The artists speak out about a bold new Vancouver Art Gallery

The closer you get to the people who make art in this city, the more support you find for a bold new Vancouver Art Gallery

Vancouver photographer and multimedia artist Roy Arden has watched Vancouver tear away at grand ambition for way too long. “There is a provincial, almost pathological Canadian thing—we think we can’t really do anything, so we let the developers do it, and we end up with a bunch of condos and sports bars,” he says, on the phone from his Mt. Pleasant home.


In early March, Vancouver city council will consider something different: whether to allow the Vancouver Art Gallery to develop a new $300-million gallery on the old bus-depot site, a city-owned parking lot known as Larwill Park, just east of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre complex. It would replace cramped, inappropriate exhibition spaces in an adapted courthouse.

Much has been written or said about the plan: it’s a vanity project for wealthy socialites; it will bankrupt other arts groups; we don’t need no stinkin’ Guggenheim Bilbao.

Everyone seems to have an opinion, and sometimes a better idea. Put it on False Creek, repurpose the old post office, reconfigure the north end of the Granville Bridge, revive an underground expansion at the existing site—a concept the VAG considered and then buried long ago. Yet the closer you get to the arts community, the stronger the support for the VAG plan. Many leading visual artists argue we’ve spent decades doing next to nothing to create infrastructure for our cornerstone cultural institutions, and it’s about time we did something bold.

That argument doesn’t make much news, though, in the face of a few prominent voices of dissent. First among them is condominium marketer, art collector, and Tate Modern acquisitions adviser Bob Rennie, who floated his own proposal for a decentralized group of galleries under the VAG umbrella. Who could resist the yarn of the opinionated East Vancouver real-estate wunderkind tilting at VAG director Kathleen Bartels, a Chicagoan who came to Vancouver via the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A.?

Meanwhile Bartels, who has built memberships, revenue, and endowments to unprecedented levels, methodically pushes her proposal forward. In an interview at her VAG office, with board of trustees chair Bruce Munro Wright, she told the Straight her plan requires no new government money to fund operating expenses, an increase in the operating endowment to $50 million from $12 million, and $90 million already committed to the capital project, including $50 million in the bank from the provincial government. Bartels and her board believe they can raise the rest of the money and do something that will elevate the place of culture in our city’s life.

Arden wants her to succeed. Last fall, Arden, Stephen Waddell, and other artists who were frustrated that the public conversation about the plan kept going sideways organized an online letter of support to endorse the project. Today, it includes the names of more than 300 artists, curators, and gallery owners. Ken Lum, Jeff Wall, Gathie Falk, Iain Baxter, Doug Coupland, Omer Arbel, Cornelia Wyngaarden, Fred Herzog, Christos Dikeakos, Paul Wong, Landon Mackenzie, Gordon Smith, Hank Bull, Renée Van Halm, Lyse Lemieux, Nicole Ondre, Marian Penner Bancroft, and Brian Jungen are among the artists. Gallery directors and curators include Presentation House’s Reid Shier, the Equinox’s Andy Sylvester, Belkin Art Gallery director Scott Watson, the Contemporary Art Gallery’s Nigel Prince, the grunt’s Glenn Alteen, Monte Clark, Catriona Jeffries… The list is long and varied.

Paul Wong, the provocative multimedia artist whose 18-year boycott of the VAG ended under Bartels, believes we have attractive sports arenas, universities, community centres, and bike lanes because of political vision, and now he wants the city to show leadership on behalf of a major cultural institution. “We need something that’s not leaking. We need a social space and exhibition space that’s large enough and good enough to play in for the next 100 years,” he says, noting that the Surrey Art Gallery has better facilities to host a public forum. “The fact that we don’t have a visual-arts gallery that is formidable speaks about who we are.”

Photographer Stephen Waddell says Vancouver’s strong base of artists needs strong infrastructure. “In order to get everything going, we have to have a flagship.” However, he worries that if the VAG proposal doesn’t win city support, a defeatist outlook will prevent us from getting a new gallery for another 30 or 40 years. “The conversation has become so toxic that it’s damaging not just the VAG but other institutions.”

