The Vancouver Art Gallery
The Vancouver Art Gallery.
A TIGHT SPOT
As the Vancouver Art Gallery eyes a new space, a city-wide debate gets underway.
BY: Beverly Cramp
On a soft summer evening last July, when Vancouver beaches were crowded with sun-worshippers and picnickers, a few hundred people filed into an underground lecture hall at Robson Square. They came to hear whether or not the Vancouver Art Gallery should build a new home at a site five blocks away.
What could be so important about a change of locale to make outdoors-mad Vancouverites come and listen to six public speakers about a structure for art, not even the art itself? Such a change would be, on the face of it, a minor consideration except that the VAG has been so successful at its current location in a much-loved heritage building, anchoring the north end of the sprawling Robson Square Complex.
People are drawn to the place as a de facto civic centre for the city. Protests happen here, youth hang out on the VAG’s grand steps, musical concerts entertain passersby, and it was the central gathering place for visitors during the 2010 Olympics last February. It’s an exciting concurrence to have one of British Columbia’s most important institutions at the heart of so much cultural activity. This is where art should be.
But if there is one point most knowledgeable experts agree upon, it’s that the current Gallery is sorely inadequate to carry out its mandate. Little of its permanent art collection can be shown at any time. The lecture room, if you can call it that, is in the attic of the building and only seats about 150 people. The 9,000-square-foot underground storage space is damp and leaky and is located beside the water main, a dangerous situation. There is little space for school programs and they are limited each year despite an abundance of requests.
It’s been that way for some time according to Michael Audain, a developer, high-profile visual arts patron, and a member of the VAG Board of Trustees since 1988. “The building we have was wonderful 28 years ago, but it no longer fits the stature of a city that has become a major international arts centre,” Audain says. “It has a totally inadequate exhibition space, there is no space for educational facilities, and staff work in poor surroundings. There are so many things we can’t do that many comparable cities can. There are smaller cities that have much better facilities than we do.”
To make his point about the Gallery’s infrastructure problems, Audain told a personal story at the July public information session. “About 12 years ago, I was walking around an exhibition with one of the art gallery directors, about two before Kathleen [Bartels, the current director], when I hit something with my foot and almost fell over. It was a bucket operating as a humidifier. The director told me that they couldn’t get water at a temperature that would cool the building. That became the first item on a growing list I have been accumulating as to the inadequacies of the building.
“Since then, we’ve been retaining one consultant after another about what we could do. All sorts of plans have been drawn up — some were really strange. We all wanted to stay in this building. We love it, and came up with a number of ideas of how to expand on the same site. We didn’t think we had to move as we do today because none of the previous plans were sufficient. All I can say is we have put a lot of thought into it, and it has taken a great many years to get to this point where we know we have to move.”
Audain then outlined the plan so far — submission of a formal proposal to the City of Vancouver about moving to a piece of city-owned land at Georgia and Cambie. The proposal includes development of a much larger gallery, double its current size, at an old bus depot site that’s now used as a parking lot. Estimates of the cost of a purpose-built gallery range from $300 to $450 million, a substantial amount in these post-recession times.
The Vancouver arts community is already reeling from substantial cuts in provincial support. “The B.C. Arts Council slashed their budget by 54 per cent last year, and smaller groups are being left out,” says Amir Ali Alibhai, executive director of the Alliance for Arts and Culture, a non profit umbrella organization representing more than 350 arts groups in Vancouver.
But Alibhai does not begrudge the large amount of arts funding that a new Gallery building will eat up. “We support the VAG and its board in its quest for a new building,” he says. “It’s an important move. We need a better and larger gallery in this city. A strong and vibrant Vancouver Art Gallery is a huge contributor to the cultural ecosystem. Visual artists need access to significant contemporary works for their own practices, and the VAG does that.”
While the Gallery does not have a confirmed site, it has already received word of a $50 million pledge of financial support from the provincial government. Private donors have also pledged upwards of $40 million, before an official campaign has even begun.
Alibhai points out that provincial funding for a new arts facility would not likely reduce the operating grant money that so many of the small galleries and arts groups depend upon and want to see restored. “Funding for a new building would come from a different pot of money, not the BCAC budget,” he says. “But the provincial government could still play politics with the numbers and promote the VAG expenditure as contributing to cultural money and argue that they really haven’t cut back the cultural sector at all. I would like to see them restore the funding to the B.C. Arts Council that feeds all the arts groups, as well as contribute to a new Gallery.”
Like many other knowledgeable people in the cultural sector, Michael Heeney agrees that the current facilities need to be expanded. The principal and executive director of Bing Thom Architects just doesn’t believe that the current location should be abandoned.
“The VAG does need new facilities and has for some time now,” Heeney says. “They’ve been doing an awesome job with what they have. But there is so much potential for expanding into, and under, the 40,000-square-foot footprint between the Gallery and the new courthouse.”
Working with Bing Thom’s firm, Heeney has special insights into the Robson Complex. Thom was the principal architect at Arthur Erickson’s firm when they designed Robson Square, which houses the new courthouse, and renovated old courthouse that was transformed into the Vancouver Art Gallery. Robson Square was designed with underground space, potentially to link via subterranean transportation to the city’s centre. That never happened, making the below-grade areas often empty until the 2010 Olympic Games used the space.
“It was wonderful to see that site realize its full capabilities during the Olympics,” Heeney says. “It was a key place for people to meet downtown. The site became really animated and showed its full potential.”
Heeney, along with many others, wants City of Vancouver councillors and staff to take a bigger role in leading the public discourse and decision-making. Ray Spaxman, retired from City Hall after being director of planning from 1973 to 1989, concurs. “I’m inspired by the art gallery,” he says. “One of the most important things a city can have is a successful art gallery. There are conflicting opinions about whether the VAG should stay or move, and it shows how treasured the institution is to Vancouver citizens. There are a lot of opinions, but I haven’t seen a detailed listing of the pros and cons. Why haven’t the city politicians given us this analysis? The City should be leading this discussion.”
For now, the discussion is being fuelled by the Gallery itself. Kathleen Bartels has a passionate vision of what a Gallery with a larger site and building could accomplish. “I see the gallery as being a town square for the 21st century,” she says. “Museums are no longer just these places where scholars visit to do research and people come to see exhibitions of art. People want to have an experience here, they want to spend the whole day at the gallery, see a show, eat here, have contemplative moments to absorb what they’ve seen and learned here. And museums are important drivers of cultural change. They’re important places for people to gather and have meaningful conversations. Art is a wonderful way to have debates about what’s going on in the world.”
Bartels feels that there aren’t enough spaces in the current Gallery for visitors to move beyond the exhibition areas, to have this broader dialogue — such as sculpture gardens, outdoor performance spaces, educational areas with comfortable seating and books, computer terminals for DVDs and other sources of information, and general areas for people to meet and converse. “We can’t do much of that here because we’re too constrained physically. A new gallery would help us become a larger part of the community and play the kind of role we are capable of.”