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Preserving Vancouver’s community-engaged art history

Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling. Credit: David Cooper
Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling. Credit: David Cooper

For close to 50 years, Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling have created a repertoire and nurtured the artistic spirit of the Downtown Eastside, one of the city’s most historic, diverse and socially-complex neighbourhoods.

With relentless energy, they co-founded dance, mime and theatre companies, including the award-winning Vancouver Moving Theatre (VMT). In addition to creating and presenting original performance works and concerts, VMT also produces the Heart of the City Festival—conceived “with, for, and about the Downtown Eastside.”

“Over the years, we gathered materials about amazing productions and festivals showcasing creativity coming out of the Downtown Eastside cultural community,” says Savannah.

To ensure this rich history is preserved for future generations, the couple are donating their expansive archive to SFU Library’s Special Collections and Rare Books.

The Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling Collection chronicles a four-decade journey through thousands of show programs, photos, video and audio recordings, article clippings and educational course guides. It also reveals behind-the-scenes elements of running a performing arts company by including administrative documents such as financial reports and grant applications.

Hosting this collection at SFU is particularly meaningful for Terry and Savannah, who met while performing in the 1971 SFU Mime Troupe and soon became partners in theatre and in life.

SFU was my entry point into the arts. It was a time of protest, a time of change and a time of a really huge burst in the arts as a way to give voice to people and their concerns. - Terry

After initiating their craft at SFU and co-founding Terminal City Dance with SFU alumnus Karen Jamieson, they rented a floor of the Lim Sai Hor Kow Mock Association building in Chinatown.  In 1983, they launched VMT. After touring productions around the world, they established and immersed themselves in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and its cultural mosaic of Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese, Ukrainian, European and Black communities. 

“The interdisciplinary quality, the collaborative nature, the creative work, the innovation, the breaking boundaries—all those values were established at Simon Fraser University, and stayed with us as we moved forward,” says Terry. “They still inform the work that we're doing today.”

Savannah and Terry’s lives have frequently intersected with SFU over the years. They have contributed to course curriculums, partnered on the evolving theatre production of Bah Humbug! with SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs and assisted a Faculty of Education PhD student with doctoral thesis research on the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival.

Alexandra Wieland, Acting Head of SFU’s Special Collections and Rare Books, says their gift will serve as a valuable resource for SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts and Institute for Performance Studies, to be used and appreciated by students, researchers, practitioners, and the public for many years to come.

“I am delighted that Special Collections will preserve Terry and Savannah’s enormous creativity and illuminate a vital part of Vancouver's vibrant cultural history. We are honoured to make the archive accessible to support new cultural works and scholarly research,” says Alexandra.

For Savannah and Terry, this gift comes at a time of transition as they hand the reins of VMT to a new team of leaders and embark on other endeavours. It is also a time of reflection, as the couple were named members of the Order of Canada in 2023, in recognition of their visionary, community-engaged arts practice.

“We've been aware that we're coming to that time of succession in our lives and wanted to benefit the next generation of artists, educators, policymakers, researchers, and communities,” says Terry.

We're building a bridge to the future, with an exit ramp for ourselves.

This story is part of our summer 2024 edition of Engage, our magazine celebrating the impact of SFU’s donor community.
To read more stories, please visit the Engage landing page.