The Station House Gallery has two claims to fame. First, it is housed in the oldest public building in the city still in use. One of two original PGE railway stations still standing, it is Williams Lake’s first designated historic site.
It will celebrate its centennial next year.
Second, the gallery itself is one of Williams Lake’s treasures, the showcase for the local art community. People forget, or don’t know, that the art community in the Williams Lake area has a rich history.
The Cariboo Art Society was formed in 1944 by Vivien Cowan of the historic Onward Ranch and celebrated Canadian artist A.Y. Jackson. It is one of the oldest art societies in B.C. For 35 years, the gallery has kept the work of Cariboo painters and crafts people in the public eye for the enjoyment of both local residents and visitors.
Diane Toop has been executive director at the Station House for 23 of those years, and activities at the gallery have grown considerably. She became involved as a volunteer in 1995. The late Liz Robertson was on the executive board of the gallery association at the time, and she took Diane under her wing, getting her involved in all aspects of the operation.
“She was my mentor,” Diane recalls, adding with a laugh, “actually she was more than that, she pushed me. I had no arts background, but she’d ask me what did I think we should do about something and I’d have to come up with an answer.”
That fall Diane took over managing the gift shop, and then was offered her current position.
Converting the train depot into a gallery gave the city a tourist attraction as well as giving both visitors and residents the opportunity to experience a true piece of history. The conversion came about in 1981. Local artists were looking for a home, and the historic station house needed preserving. The artists and like-minded citizens formed the non-profit Station House Studio and Gallery Society, got possession of the building and undertook extensive renovations. The main gallery and gift shop downstairs opened in 1982, the upstairs gallery and studio space a year later.
The gift shop, which features the work of local artists and crafts people, is a place to both browse and buy. The exhibits, which feature a variety of contemporary works in many mediums by local, regional, and touring artists, change every month and each opens with a social gathering where guests can meet the featured artists. The Gallery is funded by a community gaming grant, the gift shop, memberships, donations, sponsorships, a fee for service from the City/CRD and fundraising projects. Diane, with a part-time assistant and a student in the summer, takes care of the daily operations, plans and co-ordinates the exhibitions, special events and fundraisers. It’s a big job. The government has cut back the hours for students “which makes things difficult,” she notes. Volunteers play a huge role in the operation of the Station House but Diane stresses the need for salaried staff as many non-profit groups grow beyond volunteers’ ability to keep up. To be successful, non-profits need both paid staff and volunteers.
Some gallery projects, like the Christmas market, are annual events.
The student art classes, taught by Ceil Patenaude, are ongoing with a new batch of students every six weeks. Some events are special, like this spring’s celebration of the lilac, the city’s official flower.
It hasn’t always been clear sailing. A few years ago the gallery lost its gaming grant, its main source of revenue.
“We were so broke we couldn’t even keep the lights on, “ Diane recalls.
About the same time the city had the idea to move the gallery to Fourth Avenue near the Museum for a one stop centre.
The gallery society agreed to the move thinking it would increase their profile and in turn, their financial situation. However, the city didn’t get the grant it needed so the move didn’t happen.
“It’s amazing what you can do under pressure,” Diane says. The society did everything it could to make money, including a major fundraiser which got great support from the community, and they did get a portion of the grant back for their exhibition program.
They now have a grant for the after-school art classes for the youth in our community. Diane says consultant Graham Kelsey has been a huge help to the society.
“He gets everyone on the right track and provides the cheerleading when needed,” she explains.
Diane is Williams Lake born and raised. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was Leonard James, who was with the telegraph office here. Both her dad Warner, and his dad Carter were fallers in the lumber industry. Diane attended Parkside and Poplar Glade Elementary Schools and Williams Lake Secondary. When she was 19 she left Williams Lake for Vancouver and stayed there for seven years. When she came home, she went to Cariboo College for a medical transcription certificate. Diane says she was a late bloomer and didn’t learn to drive a vehicle until she was 37. She was a stay-at-home mom with her two boys until she did learn to drive. Dylan is now a chef in Vancouver. Kelly is pharmacist in the Lower Mainland.
Diane’s “back up guy” is her partner, Clayton Allen. He is a “handy” man and he spends hours helping wherever he’s needed and he can always be counted on when she needs help.
Diane says she leads a quiet life when she isn’t working. She isn’t volunteering in any community projects at the moment but has served on both the city’s Heritage Committee and the Communities in Bloom, both now defunct. She says her only extravagance is her second-hand Land Rover. What she especially likes is the small city friendliness in Williams Lake.
“People wave when they see you on the street – that wouldn’t happen in Vancouver.”
Diane will be retiring in a few years and she is on the lookout for a successor. She says it is important for whoever takes over the job not only to recognize the heritage of the arts and culture community, but to realize it isn’t just a job — “you need the ability to love doing it.”
Diane is a prime example of someone who loves doing her job.