Introduction to Island Mountain Arts

An experience like no other.

Operating since 1977 in the rural and historically rich area of Wells/Barkerville/Bowron Lakes in the central interior of British Columbia, Island Mountain Arts has attracted world-class and emerging artists to Wells (population 250) to educate, perform, study and exhibit in a wide range of artistic mediums.

Providing access to arts education and experiences in a region where few other opportunities exist, Island Mountain Arts is a leader in the north and has created numerous arts and culture spin offs throughout the area, including encouraging the growth and development of artists and artistic practice in the north and drawing professional artists to Wells to build their studios, thus creating an artistic community in a place previously only known for mining and logging.

The organization began with the School of the Arts in 1977, offering professional arts programs from ballet to music to visual arts. In 1988 Island Mountain Arts acquired the historic Hill Meat Market building and renovated it into a Public Gallery space and administrative offices. In 2004 the ArtsWells Festival Of All Things Art was created as an event to capture the spirit of Island Mountain Arts, and its multidisciplinary mandate, in a weekend festival format. ArtsWells has gained recognition on a national level and in 2015 attracted over 2200 artists, volunteers and festivalgoers to Wells and Barkerville. In 2014, after a successful fundraising campaign and with the partnership of Integris Credit Union, IMA took possession of a new property, which provides much needed accommodations for its artists, instructors and staff, as well as provides for a new Artist-in-Residence program and accommodates storage and space needs for Island Mountain Arts.

Through the School of the Arts, Public Gallery, ArtsWells Festival and the new Artist-in-Residence program, Island Mountain Arts contributes greatly to the economy and profile of Wells, helping to make it a destination for artists, art enthusiasts and tourists for 38 years. It has hugely impacted the growth of artists and artistic practice in the Cariboo region.

In all its programs and services Island Mountain Arts strives to offer the highest quality arts experiences for all ages and levels (from children to professional artists) in the under-served central interior of British Columbia.

SERVING THE NORTH

Island Mountain Arts Society (IMA) has been serving the northern region of BC for almost 40 years! Located in the small village of Wells, IMA has grown a wide and diverse following of artists and art lovers from all over the province. Our artists, students, and audiences come to explore and experience the arts, to gain skills, learn new techniques, to develop professionally, as well as to take part in exhibits, performances, readings, and other events.

Drawing people from all over British Columbia, IMA repeatedly demonstrates its service to the public. Under the direction of a volunteer Board, the Island Mountain Arts Public Gallery, open throughout the year, features exhibits by local and regional artists and provides viewing opportunities for broad audiences. In addition to ongoing exhibits, the Gallery provides year-round public events programming – which is primarily free to the public. Through our Winter and Summer Schools IMA offers professional development opportunities with renowned instructors for emerging and established artists and craftspeople. Our Children’s programming demonstrates our commitment to providing rich opportunities for young people through first-rate education and exhibit components.

Based in a small community and closely connected to the unique conditions of artists in rural areas, IMA is well positioned to serve the needs of both rural residents and of artists in remote regions. For 4 decades, IMA has been expanding in order to fill the need for arts programming and education in northern BC. A 2002 study, Beyond Hope? The Northern Cultural Sector in Crisis[1], conducted 14 focus groups involving over 120 artists, art educators and cultural workers from 100 Mile House to Prince George. These groups clearly articulated the need for:

  • Arts education (both for children and young people as well as for emerging and professional artists) accessible to people in the north,
  • Additional venues/galleries for northern artists to show or perform their work in order to develop a portfolio or audience,
  • Activities to increase the knowledge and awareness of audiences in the north for both visual, literary and performing arts.

UNIQUE TO THE NORTH

To fully appreciate the uniqueness of Island Mountain Arts Society and the benefits it bestows on the residents of Wells, the Cariboo and northern BC, one must understand the divergences between urban centres and small, isolated, rural communities that make the up the large portion of northern BC.

Contrary to major urban centres in BC’s south, northern BC is made up of smaller, geographically secluded communities resulting in a dispersed populous. These communities, the heartland of BC, constitute over 1/3 of the provincial population. The reality of this heartland, in stark contrast to the abundance of urban centres, is that it is characterized by lower average incomes, lack of access to basic services, and in terms of the arts, lack of educational, professional and cultural opportunities, and lack of proportional funding for arts and culture. Moreover, non-profit arts organizations, galleries, fine arts and performance training, and other cultural institutions are farther and fewer between, meaning that opportunities for northern residents to benefit from the arts are limited. A further reality of the north is that many communities are isolated by extreme winter conditions, meaning that access to communities where programs are offered is difficult, if not impossible. The community members of Wells, and of the BC’s north, both deserve and desire the same access to arts and culture as is available to urban citizens.

Wells, a charming mountain town with a rich history of mining, epitomizes the small northern community, with a year-round population of 200 individuals, which generally doubles in summer. Within a 40km radius of the town centre, the population is approximately 300. The closest major centre, Quesnel, is a one-hour drive, and within 2½ hours one can arrive in Prince George. These drives are longer and somewhat more treacherous in winter. In the last half the 20th century, the community of Wells, having lost mining as its major economic driver, successfully made the transition to a tourism-driven, peak-summer economy. Visitors come to Wells to experience a rich combination of arts, history and outdoor recreation. The community, through concerted efforts, partnerships, and mutual support, ensures that these three features of the area are vibrant, productive, and sustained.

Since its establishment in 1977, Island Mountain Arts has been a cornerstone of Wells’ cultural livelihood. A volunteer-driven organization, its members have worked steadily to actively engage residents, neighbouring communities, and visitors to the area in the arts through courses, concerts, performances, exhibits and children’s programs and have endeavoured to create a viable culturally-based economic driver in Wells.


[1] Ecogistics Consulting, Beyond Hope? The Northern Cultural Sector in Crisis. North Central British Columbia Cultural Sector Labour Market Study. Prepared for Island Mountain Arts, 2002.