Waddell believes the wrong people are defining the conversation. “The stakeholders are the citizens first and then the arts community—and not developers and plutocrats.” He describes the VAG plan as conventional, sound, and conservative. Waddell, who lived in London when the Tate Modern plan was being developed, says overcoming public skepticism there required both gallery and civic leadership.

Vancouver Art Gallery.
Stephen Hui

Andy Sylvester, proprietor of the Equinox Gallery, which now occupies a huge warehouse space on the False Creek Flats, believes Rennie’s idea of several linked galleries, scattered throughout the city, specializing in different kinds of work would be expensive to operate and wouldn’t effectively fulfill a civic gallery’s educational function. “Art museums are trying to make connections between different kinds of work,” he says. “That’s what interests me when I go around the world.”

Abstract painter Landon Mackenzie was a board member at the VAG from 2000 to 2002, when Bartels was hired, and even then the gallery was wrestling with expanding or moving. In an email from Berlin, she said the collection needs to be in one space, to make connections between the new and the old.

Artist and curator Jonathan Middleton, known for his work with text, puts it this way: “You might go to see Emily Carr, but then stay to see an exhibition of conceptual art or learn something about graphic novels.” He adds that the “ ‘too big for a small city’ argument loses a lot of wind as I write to you from the Kulturhuset, one of several museum-sized public art spaces in Stockholm—a city of fewer than a million people”.

Ken Lum, the artist whose most visible contribution to the Vancouver art landscape is the East Van cross on Clark Drive, and who now oversees the undergraduate visual-arts program at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that U.S. cities more aggressively cultivate visual art. On the phone from Philadelphia, he points to major expansions of galleries in Kansas City and St. Louis as examples.

Lum also shares the widespread view that the VAG leadership has done a great job of representing the city and its artists, whereas many contemporary art museums avoid the local. “That takes some courage, and it’s not easy to do.”

Comments (38) Add New Comment
My concern about this article is the notion that these artists might want the VAG to show THEIR art in a new VAG. If you want to see local living artists you should go to a commercial gallery--that is the purpose of commercial galleries.

The purpose of a museum--what the VAG should be--is to educate the public about worldwide visual art through the display of art of permanent and enduring value. What sort of art this is is not really a question. See the Met, the Louvre, The British Museum. These museums, and countless others believe in history. The VAG seems totally uninterested in the history of art as global and worldwide phenomenon.
Rating: -25
Avoid the local! It takes courage NOT to avoid the local.
Rating: -37
I would support a new Art Gallery if admission was free or greatly reduced for residents of Vancouver, the GVRD, B.C. or even Canada. My concern is that once we have the new 'Art Palace', the peasants won't be able to afford to go there. If you are a resident of the EU you get a special rate for galleries, in the UK, they are free. In Vancouver we charge a ridiculous admission to see second tier exhibits. The best part is the old courthouse and the Gallery Cafe.
Rating: +15
Neale Adams
Will a new landmark, destination gallery really support local artists? Or won't it need lots of bombshell, high profile travelling exhibitions to pay for increased operating costs. More King Tut, Great European Masters, Big Names sort of stuff that attracts the crowds; fewer retrospectives of Damian Moppett, Stan Douglas, Ian Wallace. I wonder. Right now the gallery is smaller, able to afford local exhibitions, highly visible to Vancouver residents, plunk in the centre of town. Will a really big VAG be ours - or the tourists? All this is besides the questions about whether we can afford it.
Rating: +1
Snoozy McDoozy
Vancouver's art scene is already a great big yawn fest.
Rating: -21
Lorna Brown
Thank you so much Charles for such a sensible and informative article on this very important issue. It is a relief to see news coverage about the relocation of the gallery that takes into consideration the situation in other cities, the future needs of artists and audiences, and the importance of making the collection available and accessible for both curatorial exploration and public display.
By the way, to your very valid comment, M. MacNeill, admission is by donation on Tuesday evenings.
Rating: +39
Keith Jakobsen
Why can't we have several galleries that constitute the the Vancouver Art Gallery. In London they have the Tate and the Tate MOdern. Currently the VAG has the best location in City. Why give that up?

