The Fight for the Vancouver Art Gallery

The head of the VAG has a $300 million vision for the gallery. Yes, she has her critics. No, there will be no compromise

March 13, 2013

By Frances Bula / Photo: Grant Harder

Behind the bland double doors of the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel’s Terrace Room, Kathleen Bartels is fighting for her life. It’s the last battle for the formidable Vancouver Art Gallery director, who in a years-long campaign has pursued her vision of a grand new $300-million gallery across a minefield of setbacks. A recession. The resignation of a major ally premier. The replacement of a sympathetic city manager and council with a crew who have been more uncertain about her ambitions. A prominent supporter, Michael Audain, building his own museum-a decision critics see as him giving up on the VAG. The loudly proclaimed antipathy of one of the city’s major art collectors, Bob Rennie. And opposition from a host of others who believe Bartels will rip the heart out of Vancouver if she moves the gallery, a building that embodies Vancouver’s standing in the art world, from the Hornby Street home it has occupied since 1983.

Through all this Bartels has hung on, her bright, determined smile firmly in place. The petite Chicagoan, Midwestern accent still shading her vowels, has found a new board chair eager to join her crusade. She’s been having breakfast with city manager Penny Ballem. She’s hired a lobbying firm whose staff includes the woman who has run all the political campaigns for Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver. And she’s insisted implacably, in interview after interview, that she feels great, positive, excited.

And now here she is on a January morning making her last big pitch. It’s one of Vancouver’s more perfect winter days outside, but it’s lost on those sequestered in the Waterfront’s Terrace Room, filled as it is with anxiety and tension. The decade-long debate over a new gallery has reached such a pitch that various presenters to the blue-ribbon arts panel gathered today will not even look at one another-several have been polarized as much by their antipathy to the tactics of one party or the other as by the merits of either case.

Andrew Gruft, a major patron and professor emeritus with UBC’s School of Architecture, was not enthusiastic about the idea of building a gallery when it was debated in public three years ago. He originally favoured some sort of expansion on the existing site, one of many options that Bartels and her board have rejected over the years. But he became so exasperated with the dithering city council and so put off by Rennie’s attacks on Bartels that he’s swung around. “Stop pissing around and get on with it-just give them the site,” he says when he gets his five minutes.

Observing all this are the experts, along with city staff who will spend the next few weeks crafting a final recommendation. The panel of art heavyweights come with their own politics: Marc Mayer, head of Ottawa’s National Gallery, an institution that gets the kind of federal funding Vancouver can only dream of, along with the gallery’s former First Nations curator, Candice Hopkins. Matthew Teitelbaum, CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario, an institution that just went through its own $276-million expansion. Vancouver artist Ian Wallace, whose work is currently the main show at the gallery (except for early work owned by Rennie, which was not included in the exhibit due to the ongoing fractiousness). Makiko Hara, curator of the city’s Centre A gallery. And Paul Schimmel, just-deposed curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Schimmel was at MoCA when Bartels, who started there in the human-resources department, was plucked 12 years ago by VAG trustees looking for someone to clean up what was then a directionless mess. He’s unlikely to be fazed by Vancouver’s little gallery drama. Back in Los Angeles, MoCA is at the centre of its own storm: after Schimmel’s departure was announced last year, five board members resigned and local spectators launched into a torrent of analysis about the larger-than-life characters involved, including a wealthy donor determined to build his own $300-million art museum.

