Wednesday, March 17, 2010
As I write this The Wood Co-op is in the process of shutting down, permanently.
Here is the story in a nutshell. (a big nutshell)
This early history is taken word-for-word from “The Wood Co-op Guide for Directors 2009”.
Following a series of telephone conferences (which included representatives of small wood businesses and business-associations), a two-day meeting of some fifty interested persons was organized in 1998 by the Value Added Business Unit of Forest Renewal BC. When this meeting was held in Vancouver (at the University of British Columbia forestry quadrant), the idea of a self-sustaining, legally incorporated co-operative was advocated by forestry-economics consultant Ian Leask and by a sizable number of the participants who had come in from various regions of the province for the meeting.
Small wood businesses were regarded as owner-operated ones, with generally anywhere from one to five employees (and with ownership by as few as one but possibly equal to the number of all hands-on employees). These businesses might include ones making furniture (indoor or outdoor), home accents, specialty lumber, secondary-processed wood materials, or smaller items like giftware, toys, artful craft objects etc. The participants in the 1998 meeting were keenly aware of the disadvantaged commercial position of small wood businesses outside of the Lower Mainland.
Key areas of interest included market access, marketing information, and goods –and services-purchasing programs. By the end of the second day of this gathering, an ad hoc founding committee sat and resolved to proceed toward the establishment of this sort of organization.
Conceptualization and incorporation steps required some weeks. Incorporation as “British Columbia Associations cooperative of Small Wood Businesses” was achieved by April 1999. The first directors on the board both represented woodworking organizations from around the province, and they consulted with individual small woodworking businesses. Hence the initial concept of the Wood Co-op was inclusive of all regions of the province.
A bit more than a year after incorporation, the Wood Co-op secured a good location for a retail sales outlet. In July 2000, the Co-op opened the Wood Co-op Gallery – the first important service-providing project for Co-op members and associate members, and the first of the Co-op’s business functions.
The Wood Co-op received “seed money” from Forest Renewal BC to establish itself and set up its first commercial enterprise on the secured business site on Granville Island, in Vancouver. However, the Co-op Board realized that governments and political climate are subject to change and that the principle of financial self-reliance should guide the Co-op’s future path. Hence, the Wood Co-op Gallery and any other commercial enterprises undertaken by the Wood Co-op are expected to be self sustaining and even to earn net revenue which can be used to cover the Co-op’s expenses and, ideally, fund the Co-op’s further activities.
Reflecting on this document, a few things stand out and need to be clarified for their current significance.
Forest Renewal BC was an entity or initiative of the NDP BC government of the time. I believe the premier was Mike Harcourt and the minister of forests was Andrew Petter (the now-new president of Simon Fraser University) It was created to stimulate value added forestry initiatives in BC. Some of the other things that it did that I am aware of were to create a furniture design program at Kootenay School of the Arts, and to subsidize the membership fee for BC Wood Specialties so that any company with $50.00 per year could join. Those were the good old days!
The Wood Co-op Gallery, the entity that we are currently lamenting the loss of, was always a project of the Wood Co-op organization. As it turns out, it was the only project of this organization.
The board of directors of the Wood Co-op were not the directors of the Wood Co-op Gallery. The Wood Co-op Gallery had no board of directors, but the board of directors of The Wood Co-op directed The Wood Co-op Gallery. Sound confusing? It was. It should also be pointed out that the Wood Co-op was not made up of individual artists and people making things out of wood, but by member organizations, such as the Fraser Valley Woodworkers Guild and the Vancouver Island Woodworkers Guild. Individual woodworkers had almost no involvement in the operations of the Wood Co-op Gallery, unless they were on the board of The Wood Co-op.
Another point is that the site “secured” on Granville Island was anything but secure. This site, which must be one of the prime retail locations in Vancouver was stumbled upon by happenstance. The Wood Co-op Gallery was given this space on a month to month rental agreement that lasted for about nine years. The space had formerly been used as an information centre and came complete with fixtures. It was an incredible stroke of luck for The Wood Co-op, and The Wood Co-op Gallery.
When the Wood Co-op Gallery first set up shop in this Granville Island location it was mostly stocked with wood products from the rural areas of BC. There was virtually no representation from the lower mainland which reflected the vision of the Wood Co-op organization at the time.
Eventually, under the direction of Laura Friesen, who was gallery director for the time the gallery existed on Granville Island the wood products on offer evolved to reflect the tastes of the clientele. Laura encouraged artists to refine their designs to reflect an international, modern perspective. The gallery also undertook various initiatives with Emily Carr University of Art + Design, with special wood product design exhibitions.
Over time, I think that the market honed the product mix in the Wood Co-op Gallery, things that were shipped from various parts of the province that did not sell after an agreed upon time period were shipped back to the maker. Products that were successfully sold were re-stocked. Through this process, the product mix was refined.
The Co-op was always aware of the insecurity of its location and had been in negotiation with the management of Granville Island to secure a more permanent location on Railspur Street. The partial roof collapse during a snow storm was the single event that lead to the ultimate demise of the gallery. When this happened the gallery was given two weeks to vacate. Granville Island management offered The Wood Co-op a temporary space approximately 10% the size of its original location in the Netloft building. They also provided office space in the Railspur Street location.
Ultimately, The Wood Co-op was unable to come to an agreement with Granville Island to renovate and occupy the Railspur location, leaving two options; fold or move off Granville Island. It was decided to find a location near Granville Island for the larger work such as furniture and wall pieces and to retain the small Netloft location on Granville Island to exhibit the smaller works. It was hoped that this arrangement would help to direct clientele from Granville Island to the new location, as well as continuing to serve the tourist clientele interested in smaller items.
The timing could not have been worse. The new gallery on 6th Avenue was opened in mid November, a very slow month for furniture. The economy was in recession, especially effecting discretionary spending and Vancouver was competely distracted by the upcoming winter olympics. It was hoped that the large number of olympic visitors to Granville Island would be interested in locally produced unique products, but instead, some two hundred and fifty thousand people spent all their money on food, booze and olympic souvenirs. The areas around the olympic venues were packed with people and the rest of the city was dead.
The approximately nine years of success of The Wood Co-op Gallery can be attributed mostly to the prime Granville Island location. The customers just rolled in the door and the staff served them.
The long and short of it is that the loss of the Wood Co-op Gallery is a significant loss for artists even remotely related to wood in Vancouver and to the public, both local and visiting.
Whether such a thing can be re-created in the future seems unlikely. It was born by serendipity and killed by accident.
I think the value of the institution to the cultural and economic diversity of Vancouver and British Columbia is without question, but whether that will ever be officially recognized by the powers that be, or will be, who knows?
Here are a few comments from people on the loss of The Wood Co-op Gallery.
This is very sad news indeed, particularly coming when studio
furniture is finally getting serious profile. The Coop has done a
huge amount to educate the public in this new cultural industry; all
of us in the business will be the poorer for their demise.
Salt Spring Woodworks
125 Churchill Road
Salt Spring Island, BC
V8K 2R3 / 250-537-9606
As more comments come in I will add them to this post.