Howard Jang helped transform a Vancouver theatre company into the largest in Canada. Now he's set his sights on SFU Woodward's.
By Anicka Quin (MPub '03)
Back in 1989, Vancouver-native Howard Jang found himself at a crossroads – and he was pretty sure he’d made the wrong decision. He’d just left New York City – and behind him, a happy, busy career as manager of a Grammy Award-winning orchestra and record producer – to come home to help resuscitate a recently bankrupt Vancouver Symphony.
On a Tuesday he had been in Manhattan, and by Thursday he was in the remote community of Port Hardy, B.C., on tour with the symphony. “I remember sitting in my tiny hotel room thinking, what the hell am I doing? I left New York for this?” he says. “And then I went to the performance in a high school gymnasium, feeling like I’d made the dumbest move.” But as the orchestra ended the first movement of a Mozart symphony with a flourish, quieting as it prepared for the second movement, a fisherman in the back of the bleachers yelled “yeehaw!” Jang recalls the moment with a laugh. “Quite literally, I knew why I was there. I knew that we made a connection – we’d changed a moment for this man.”
It’s that mission to change lives, one arts program at a time, that has brought Jang to his new role as professor of professional practice and director of SFU Woodward’s Cultural Unit. The Cultural Unit, housed on the site of the former Woodward’s department store in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, is responsible for some of the area’s best arts facilities, including an experimental theatre, a cinema, and three multifunctional studios. It’s gone from putting on 36 public programs a year to nearly 200 in just three years – a breathless pace that Jang equates to that of a classic start-up. “We’re taking on more than we can actually accomplish. We don’t have the capacity to actually support the programming we do,” says Jang, and then laughs, “and we don’t say no to anything.”
Jang’s arrival was widely lauded as a coup for SFU: he comes to the role after 14 years as the executive director of Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company, where under his leadership they built the largest subscription base of any theatre company in Canada. That success at growing Arts Club is exactly why Jang was brought on board at SFU Woodward’s, says Philip Steenkamp, VP of external relations at SFU. “The issue now is how do you move it from the start-up to an ongoing cultural unit and program,” he says. “Howard is especially well equipped to move that particular transition. We want Woodward’s to become an arts and cultural hub for downtown Vancouver.”
SFU Woodward’s has been open for just a few years, with the neighbourhood surrounding it seeing rapid change. Part of Jang’s self-imposed mission is to transform the complex into a performance space better suited to its current realities. “We have a building that isn’t meeting our needs in the way we’re programming it now,” explains Jang. When SFU Woodward’s was planned several years ago, he says, “there were a lot of assumptions, I might even use the word fear, around the fact that we’re in a rougher neighbourhood. Is it going to be run over by homelessness? Are people going to be using our space and the washrooms? It was a contentious building in a lot of ways.”
The original doors on Hastings Street were locked for the entire first year, notes Jang, and instead of a box office or an information desk on the main floor, there’s a security desk. Jang’s renovation plan will focus on creating a welcoming, lively, and community-oriented arts space, from installing better lighting to creating a proper box office and a visitor-oriented design.
And the stakes are higher than just the success of the Cultural Unit itself. According to Jang, a functional arts space is the catalyst that creates vibrant communities. “I’ve done a lot of learning around how cultural facilities make change for the neighbourhood,” says Jang. “They increase property values, there’s less business churn, there’s less crime, there’s a more vibrant aspect.”
The way that happens, notes Jang, is not just transactional; it’s not only about theatregoers buying tickets, shopping in nearby stores, or taking in dinner before the show. While he was still at Arts Club, he came across a study from the Theatre Bay Foundation of San Francisco called “Counting New Beans,” an attempt by that group to understand the intrinsic aspect of live theatre in a community. The report resulted in an epiphany for Jang. “One of the interviews was with Martha Lavey, the artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre,” he explains. “She said that the presiding metaphor that they use at their theatre is that they are a public square that’s activated on their stages. And I thought, that’s what we do!” The work that Arts Club produced each season provided the opportunity for the community to gather, he thought – to be a place where community dialogue could happen. “It’s an opportunity to put questions on the table around racism, or homelessness, or relationships, or history, and it’s our job to encourage those kinds of conversations.”
