Paul Houle: COPE supports transparent process for Vancouver Art Gallery expansion
There are hot debates in the city's art world right now. Should the Vancouver Art Gallery be significantly expanded through one brand new location or multiple locales? What type of art and programing should the gallery feature?
The intense discussions are happening now and the matter is being thrashed out behind closed doors at city hall. The project has a price tag of up to $300 million and a possible sevenfold increase in VAG exhibition space. The gallery has apparently already raised at least $92 million for the redevelopment.
COPE has an arts, culture, and heritage committee and our policy is to wholeheartedly support a major and long overdue expansion of the VAG. One of our overriding principles, though, is that the process leading to a VAG expansion be transparent and fully open to public scrutiny and feedback.
Right now, it appears that an open process is not happening. When I left a message for one of the city councillors asking about the VAG discussions, she phoned me back to advise that she could not say a word as the discussions are totally "in camera" at present. Another councillor who is key to the VAG process did not return my call at all.
The current Vision Vancouver-dominated city council has a nasty habit of often making most decisions on a given project behind closed doors and then going through a pretence of "public input" when all the fundamental decisions have already been made. This is not a wise course in regard to the VAG expansion.
The new, larger VAG must be a cooperative effort with the public, artists, and gallery professionals all having their say. The city is currently looking at designating two acres of land at Larwill Park for a new art gallery. The land (currently used as a parking lot) was formerly the old bus terminal at 150 Dunsmuir. It is now known as 688 Cambie. Various configurations have been suggested for the site: a large art gallery, a smaller one, a possible concert hall, and other arts facilities included or not included, an office and/or condo tower included or not included.
In regard to the perennial passionate discourse about what type of art should be displayed at the VAG, COPE will respectfully remain neutral on this question. We recognize that it is more appropriate that this topic be engaged through an ongoing conversation among the public, artists, and gallery staff.
COPE is not opposed in principle to one brand new Vancouver Art Gallery. If this sounds like we're waffling on the issue of one versus multiple VAG sites, we are a little. We recognize that there may have to be a balancing of the different interests: the need for fiscal prudence and the views of artists, the public, and the gallery leadership.
Many members of the public we have spoken to have expressed a fondness for the art gallery staying in its iconic old courthouse location. Some have suggested the current spot be used as a "traditional arts" gallery with a new facility at Larwill Park being used as a "contemporary" gallery.
Some have suggested offsite storage as a way of maximizing displayed art on dense, expensive, accessible downtown real estate with safe warehousing of art expanding in future on cheaper, less accessible land outside of the downtown core.
Real estate developer and art expert Bob Rennie has proposed multiple locations for the gallery and a multi-year development plan. Perhaps there may have to be a compromise between the ideas in the Rennie plan and the ideals of the current gallery leadership.
Rennie has also noted that other cities around the world have successfully decentralized their collections through multiple or satellite locations: the Louvre in Paris; the Tate Gallery in London; the Dresden State Art Collections; the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
As Rennie suggested in his report, risk management may be an important factor in offsite storage. If disaster should hit the downtown area—e.g., a major earthquake—an art collection located all in one spot may be more vulnerable (in terms of magnitude of damage) to things such as fire (gas leaks, electrical), flooding, or collapsing walls. Storage outside the downtown core could reduce the risk of catastrophic loss in one concentrated area. If a major flood from burst water mains hits the downtown core, chances are it may not equally hit a large portion of the art work in storage at an offsite location.
Whatever the final plan, COPE believes that art is a key aspect of a healthy, vibrant, and caring society. Whatever final plan is adopted, COPE believes that there should be maximum access to the VAG by all members of the public. Unfortunately, a large percentage of our population, including many children, live in poverty. To facilitate access by those on limited income, COPE advocates for free entrance or, at the very least, more admission free days at the gallery. Also, we support a continuing strengthening of the gallery's outreach and education programs, including offsite displays throughout the city.
COPE also advocates that any new gallery or galleries be located near rapid transit (SkyTrain) to facilitate easy access by Vancouverites and other visitors from across the province, the country, and the world.
COPE believes that the redevelopment of the art gallery must happen within the context of a coherent city plan for the overall development of arts, culture and heritage in the city over at least the next 20 years.
A gallery relocation could have a domino effect—e.g., if the gallery moves—will the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) or another cultural organization move into the vacated space? If MOV moves from its current location at Vanier Park, will Bard on the Beach take over the space vacated by MOV? If this happens, what are the ramifications for the planetarium and Maritime Museum at Vanier Park? Also, where would a proposed civic assembly space fit in a long term arts, culture, and heritage plan? A public gathering square should be a priority as well.
All these possibilities point out the need for a plan and for broad financial support. The city must continue to advocate with the provincial and federal governments for robust funding for an significantly expanded VAG.
We spent half a billion dollars for a revitalized B.C. Place Stadium which primarily benefits professional sports. We have no intention of slighting professional or amateur sports, but, at the same time, let's not short change arts, culture, and heritage. Let's have a balance between sports and cultural amenities. A healthy mind in a healthy body. Bike lanes and culture. This balance will create a vibrant, stimulating community for those who live here and those who visit.
Let's get behind the Vancouver Art Gallery with an open and involved process leading to an exciting expansion and increased accessibility for one of Canada's finest art institutions.