Three local visionaries search out ways of throwing new light onto Vancouvers ever-evolving visual-art scene.
For more than two decades, Vancouver has been the proving ground of an internationally acclaimed group of visual artists. Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, and others have seen huge success throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States. Younger artists such as Brian Jungen are also drawing the spotlight to this place. Still, for the Best of Vancouver issue, the Straight wanted to look at behind-the-scenes personalities in the visual arts. Here, we profile three of the outstanding patrons, curators, and dealers who nurture visual culture in Vancouver and enable artists to show their work to a growing public.
Pantea Haghighi, Gallerist
Since opening Republic Gallery a year ago, Pantea Haghighi has revealed an eclectic vision. She has shown emerging and established artists working in a range of media, including photography, sculpture, installation, painting, and drawing. "It's the artists that I want in here, not the medium," she tells the Straight, in conversation at the gallery. "We want to remain diverse."
This diversity takes place at the top of two steep flights of stairs, on the third floor of a Richards Street tear-down. The fact that Haghighi's landlords are entitled to dissolve her lease with six months' notice and develop the site doesn't unsettle her. "They have a lot of other projects that they're dealing with right now," she says. For the time being, she suggests with a smile, it's business as usual.
Not that "usual" has actually happened yet. Six months after Republic's launch, Haghighi's business partner left the venture, and a month after that, in March 2007, Haghighi gave birth to her first child. "It was a huge financial burden," she says, "but I decided that I wanted to keep the gallery." She attributes her ability to do so to the emotional support and professional advice of her stockbroker husband, Amir, and her own drive to pursue both of her passions: art and children. "I'm stunned by how hard I can work with three hours' sleep a night," she says with a laugh.
Born in Iran, Haghighi immigrated with her family to Canada when she was 13. She earned a B.A. in art history, took some graduate-level courses, and then went to work for high-octane art dealer Monte Clark. "Monte taught me a lot," she says. "I learned that there are two sides to the art world," she adds, one being a scholarly appreciation of the work and the other being the hard-nosed necessity of selling it.
Still, it was the desire to create exhibitions and control the conditions surrounding them that inspired Haghighi to open her gallery. "Sometimes I'm more interested in the content of the art," she admits, "and I ignore [the retail element]." The installation and drawings on exhibit now, by Samuel Roy-Bois, seem to speak to exactly that impulse. The inventive and nonconformist work looks like something you'd see in an experimental space or an artist-run centre rather than in a commercial gallery. Still, Haghighi trusts her instincts. "Sometimes people walk in here and they want an impressionist landscape painting from me and they end up leaving with a conceptual photograph," she says. "I just love that."
Patrik Andersson,Independent Curator
Long before he completed his PhD in art history in 2001, Patrik Andersson launched himself into independent curatorial work. He has mounted exhibitions in an ever-changing range of local venues, including artist-run centres, commercial galleries, 8,000 square feet of empty retail space, and a dentist's office. He has also worked with Neon, an independent art space in southern Sweden, in an exchange of artists and exhibitions.
Andersson pursues what he calls a "flexible curatorial model" under the auspices of the Trapp curatorial project, which he launched in 1997. "It started from an interest in doing something that wasn't so confined by having to ask other people for money," he explains, sitting in front of two computers in the home office he shares with his wife, graphic designer Judith Steedman. Whenever he curated shows for big institutions, he found the process protracted and dreary. "It all had to do with strategies of convincing someone, rather than going ahead and doing something."
Behind Trapp is Andersson's pure love of contemporary art. "I wanted to introduce emerging and international artists to Vancouver's art community," he says simply. His unpredictable exhibition venues unsettle our expectations of what we see where. "In the 1990s”¦there seemed to be a distinction between whether you were showing in a commercial gallery, a nonprofit space, or an oddball space," he says. "I wanted to flatten those distinctions and say, 'It's the work [that matters].'"
A full-time associate professor at Emily Carr Institute, father, writer, critic, guest lecturer, publisher of Made magazine it's not as if the Swedish-born Andersson has lots of spare time and money on his hands. In order to fund his exhibitions and assist the artists whose work he shows, he established Trapp Editions in 2002. Through it, he publishes original prints, photographs, and artists' books, which are sold locally and in Montreal, New York, and Paris. The enterprise makes enough money, Andersson says, to direct some funds to artists and support future exhibitions just. "It's not nonprofit, it's not really commercial," he says. "It's what Judith calls a 'nonprofitable' organization."
Currently, he's coproducing 52 Transactions, a book by Vancouver artist Kathy Slade, documenting a yearlong project she undertook in 2006/07 at the Vancouver Public Library. As well, he's curating an exhibition by the two-person art collective T&T for Oakville Galleries in Ontario. Yes, that's a big public gallery, and Andersson speaks of the ambivalent nature of the relationship. "Of course we need institutions, and of course we need to question them." If we continue to do both, support and question, he says, then the institution will move. Not forward, necessarily, not backward either, but in and out like breathing. Like a living thing.
Milton K. Wong, Activist, Patron, Problem Solver
Google "Milton K. Wong" and "Vancouver", and you'll encounter an intimidating list of titles: chancellor emeritus of Simon Fraser University, non-executive chairman of the board of HSBC Investments Canada, founding chair of the Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival, board member of half a dozen corporations, foundations, and institutions. Google on and you'll find page after page of awards, honours, and citations he's won and business successes he's attained.
You'll see, too, a long list of charities, causes, and initiatives Wong supports, across the fields of health research, business education, sustainability, multiculturalism, and sports. Art is only one of the many enterprises he aids, but it is integral, he says, to a holistic approach to community building and cross-cultural understanding. "It's through the arts that we see each other," he says, adding, "It's not possible to segment culture out.”¦It's core."
Speaking to the Straight in his downtown offices, the Vancouver-born Wong is surrounded by art. Most of the framed works on the walls are by his sister, acclaimed printmaker Anna Wong. In his meeting room, a Chinese brush painting and a Northwest Coast Native carving address each other across the symbolic expanse of the conference table. "They represent me, my interests, and my respect for the artists."
Wong is not entirely happy with the appellation philanthropist. "I am really less a philanthropist than a public, social activist," he says. "Yes, I do give money we all do but I consider my main contribution to be my innovative approach to problem solving." Money, he adds, "is a very small element of creating good in the community. Money has to be translated into a useful purpose."
Arts Umbrella, Yishu magazine, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and Centre A have all benefited from Wong's generosity. So have a number of cultural initiatives in the Downtown Eastside, a recent focus of his community-building endeavours. He's been working on social projects there, and he also initiated the planned move of SFU's School of Contemporary Arts to the old Woodward's site. It's all part of a process of revitalization, he says. "By having a contemporary arts institution there, it allows that segment of our community to have a direct linkage to cultural development. And that's going to be very exciting."