and the space was briefly transformed into a museum before City Hall moved in; after 30 years, the city left as well. That set the stage for the Nelson and District Museum, Archives, Art Gallery and Historical Society to move in and, after some major renovations, open Touchstones Nelson in 2006.

Fittingly, the museum is as dedicated to preserving regional artifacts as it is to displaying contemporary art. It truly has become a touchstone for past and present.

Langham Cultural Centre: In 1974, the old Langham Hotel was a derelict hovel. Built in 1896 during the mining boom, it had been a popular hostelry before incarnations as a bottling plant, bank and, during the Second World War, internment centre for Japanese Canadians. Following this, it served as a boat works and even a rehearsal space for the local high school band before being abandoned in disrepair.

Then a group of local volunteers calling themselves the Langham Cultural Society set about the Herculean effort of restoring it. In 1977 it opened as a cultural centre and ever since has offered gallery shows, concerts, theatrical performances, readings and workshops. The Langham also provides artists with studios at low rents.

Perhaps most significantly, though, the Langham houses the Japanese Canadian Museum, an archival display that commemorates a chapter in the province's history.

Northern BC

Dawson Creek Art Gallery: It was agriculture that opened up northeastern British Columbia in the 1920s and '30s; today, a symbol of that agricultural past is opening up the area's creative future.

This was one of the British Empire's most productive grain-producing areas, and by the mid-1940s, the local farmers were so busy that 13 wooden elevators had been built to deal with demand. By the 1980s, only two were left standing, and that gave the community a great idea. In 1983, the Dawson Creek Art Gallery moved into the renovated annex of a prairie elevator conveniently located in a municipal park.

The Dawson Creek Art Gallery, which is celebrating its 30th year, was the first gallery in Northern BC and features both local artists and touring shows, as well as a variety of community programs.

Whistle Stop Gallery: Located in the restored heritage railway station at First and Main in downtown McBride, the Whistle Stop Gallery provides a showcase for more than 80 Robson Valley artists and artisans. It has become one of the Robson Valley's top indoor attractions, and has seen tens of thousands of visitors from around the world since it was founded in 2000.

The beautiful landscape of this remote mountain community inspires many artists and photographers, and the culture of the town reflects the community pride that has brought forth murals, painted fire hydrants and other artistic touches throughout McBride. It's a community of creative, independent people, and at the heart of the community lies this gallery, and the past and future it celebrates.

Thompson Okanagan

Kamloops Courthouse Gallery: Built in 1909, right in the city centre, the old Kamloops courthouse is an elegant, if somewhat formal-looking, brick heritage building. But step inside, and you'll discover a world of vibrant innovation and creativity.

In 2007, a group of local artists founded the non-profit, co-operative Kamloops Courthouse Gallery to provide a venue for member artists to sell their work while offering the community an opportunity to experience different forms of visual and functional art in a wide range of media.

The result? Two galleries showcase rotating art displays and offer demonstrations, workshops and exhibits. Pieces are sold at artisan fairs and at the courthouse's impressive gift shop, which boasts everything from pottery to jewelry, glass art, paintings, sculpture and fibre art, both for casual shoppers and serious collectors.

Salmon Arm Public Art Gallery: Most visitors to the Shuswap come here for the natural beauty and laid-back life on the lakes. But they really should take a detour to this glorious little gallery.

The Palladian-style brick building was built in 1937 as the local post office; later on, it became the community's public library and, in 1994, after significant restorations, the Salmon Arm Arts Centre.

It took a great amount of volunteer time and labour on the part of the Shuswap Art Gallery Association, but now this exquisite building is home to a rotating schedule of exhibitions, as well as regular musical performances and family events.

For more on the province's vibrant arts culture, visit

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