We got to see Vancouver's two mayoral candidates last night in one of the more relaxed and conversational debates they've had so far in the marathon debate session that this campaign has turned into, as Peter Ladner and Gregor Robertson talked about the arts. The trashing of each other was at a minimum and there was a maximum amount of talk about what instruments they played, how much they love the arts, and interesting solutions to promote the arts -- everything from grunge bands to the opera -- in this city.

As with so many issues that have been talked about in this civic election, at first it seemed as though the two were coming from and going to pretty much the same place. The arts are important to a creative city, that's how city attract employees and create a sense of soul, and here are some ideas. But there were actually differences. Among them:

1. Peter said one of the best ways to boost the arts would be by strengthening the city's business community and getting more head offices to come to Vancouver. Then local arts groups could get the benefit of the kinds of corporate donations that have helped American cities to boom. Gregor said that it was a "pipe dream" to rely on corporate head offices as the salvation for the arts, since the city has seen several decades of them leaving.

2. Gregor's focus on how to boost the arts was in making the city accommodate them more in several ways -- by changing some zoning bylaws to help preserve office space, by jumping on industrial and warehouse space coming empty to use for the arts, by allowing local groups to use the big civic theatres at affordable rates when they're empty in between traveling shows from out of town, by using community-centre and city spaces more creatively for the arts, and by developing mechanisms to encourage affordable housing that artists can live in. He also said the city should foster more arts activity in areas outside the downtown, which Peter concurred with. Peter didn't jump on some of Gregor's other initiatives the way I thought he would -- as a long-time city reporter, I started twitching at the thought of how you would change zoning to favour artist spaces or taking over the city's already limited supply of industrial space. I'm not saying it can't be done, I'm just saying that there are consequences for those kinds of complex initiatives. Instead, Peter did say, in his characteristic cautious way, that it might not be that easy to rent out the civic theatres at cut rates because of the costs of paying unionized staff and other expenses related to performances.

The fun moment of the night was when Gregor suggested that Vision council Heather Deal should be on Metro Vancouver's board to add a strong voice for more of a regional contribution to the city's arts programs. Peter said he wasn't sure Heather needed any more encouragement since "I feel a lot of boisterosity from Heather all the time." Heather, a member of the Vancouver Bach Choir and a big arts advocate generally, joked later that that sounded almost like an endorsement from her political opponent.

Worrying moments of the night: Gregor shows a surprising grasp of some intricacies of the city for a guy who hasn't been on council at all, but every so often, he gives an answer that feels totally as though he doesn't really know at all the issues involved and he's just emitting platitudes until the next question comes along. I really felt that when he talked about the role of arts in the city, when his responses were far more general than Peter's, and also when he talked about Vision's plan to create a Vancouver Arts Council. I just couldn't follow his reasons for why he thought that was necessary and I'm not sure he was following them either.

And Peter, although he showed a solid knowledge of all kinds of things going on in the city with the arts, said that he had worked with the kids at the Biltmore to get their venue back in operation recently and it had "opened his eyes" to how the city deals with entertainment venues. I couldn't help thinking: How could you be on council for six years and not be aware of that ongoing issue?

Other interesting points:

Re the Pantages, the historic theatre on Hastings that the owner has put up for sale, claiming he can't get a deal with the city to save it. Peter said the city is still working on it and wants to do what it can, which is why it's conducting a $150,000 feasibility study. But he said it can't pour all its arts resources into that. Gregor said the city needed to focus more on preserving historic theatres and neighbourhoods than lobbying the provincial government for money for only the big cultural institutions.

Gregor took at dig at the NPA council's ineffectiveness on the arts by pointing to the way Premier Gordon Campbell overrode the city's own process on developing a cultural precinct near the existing Queen Elizabeth Theatre when he popped up and announced last spring that the Vancouver Art Gallery would go down on the waterfront near BC Place stadium.

Okay, now I've made it sound like they were sniping at each other all night, but really, it wasn't that bad. The only real down side: Only about 100 people came out, many of them from the converted camps on each side. I wonder how much impact these debates are having on the public at large, or if they're just going to vote based on their existing preconceptions.