This is the end of an era for Bartels. In an interview earlier in the week, she said she has no Plan B. She wouldn’t even discuss the possibility that, at the conclusion of all this, Vision Vancouver councillors might decide they won’t commit to handing over two-thirds of the last open city block downtown. That block at Georgia and Cambie, the city’s former bus depot and now a parking lot called Larwill Park, is at the eastern edge of downtown. Next to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and CBC tower, it has been looked at longingly by several cultural groups. But the block, worth a conservative $150 million or so, is also expensive in other ways. Rennie, in his own presentation to the panel, calculates it would cost the city $202 million once it factored in lost taxes and potential contributions from developers who might buy the site. Bartels didn’t disclose a personal Plan B either, but it’s not hard to imagine, should she fail, a final goodbye for this city-altering woman who arrived in March 2001 to universal praise, who was called a saint as she invested heavily in local artists, and who mixed blockbuster shows of standard European big names with exhibitions that featured anime or Bruce Mau, boosting gallery attendance to levels that made locals feel like Vancouver was exciting and theirs and, well, cultured.

It was a refreshing change from what had been years of struggle, years like 1978, when the gallery held a car wash to raise the money to restore Emily Carr paintings when governments turned them down; like 1979, when judges started campaigning to block the gallery’s proposed move from a small building at 1145 West Georgia to the majestic old provincial courthouse; like 1984, when, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, the gallery lost its steam; like 1988, when it had only 7,000 memberships and was desperately trying to drum up another 3,000; like 2000, when it went through an uproar after the then-director quit after repeated clashes with the board.

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What is Bartels’s own pitch to the panel? I had heard it earlier in the week in her fourth-floor office at the Vancouver Art Gallery, a space Bartels has transformed from Victorian legal office into a modernist aerie: all-white walls, glass desk, art books stacked in tidy piles, two small striking paintings and one Berenice Abbott photograph. There was the small-bore technical case she made, laid out in the 66-page report the gallery commissioned from Toronto-based Lord Cultural Resources. Lord, with a long list of big-name galleries in its client folder, provided numbers to back up the argument that a bigger gallery could generate the revenue to pay for higher costs, that it wouldn’t drain the coffers so much that there’d be no staff or resources to actually do anything in it. The gallery’s budget would grow from the current $12.4 million to about $20 million, but the increased attendance, store and café sales, and a mysterious $1 million in additional government and donor funding would pay for it, the report concluded. More space, the Lord report said, always means more visitors and more revenue. The trick is not to overestimate how much more. The current gallery, with 44,000 square feet of exhibition space (a little smaller than what’s in Fort Worth, Texas), can show only three percent of its permanent collection at a time. A new building with almost double the exhibition space is projected to boost attendance from 260,000 to 450,000 the first year after opening-typically a time of upswing for any new museum-then average 380,000 a year. Lord (and Bartels) point out that the VAG is more successful than many galleries by the measures that galleries like to use. It gets more visitors per square foot of exhibition space and has more members than other galleries its size. The VAG doesn’t get anywhere near the government money-provincial or federal-that Ontario and Quebec galleries do, nor American ones. Instead, it’s the Vancouver public that allows the VAG its successes. They pay the relatively expensive $22.50 high-season admission, buy memberships at 30,000 people a year, shop at the museum store, rent its rooms for parties, and generally love the gallery enough that they cover 48 percent of its budget. In American galleries, support from patrons accounts for an average of 22 percent.

But all of that is accounting.

Bartels’s bigger sell is about our standing as an art capital. “Vancouver is consistently seen as one of the most important contemporary art centres in North America.” Its reputation, thanks to the older generation of Wallace, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, and the new generation-Geoffrey Farmer, Isabelle Pauwels, Gareth Moore-makes contemporary-art collectors see Vancouver as a higher priority than Toronto. “So the need is even greater to have more space to show their work.” And not just theirs. Also First Nations art from Charles Edenshaw, whom Bartels will show this spring, to Bill Reid to Brian Jungen. And a growing collection of Asian art. Bruce Wright, the newly chosen board chair, echoes that. “One of the things Vancouver people may not realize is how much Vancouver is on the map,” he says. That might seem to some like typical West Coast self-absorption, part of our edge-of-the-continent tendency to believe in Vancouver exceptionalism. But it’s echoed by people in Seattle, Toronto, and abroad. Ann Webb, director of the Toronto-based Canadian Art Foundation, says many international collectors make Vancouver their priority call when they come to the country. “When people think of Canadian art, they do not think of Toronto. They think of Vancouver because of the rich history there. In the visual art world, it holds the highest, highest place.”

