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

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      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.”

      Many artists laud the VAG for originating significant touring shows, from Raven Travelling to Beat Nation. Yet the existing gallery, which Lum describes as a “miserable” exhibition space, is so cramped that it is unable to showcase much of its existing permanent collection, including the extensive set of works by Vancouver’s biggest international art star, Jeff Wall. Bartels’s plan would double the 41,400 square feet of exhibition space.

      Hank Bull, an artist, curator, veteran pillar of the Western Front, founder of Centre A, and advocate for an Asian art gallery on the existing VAG site, is a fierce proponent of the VAG plan. “Everybody agrees, including the most vociferous opponents, that the old facility doesn’t work. Doing nothing is not an option,” he told the Straight in a telephone interview. “The only viable site is Larwill Park. It’s a fabulous site. Let’s go.”

      Bull argues that beyond a few renovations, “we haven’t laid one brick” for a major arts facility in downtown Vancouver for decades. He believes it’s great that everyone has an idea about the future of the VAG, but argues the gallery has been doing its due diligence for 10 years. “No one has worked harder. They are one of the most exceptional museum teams in the country.”

      Many critics worry about the VAG’s ability to raise the $300 million it needs to construct a new building. Yet in Winnipeg the Canadian Museum for Human Rights will cost $351 million. The Art Gallery of Ontario’s 2008 renovation, a relatively understated design by Guggenheim Bilbao architect Frank Gehry, cost $276 million. Both Sylvester and Bull point to the example of UBC, which has raised $1 billion in the last 18 months with the slogan “Start an Evolution”, as a measure of our city’s philanthropic capacity. Sylvester says a bold move to support a new gallery has the potential to be good for all community institutions.

      Still, the City of Vancouver is right to be cautious. It has shouldered huge expenditures as a result of the fiasco at the Olympic Village, which wasn’t supposed to cost it a penny. The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company collapse was also costly to civic coffers, and right now the city seems to be scouring the gutters for stray nickels. The province spent $514 million on upgrades for B.C. Place, but contributed nothing to the city’s $50-million renovation of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre complex. The city has said it intends to recoup that money through commercial development on a portion of the Larwill Park site. The federal government, which contributed just $1.6 million to the Queen Elizabeth reno, has been noncommittal at best when asked about the VAG plan.

      Civic politicians and bureaucrats are saying little. Director of cultural affairs Richard Newirth didn’t respond to an interview request, and neither did Coun. Heather Deal. Coun. Geoff Meggs told the Straight that people must remember the VAG serves all of Metro Vancouver but other municipalities don’t contribute, and Vancouver itself has a population of just over 600,000.

      While the city is being asked only to contribute land, assessed at $73 million but worth more than $200 million if it’s developed commercially, Vancouver doesn’t want to find itself on the hook for increased operating costs, let alone deficits or construction shortfalls. “Larwill Park is a crown jewel among the city’s assets,” Meggs said. “We only get to make this decision once, and it’s binding forever, so we better get it right.”

      Still, there’s plenty of room for that all-Canadian equivocation. Bull is concerned that too many politicians worry they can’t get a vote by supporting the VAG project. People continue to fret about the fate of the existing site, despite serious interest from proponents of a new Museum of Vancouver, an underground concert hall, and that Asian art museum.

      The notion of an iconic building continues to be a flashpoint, as critics conjure images of controversial gallery architecture from around the world. How about calling it a “handsome” building, says Arden. Bartels asks if we could have a “landmark” building. Waddell says he’d appreciate a “good” building.

      Most of the artists argue strongly that the scope of what’s being proposed—a key piece of cultural infrastructure for the next century—goes way beyond short-term economic circumstances or other impediments. Paul Wong, who likes and respects Bartels, is blunt about the scope. “This is way bigger than Kathleen Bartels or Bob Rennie—she’s a middle manager, and he’s a middle meddler.” Wong wants leadership from Mayor Gregor Robertson.

      “It’s not going to happen if the mayor comes out wringing his hands,” says Bull.

      “The pieces are never all going to be in place,” adds Waddell. “The thing that can put them in place is the mayor’s leadership.” 




      Feb 28, 2013 at 8:59am

      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.


      Feb 28, 2013 at 9:07am

      Avoid the local! It takes courage NOT to avoid the local.


      Feb 28, 2013 at 9:31am

      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.

      Neale Adams

      Feb 28, 2013 at 9:43am

      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.

      Snoozy McDoozy

      Feb 28, 2013 at 11:12am

      Vancouver's art scene is already a great big yawn fest.

      Lorna Brown

      Feb 28, 2013 at 11:49am

      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.

      Keith Jakobsen

      Feb 28, 2013 at 3:04pm

      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!

      Bob Mercer

      Feb 28, 2013 at 4:30pm

      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.)


      Feb 28, 2013 at 4:53pm

      Vancouver gets what it deserves. btw, Iain's name is Iain Baxter&. (ampersand)

      Kevin Immanuel

      Feb 28, 2013 at 6:33pm

      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...