Chapel Arts, an unorthodox use of a chapel
February 28, 2011 by Sarah Casimong
Despite being a chapel, Chapel Arts has nothing to do with worship unless the subject of praise is the art displayed throughout the building.
When Chapel Arts first opened as a venue three years ago, the words on the window read: “If nothing else believe in art.”
“I’m just not religious,” said Nathan Wiens, owner of Chapel Arts. “I was raised in a family filled with artists and stuff, so I guess that’s what I believe in. I believe in makers instead of The Maker.”
What was once known as the Armstrong Funeral Chapel was owned by the Armstrong family for 103 years, according to Wiens. He bought the chapel in 2005, in what he calls “an accident.”
While searching for a space to make art and furniture, Wiens found a building across the street from the chapel. He was forced to buy the chapel in order to get the shop, as the two buildings had to be bought together. His intial intention was to sell the chapel, but he soon fell in love with its charm and set out to get a licence from the city to open it as a venue.
“That was a very long, educational process,” said Wiens. “[It] took about 22 months to get a licence from the city of Vancouver. They’re very strange. Bureacracy is a very strange thing.”
He claims it was the biggest challenge he faced.
“It cost as much money to wait for them as it cost to buy the real estate. It’s a long time to hustle for a simple business licence that isn’t a change of use but they decide to make it one. So it’s sort of disappointing.”
Once he got the chapel, Wiens renovated it as if it was still 1936, when the chapel’s was expanded, in order to keep its historical feel.
Since getting the licence, the chapel’s been successfully hosting events that include performance art, theatre, concerts, government meetings, conferences, workshops and movie work.
He compares the chapel to “a house party” when it hosts events. The chapel makes most of its money hosting family and corporate parties.
“I believe that everyone’s living in very small places so having an intimate venue like this, that has a homey feel, is kind of attractive to people.”
Although the unorthodox use of space and cozy feel attracts people, being located in the Downtown Eastside turns some people away but Wiens says that’s not always a bad thing.
“The neighbourhood’s a bit tough, but I like the neighbourhood, I don’t have a problem with it. It keeps a lot of people that wouldn’t really appreciate the place away. So it’s a self-screening process. But it keeps a lot of money way, so it’s a bit of both, there are pros and cons.”
Despite the cons, he manages to appreciate the history that comes with the chapel and the neighbourhood it’s a part of.
“It’s a bit tough in just this zone but I don’t think that will change,” said Wiens. “I think the ratios of the demographics will change. There will be less low-income housing in this neighbourhood in the future. It’s the oldest part of the city. It’s the beginning of Vancouver right here. This is where Vancouver started, right here.”
He has high hopes for the chapel and what it will continue to contribute to the Vancouver’s art community.
“I think it will just increase in success with the community,” said Wiens. “I think it’s gonna, whether it’s me running it or not, it’s gonna be around a long time as a public venue that will probably have a good arts base to it. I hope to hang onto it but one never knows.”
Visit chapelarts.com more information.