It’s that reputation that makes a new Vancouver Art Gallery a critical addition for the city, say people who love Vancouver’s art. A big gallery isn’t a vanity project. It’s a way of announcing to yourself and the world how much you value art. “People want to know, through the building, ‘This is important; pay attention to this,’ ” says Webb. A new city gallery that is grand and open and a real civic living room, unlike the stern-looking courthouse, would say that. The city’s reputation also makes raising the money possible, says Bartels, because the gallery isn’t dependent on what is, all things considered, a modest-sized city with a modest pool of patrons. Bartels sees us in national terms, able to attract the same kind of money and philanthropy as Winnipeg’s Canadian Human Rights Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario. “When we go back East and talk to our friends at BMO-we have many friends there-they want to know, ‘When are you starting? We’re ready to be there for you.’ They collect primarily B.C. contemporary artists.” Other banks are saying the same. So are private collectors in Toronto and elsewhere. Bartels is also confident about the federal government, whose local representatives quietly roll their eyes at the idea that Ottawa will give the gallery the $100 million the Lord report blandly assumes as part of the $300 million needed.

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Bob Rennie keeps hammering at the idea that Vancouver can’t afford Bartels’s dreams. (He’s not the only one, just the most outspoken. Others familiar with the typical cost of construction and the kinds of overruns that can happen on big projects are dismayed at the fantastical logic they see on display with the gallery project.) He, along with several other representatives from the arts community, addresses the panel once Bartels is done. Sounding uncharacteristically nervous, he reiterates that the city can’t afford to give away most of the last undeveloped lot downtown. We’re a small town. We have no head offices, no pond of local gazillionaires. Fewer than one percent of people in the province make over $250,000 a year-half the proportion found in Alberta. He adds that the city can’t afford another financial disaster like Olympic Village or the BC Place renovation. Bartels’s gallery idea, he says, “is an artifact of a time long past, a museum piece itself, reflecting the old debt-fuelled economy of unconscious spending that is long, and forever, gone.” In previous weeks, he’d made the argument that we need to do much more with much less. The gallery should see some on-site renovations but new space should come primarily by creating dispersed smaller galleries in other neighbourhoods. Collingwood, an East Side neighbourhood near Kingsway, was mentioned. Those galleries could have space donated as part of a condo development, the way the Contemporary Art Gallery was, so there would be no land cost. They might attract donors interested in getting their name on a space, more possible if the space is smaller. Any money left over, Rennie said, should go to acquiring important local art.

The daylong session, which at times feels more like a judicial hearing than a conversation, is exhausting. Shortly before noon, Bartels, in a long black coat and black high-heeled boots, walks through the hotel lobby, looking unusually sombre. It seems unclear to many which way things will go. There are rumblings that city staff want to see a cultural use on the Larwill Park site. On the other hand, panel members seem interested in hearing everything Rennie has to say. During the afternoon session, when panel members talk among themselves and with city staff, they point out the big challenges for a city gallery like Vancouver to launch such an ambitious project. It has neither the government support of Toronto nor the corporate support of Seattle, which raised almost all of the $227 million it needed for its new building and sculpture park from local donors. Bartels, in spite of two years’ grace, still hasn’t produced a plan showing how she will raise $300 million, beyond the $50 million she has in her pocket from Campbell and $40 million Audain rounded up from donors years ago. They wonder why Bartels’s board members haven’t given more. They don’t like the absence of information about what the VAG collection should aspire to or how its education programs would expand. But they also acknowledge the gallery deserves to grow and that a gated, staged approach to what will be a very long-term project is the right way to go.

In the end, that’s the decision. Shortly after the panel wraps, city manager Penny Ballem drives over to Rennie’s apartment, a modernist concrete condo next to the Molson Brewery in Kitsilano, to deliver the news personally. Her message: We have to let them at least try before we can move on to another model. And: your plan is just unworkable.