Also a new gallery has the danger of looking terrible like the downtown Vancouver Library. THe library is a classic example of a great design with a poor budget. Every detail just looks cheap! No fault of the architect just the fault of an ambitious project that's poorly funded. This is the danger for a new Vancouver Art Gallery!
Rating: -18
Bob Mercer
Not just London but Paris also has a number of satellite galleries dotted around the city, invigorating neighbourhoods and anchoring small commercial galleries and cafés nearby that benefit from visitors who come to see art. No such space to support small independents exists around the proposed site, but it could be found in any number of less dense neighbourhods such the Drive, Main and Broadway and west-side commercial districts that may have a sudden growth spurt if and when a Broadway LRT line is built. Who actually attends the current VAG, at the prices it charges, who needs all the collections in one place so they can be led by the nose to see the "connections" among them? The 20th-century idea of a grand cathedral of art is as repulsive as (and of a piece with) the new roof on BC Place, and as likely to come in on budget as was that PCL boondoggle. (Guess which of the usual hogs at the trough is likely to build the bigger, better VAG.)
Rating: +11
Vancouver gets what it deserves. btw, Iain's name is Iain Baxter&. (ampersand)
Rating: -1
Kevin Immanuel
Jonathan Middleton's suggestion ....“You might go to see Emily Carr, but then stay to see an exhibition of conceptual art or learn something about graphic novels.” perhaps only 10 to 25 to at most 30 % accurate, exhibition reality, most of the Public who primarily like "Classical/Traditional/Realistic" etc art, will yes be ironically, forceably exposed to Contemporary Postmodern Art perhaps, but they will greatly dismiss it.... a philosophy of promoting, sharing, exposing, teaching, learning about contempoary art, this now aged Musuem dogma, would be ideally quantifiably better achieved, in a more intimate approach, by opting and improving a 60s and 70s VAG option- where they had outreach to the community by putting some art in a van, with some artists and a curator, or historian, or enthusiast, and driving to schools, communinity centers etc, in Vancouver and all over B.C., and presenting and talking about contemporary art for a day in their environment/place, more personally, away from the white cube ( as the architecture of the white cube ( esp. in corelations with conceptual postmodern art ) still reads/experiences as dominating, oppressive, authoratative,....bringing/bridging conceptual contempoary art to some of the public this way, rather than forcing them to view this art with art they like- "traditional", would probably have way more "learning" and " appreciating" if that's what Middleton intends...
Rating: -16
I visited the current VAG at Robson Square for the first time in 25 years. I was rather shocked and disappointed by the actual limitations of space and design. For a city like Vancouver to have such an obvious limited gallery, I full heatedly support the vision of Lawrill Park. I remember when the current Vancouver Public Library was proposed. The public chose the design. The public was right in it's choice, and now the city has a legacy in the Library Square. I only hope the same can be said for a future VAG. Then the logical use for the current VAG site is for the Museum of Vancouver to move in.
Rating: +26
Rainer Werner
Those artists all show in commercial galleries Hazlit. Nice try. Another philistine trying to make artists look like beggars again. Hazlit you need the gallery the most. Get educated its cheap in Canada i hear.
Rating: +22
People actually like the hideous quasi-mall/food court/fake coliseum library building?
Rating: -11
Bee Kaye
I whole heartedly support the building of a new VAG on that dismal parking lot in such a central crossroads of the city. Growing up in Vancouver and now working as a visual artist and director of a technology startup, my frequent visits back home always yield a certain level of disappointment as I watch a city with enormous potential turn into a city of (as this article aptly puts it) over-priced condos and sports bars.

Vancouver has an uncanny number of internationally acclaimed and really, truly excellent artists and art-workers (Ken Lum, Jonathan Middleton, and Nicole Ondre to name but a few). These people not only need a platform to be exhibited, but they are also key to drawing in an international community of artists, curators, and art historians. The art community is tightly knit. Artists and those in the arts travel and talk to each other. They create buzz. It would be a shame and terribly ignorant to ignore the capital art can bring to a city.

