The Yukon Arts Centre turns 25

In the early days, coming to put on a show in Whitehorse involved a few sacrifices from the performers. Take for example, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and its concert circa 1985.

In the early days, coming to put on a show in Whitehorse involved a few sacrifices from the performers.

Take for example, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and its concert circa 1985.

When the renowned musicians came to the territory’s capital to perform crowds waited to hear them — inside the F.H. Collins high school gym.

“It was terrible, as every gym is and will continue to be, because gymnasiums are not built for that,” said Philip Adams, a former president of Arts Canada North. “It was echoey, it was a tin can, it was unworthy of the art history that was coming in and playing in the gym.”

It was the best location available at the time.

If a smaller group wanted to put on a Whitehorse show they had other options, including one spot that was only available if court wasn’t in session.

The territory’s Supreme Court Justice, Harry Maddison, would open a courtroom in the old federal building on Main Street where musicians could play.

“We would use the Supreme Court courtroom during off hours,” said Henry Klassen, who was involved with Whitehorse Concerts.

“It was a beautiful location because it was all panelled with wood. It made a beautiful acoustic place to perform.”

Still, using a courthouse for a concert hall was, understandably, suboptimal. As much fun as it was to listen to Blue Rodeo while the basketball nets in the school gym rattled, the community was longing for a proper performing space.

“There were local musicians who wanted a place to perform,” Klassen said. “There were travelling musicians that needed a place to perform.”

* * *

The Yukon Arts Centre opened its doors May 29, 1992. Now, 25 years later, the community landmark is celebrating its anniversary with a handful of events.

On May 21 the Arts Centre is hosting a birthday bash. Yukoners can pick up free tickets to a concert by Will Stroet. After the show there will be a barbecue and games on the lawn as well as a concert by Whitehorse band Soda Pony, said the centre’s acting CEO Michele Emslie.

In September a tribute concert is being planned to honour the territory’s local talent. More details on that will be released closer to the date, she said.

The arts centre will end the season with an “audience choice” concert. Organizers are asking Yukoners to make suggestions about who they would like to see return to perform again.

More details about all of the events are available on the arts centre’s website.

* * *

In 1980, the Arts Canada North Society was formed with the goal of constructing a multicultural visual and performing arts centre in the territory.

It took years to get multiple levels of government and businesses on board with the about $9-million-plus project.

After multiple reports, trips around the territory gathering feedback, and a feasibility study it came time to pick a location.

A site downtown was at the top of the wishlist.

The government, including Education Minister Piers McDonald, was pushing for the current location near Yukon College.

It came to a head at a public meeting at the Klondike Inn on Aug. 19, 1986

“Piers McDonald said ‘I have a cheque for $7 million to build a Yukon arts centre and I only have one condition, it has to be built at the Yukon College,’” Ron Veale, a former chair of the board of directors, said during a speech marking the centre’s 10th anniversary.

“I can only say that all hell broke loose. Everyone wanted the arts centre on the waterfront. As Piers himself said 90 per cent of the audience was negative or neutral. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed.”

As part of building near the college, the Yukon government agreed to cover the facility’s operations and maintenance costs into the future.

Community members agreed — by a slim margin — to go with the government’s location.

“Yukon artists lost a dream last night but gained an economically viable arts centre,” the News reported at the time.

Adams said the decision to give up on building by the water “split the community right down the middle.” There are still people who are angry about it, he said.

In 1988 the Arts Centre Act was passed. The Yukon government owns the building and covers the operations and maintenance of the facility.

The arts centre is one of only two facilities in the country to have this kind of legislation, Emslie said. The other is the National Arts Centre.

The Yukon government wouldn’t have helped if the facility was built at another location, Adams said.

“It would have been lovely (by the river). But that it continues to exist is solely because it’s at Yukon College,” he said.

* * *

One of the major pieces inside the arts centre is there thanks to Whitehorse Concerts.

Klassen was treasurer of the non-profit organization when it decided it was going to fundraise for a grand piano.

The Steinway Model C grand piano that still calls the arts centre home cost $67,000.

Along with government grants and help from local businesses, the group was about to gather the money through fundraising concerts and a campaign that would allow donors to sponsor individual piano keys.

The instrument was picked out at Steinway’s New York City factory

One of his wife’s former piano students was studying music in New Jersey, Klassen said.

“She and her teacher, we asked them to go to the Steinway factory. They drove to New York, they went to the factory, they had a choice of about six or eight new grand pianos to choose between.”

It was shipped from New York to Vancouver and then on to Whitehorse.

Adams was brought on as artistic director of first big show, May 29, 1992.

That night was made up entirely of local acts, about 100 performers, according to the newspaper. The opening celebrations lasted a week.

The night began small, with Pelly Crossing hunter and trapper Jerry Alfred standing alone, centre stage. “The haunting beat of his skin drum fills the theatre,” the News reported.

Adams said he wanted to “put the theatre through its paces” and show the community all that the new space could do.

The show included everything from local dance troupes to a singer descending from the ceiling on a cable.

“It slowly revealed all of the things that centre was capable of,” Adams said.

“A lot of people hadn’t seen that kind of stuff and I wanted to let that slow reveal happen so that awe factor would set in.”

That first night sold out.

* * *

Since then the Arts Centre has grown. It now manages the Old Fire Hall as well as the Wharf performing space and has partnered on a new art facility in Carcross.

It funds local artists who want to display their talents Outside and shows the territory everything local talent has to offer.

Emslie estimates about 30,000 people come through the doors each year.

“Any other venue in the country would die for these figures. This is pretty much once per capita through the doors.”

After a quarter of a century, the anniversary is a chance for those involved in the early years to reflect back on what the arts centre has provided to the community.

“Pride is such a weird word, eh?” Adams said. “But I think there’s a sense that it’s now part of the community.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at