A new option for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s bid for a bigger, purpose-built building emerged from a public panel tonight (July 8). The event at the Cultch only attracted about 25 or 30 people, but the lively debate also touched on concerns about a vacated Robson Square facility and criticisms of the city’s lack of vision.
The facility has said it needs the entire city-owned block of the former bus depot on Cambie between Georgia and Dunsmuir Streets. It is facing a space crunch and says it requires a structure double its current size at Robson Square in the former courthouse. But many city councillors favour forcing the gallery to share the site with another, possibly revenue-generating building (http://www.straight.com/article-326718/vancouver/councillors-reluctant-g...)—an option that the VAG has said is unworkable.
The VAG is sticking to its proposal, which will go before the city in the coming months. But should it not work out, prominent local architect and panellist Richard Henriquez, who worked on the gallery’s master-plan process to review site options, has floated a solution. He says the VAG could consider agreeing to share the block with another building if it is able to close off that part of Cambie to car traffic and merge public plazas with the Queen Elizabeth Theatre complex across the street.
“It would be a more pedestrian-oriented space that would allow less vertical development and a more publicly accessible building,” Henriquez explained. “When you consider a multilevel gallery, as you go higher and higher you get floors that are less and less accessible.”
He added the expanded plaza, linked with the QE, could be a “new centre for cultural life”, allowing for the kind of activities we saw during the Olympics. It could be a vibrant new core to the city’s planned cultural district.
He went on to add that concept could be expanded to three blocks when the old main post office eventually leaves its space.
Henriquez stressed the idea was just his suggestion—for now. “It’s really an attempt to put another alternative on the table should council decide they need to keep part of the site for another use.”
The panel was part of the VAG’s push to bring the public on board with its proposal for a new landmark facility. Gallery director Kathleen Bartels stressed the main reasons the institution has outgrown its current digs: it can’t accommodate its family and children’s programs; it’s only able to show three percent of its 10,000-piece permanent collection at any one time; the art storage area is inadequate, requiring expensive offsite storage; and it has no theatre or lecture hall.
In the event organized by the VAG, panellists remarked that, although Vancouver is known for its world-class artists, it lacks the kind of stunning building required to show their work.
“Whenever I’m in Europe or Asia, people say, ”˜I’ve never been to Vancouver; the art scene must be crazy,’” said well-known local artist and panellist Ken Lum. “They observe, ”˜You must have a fantastic art gallery.’ So it’s always slightly embarrassing when leading figures in the artworld come here.”
VAG board chair David Aisenstat said the gallery has worked six years to plan its future and now the rare chance is there to acquire a site that’s prominent and big enough for the new facility.
“We’re now at the point where, in the absence of having a site, we can’t move forward with hiring an architect, or continue raising money from different levels of government,” he said. “People need to keep in mind we have a really unique opportunity to reimagine our community and our history. It’s a very important point: we have the need for a new building and we have the opportunity to have city-owned land. We have the wherewithall to do this, but it’s really important to get behind this while we have the opportunity.”
The public at the meeting, largely made up of gallery members and supporters, expressed concern that the concept hasn’t won the hearts and minds of the public here. Some questioned whether the gallery was being creative enough in its campaign and wondered why there weren’t more nonpartisan hearings into the proposal. Some, along with East Van Cross creator Lum, welcomed the moving of the downtown’s cultural hub farther east. Others were preoccupied with what would happen with the old building, such an integral, central structure in the city, should the VAG vacate it—and said the new facility could not be properly discussed without the ability to know what would move into its place.
“Our current site is owned by the city”¦.Clearly we’re not the planning department or the city of Vancouver,” said Aisenstat. “We’re here to evolve our art gallery to serve the community as well as we can and that’s not something we really have a vote in, frankly, as an institution.”
Former long-time Vancouver city planning director and panellist Ray Spaxman had harsh words for the city’s lack of vision on the matter.
“I don’t like to see my art gallery coming forward seeking approval as if they’re developers. Why isn’t the city itself up front helping the whole debate?” he said. “I hope and wish there could be more leadership from the city. I believe it’s unfair to ask the art gallery to handle all of this, and yet it needed to occur,” he added, explaining it's hard to galvanize the community if the public believes the panels are biased toward the VAG.
“I would like the city to lead us in a discussion about what our city should be in, say, the next 40 years and how that context could support all these decisions”¦.Instead we have a piecemeal approach.”
The VAG admitted the process has been difficult and that its central message has sometimes not gotten out. Aisenstat emphasized the endeavour has taken six years to get to this point. The gallery, with the help of architects, looked at every way to expand the facility on the old site, he said—upwards, behind, underground—and none would work. “We’re actually the best friend of that block and we tried to stay there but it just wasn’t feasible,” he said.
The team then started studying other sites as an option, including the main post office, but none would work and the VAG was uneasy about moving into another building that was not purpose-built for displaying art. But where the campaign really went off track, it seems, was when there was suddenly an offer of a site, from the province, on False Creek beside B.C. Place Stadium in 2008—a plan that eventually became infeasible, sending the VAG back to its original goal of building on the former bus-depot site.
Audience members expressed a need for the history of the search for a new site, and all its pros and cons, to be laid out clearly. “After six years of this going on, and the city’s spent milions on consultants, we’ve got to get that information together,” Spaxman said.
“The whole debate needs to be reframed,” observed Lum, who had spoken earlier about the VAG being important for research and for inspiring people in all fields. “People think of things that go on in the VAG as supplementary rather than integral to the economy.”