Those conversations might take place as formal talkbacks at the theatre or informal chats over a beer afterward, but either way, he felt that Arts Club could play a central role. He contracted a firm to start surveying audiences after each performance: Did the play cause you to think differently about a culture? Did you want to talk about the play afterward? Who did you want to talk to? The immediate results of those surveys provide the kind of hard data every theatre needs to fundraise effectively, but asking those questions also created the kind of audience engagement Jang wants from his theatre spaces. “It became not transactional, but experiential; about the way the work that we did had meaning in your life,” he explains.
He’s now translating that concept of engagement into his work at SFU Woodward’s. “It’s partly what attracted me to this job,” he says. “To really now say that we can be much more curatorial with the way we approach our relationship to community, and we can actually develop work, curate work, incubate work – that is actually about what we think the community will find interesting.”
Of course, Jang’s hiring comes at a pivotal time for SFU as well, with ambitious plans underway to celebrate the University’s 50th anniversary. Jang is working with legendary playwright Robert LePage – who opened SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts with his play Blue Dragon back in 2010 – to launch a new production, and they’ll also be hosting a set of digital exhibitions from Hong Kong artist Jeffrey Shaw.
And while the big productions will certainly garner the spotlight, it’s the Cultural Unit’s role as a resource for the artistic community that excited Jang most about his new role. “It’s not about us saying come in and we’ll give you a facility,” he says of the creative partnerships SFU has developed with local arts organizations. “It’s us saying, come in and we’ll help you build an audience, we’ll help you position yourself, we’ll work with you on your marketing strategy.”
It’s a role that fits well with the other side of his appointment, as professor of professional practice. As of January, Jang has started teaching a course in creative entrepreneurship, helping students in the arts first develop themselves as artists, and then helping them realize the steps they need to take to build a successful career – from creating financial models for their work, to understanding intellectual property and strategic planning. “I think this could be the beginning of something quite wonderful, the creative entrepreneurship program,” says Jang. “To be clear, I’m not trying to make anyone an arts manager. I’m really hoping that what we are doing is helping artists themselves with what they want to do, so that their career can get off to the right start.”
Spend a few minutes with Jang and it’s soon apparent – from the easy laugh to the enthusiastic, mile-a-minute pace that ideas bubble up – that he’s a booster of the arts by nature. “One of Howard’s greatest strengths at Arts Club was that he was always out there assisting other organizations,” says Valerie Prodanuk, director of finance and systems at Arts Club Theatre. “He took his skills out to a broader group and helped the theatre community in general. I don’t think you could find anybody else that’s more ideal for the role he’s taken on at SFU.”
And after that life-altering experience he had in Port Hardy, Jang has worked to change lives through the arts ever since. As executive director of Ballet BC in the mid-90s, he regularly invited students into the company’s Downtown Eastside studio for one-on-one experiences with the dancers. During his next gig at the Winnipeg Symphony, he took the orchestra to meet with children up in Churchill, Manitoba. “To see the faces of those children the first time they saw a great artist play a Stradivarius violin was stunning,” he says.
In fact, Jang considers it a mission: to be the person who can act as a translator between the artists and their audience; to ensure that productions are given the space to incubate with the right support; and to ensure that there’s an audience for works big and small. “I read an interview in the New Yorker with choreographer Twyla Tharp. She said that when she walks into a studio, her dancers take a leap of faith with her – no pun intended . They don’t ask her how she’s going to go from A to B to C to D; they just trust that she’s going to get there,” he explains. “But when she walks into a boardroom, her board members ask her, how are you going to go from A to B to C to D? – and when we understand it, we’ll support you.
“The minute I read that interview I realized, that’s my job – to explain the unexplainable to people who don’t understand that world,” he continues. “That’s been my job over the last 30 years, and now I think I have a chance to not just have to explain what it is we’re doing, but to actually do it.”