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.”
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.”