The artists speak out about 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.
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.”