Really, this is a question of creating a cosmopolitan city that supports some of its most hard-working, intelligent, and successful citizens.
Rating: +16
Re: Proposed relocation and expansion of the Vancouver Art Gallery:
Re: Proposed relocation and expansion of the Vancouver Art Gallery:

For the benefit of the city and for the good of the Gallery, the institution should remain at its present site and should plan for a sensible, economic and feasible program of expansions to be carried out in a series of reasonable phases to take place over a number of decades.

1. The location bounded by Georgia, Robson, Hornby and Howe Streets is the most prestigious and fortuitous of Vancouver's major public art gallery.
2. The Gallery's location is the most advantageous point in the City as a proud symbol of Vancouver's cultural image both for its citizens and for visitors from around the world.
3. The building is a precious icon both for its aesthetic interest and for the fact that it represents some of the finest work of two of British Columbia's finest architects: Francis Rattenbury and Arthur Erickson. Its use as a centre for fine art is eminently fitting, considering the historic contribution these architects have made to the development of the artistic culture of the Province.
4. The basic masterful adaptation of the building conceived by Arthur Erickson works exceedingly well functionally and aesthetically as a major art gallery.
5. For a skillful architect the ample spaces available for expansion under the Georgia Street lawn as well as the space between the main building and the annex offer a great variety of possibilities for expansion to satisfy the Gallery's needs for several decades to come. Please note the recent brilliant additions to world famous galleries housed in heritage buildings such as the Louvre in Paris, the Fine arts museum in Chicago, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, to name just three. Many more could be cited.
6. Since the major structures now housing the VAG are intact and in good condition, the cost of expansion would be lower that starting from scratch with a monumental building at another location.
7. My discussions with some of our most distinguished architects and urbanists (Jim Cheng, Bruno Freschi, Bing Thom, Joe Wai and the regrettably late Peter Oberlander, among others) have corroborated all the opinions I have outlined above.
Abraham Rogatnick
Rating: +10
@Rainer Werner (Herzog)? I am not trying to impoverish living, breathing artists, I simply don't see why they need to exhibit BOTH in commercial galleries AND take over ALL of the VAG. Why can't Vancouver as a "world class" city that is part of the global world actually have art that represents that global vision? Purely local contemporary artists surely leaves out something. We're supposed to support Larwill Park for more of the same?
Rating: -32
I liked this idea for VAG way more:
Rating: -2
Sorry, but its ego talking with these artists.They want a space so people can come to see their VERY IMPORTANT artwork.Go ahead. Spend a fortune and build a new museum showcasing Paul Wong,Ian Wallace,Roy Arden and the rest of the aging baby boomers who built their careers on Canada Council grants.You can charge whatever you want for admission,but it won't matter because no one will come.Why?Because no one,except them and their friends care.Art and culture is extremely important to societies well being,but money would be far better spent on grass roots community programs and outreach education for young people than another "Temple" as Mr Mercer so eloquently put it.Remember the field trip to the Art Gallery as a high school student?Always a great excuse to skip out and wander the streets of Vancouver smoking cigarettes.A new building won't change that,but a school visitation program might.
One more thing?What about Vancouvers musicians?Can't think of too many government funded projects that allowed them to showcase their art.....
Rating: +18
Xander Glenn
But they've done Ian Wallace 4 times! including the current show.
This only benefits him, and Catriona Jeffries Gallery, his agent.

Good artists have left Vancouver in good measure, partly because of the low income, but mainly because there is no outwardly looking art scene here.

One Governor-General's awarded artist, educated at Kits School, UBC, and a bit a Emily Carr, would never come back to Vancouver. A partial show at the VAG was a disaster and they stay in Europe and Montreal.

Vancouver, you are bush league in so many ways.
Rating: -2
Totally agree with Hazlit!
VAG should educate and introduce the young and old to world art and maybe on the side showcase local artists but it should not be a tool to self promote local talent...
We, the people, the taxpayers of the VAG have to and need to speak out and demand what we want from an art gallery.
By the way, the current VAG director is not even from Vancouver but from the USA.
I do feel that people like Bob Rennie, as an art supporter, should be listened to, as he has shown that art is important to him.
Rating: -16


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