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear why Rennie’s proposal was unlikely to sway the convened experts. For one, a panel of people who run big galleries, even people who think highly of his personal collection and his Wing Sang gallery in Chinatown, believe in more big galleries. Most people in the art world do. (So do those in the tourism world, as it happens.) “Smaller galleries, that’s a ridiculous idea,” says Webb, a fan of both the VAG and Kathleen Bartels. “Anyone who’s a professional in the field knows the amount of resources it takes to run multiple venues is impossible.” Gallery people also love the range a big space gives them, allowing them to juxtapose different kinds of collections and introduce people to multiple experiences in one visit, rather than sending them on a trip around town to see art in segregated clusters.

Too, most people in the arts community are excited about the idea of a new gallery, which would be to them what the Olympics was for city tourism in 2010. Confidential minutes from a city workshop held two days before the panel members convened, attended by artists and arts-group representatives, showed there was no debate:

“The visual art community at the workshop wants to assure Mayor and Council that they are 100% behind the VAG’s proposal and the move to Larwill Park in a stand-alone, purpose built facility. Cultural community is eager and optimistic. This is an opportunity to seize the moment to build upon/enrich Vancouver’s cultural infrastructure-the Larwill Park land is the last suitable parcel in downtown Vancouver for an art museum. This is the last chance-if not built now, it will be decades. CARPE DIEM!!”

Those minutes also show the kind of political blowback Mayor Gregor Robertson and his council might face if they simply turned down the proposal with nothing else to offer: “Need city to turn all the issues into opportunities-this is where the leadership is required; need to move away from seeing the ‘finite.’ Mayor and Council need to take responsibility and have courage to support this proposal. This leadership needs to be from the top; need vision and must be both positive and strong.” The same week the panel convened, city politicians were facing a storm of commentary in the wake of the closure of the Waldorf Hotel on East Hastings, depicting the city as a place where condo developers bulldoze art. The last thing Vision politicians needed was to provoke a renewed round of protest that they had killed art in the city by blowing up the only plan the gallery had. Privately, the mayor’s office had tried to get a leading city businessman to broker a solution that everyone could live with, a compromise between the expensive new gallery and Rennie’s dispersed-sites idea. But that effort didn’t get to anything that could be offered as an alternative.

Then there is the fact that council would lose nothing by committing the land for another two years. It would not have to spend any money. Nor would it be abandoning some lucrative offer elsewhere. There are no developers clamouring to get onto the site, which falls within the city’s designated business district and is therefore subject to restrictions on condo development. The federal government, once interested in building an office tower there, has gone silent. And there is already a glut of office space being built or planned. Commercial brokers say that the city has so many proposed office towers on the books that no one is likely to make a move until the next office-development cycle occurs in downtown Vancouver, which typically happens every five to seven years.

If they get the go-ahead, Bartels and her team have two years to prove they can raise another $210 million for the building and a further $50 million to make sure there’s an endowment to buy art. Prying money from the provincial or, especially, federal government will not be easy. Some at city hall note that Bartels, whatever her skill in impressing out-of-province art patrons, seems to have a tin ear when it comes to dealing with bureaucrats and politicians. “Kathleen has to really listen to the sage advice she is getting,” says one. “She is not attuned at all to working with government and she doesn’t get the dynamic.” Bartels is undaunted, though. She is convinced that, with a land commitment, the gallery can then commission drawings of a new building that will light a flame in even the most dour skeptic. The job will much easier, they believe, once she can show the world images of a future gallery. “When people say, ‘You can never do it’-we don’t have that attitude,” she says, once more displaying the zeal that has convinced some she’s a visionary leader and others she’s a single-idea obsessive.

And below her, in the vaults beneath the gallery’s front plaza, the paintings and sculptures and photographs, in their thousands and thousands, wait for their time.

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