The Vancouver Art Gallery’s $350 Million Plan

June 1, 2010

Here in this section of the vast vault beneath the Vancouver Art Gallery, cartons are stacked to the ceiling. Crates are piled up in hallways. A sculpture carved from creamy, cellular whalebone—a blank-faced hunter in a fur-hooded jacket leaning back to launch a spear—sits on a table under a thick, dusty sheet of plastic. Paintings—a Gordon Smith, a Jack Shadbolt, a Fernand Leger—hang on a wire awaiting a better home.

Kathleen Bartels, the VAG’s 53-year-old director, a splash of colour amid the cardboard and plastic in her red leather jacket and harlequin-patterned skirt, looks around tight-lipped at the high-class clutter. Her unhappy face broadcasts an unmistakable message: this is not how you treat art. “Time magazine said very clearly that if you look at North America, the contemporary art centres in North America are New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver,” she says in her distinctive touch-of-Fargo accent, legacy of a suburban Chicago childhood. “We have an obligation to build an art gallery museum that really matches the ambitions and stature of the artists that work here.”

The VAG, housed since 1983 in one of the city’s few majestic old buildings, the former provincial courthouse at Hornby and Robson, leaks. The water main running alongside the 9,000-square-foot vault is a disaster waiting to happen. The narrow hallways, which once led to jail cells, are an arduous maze for manoeuvring large pieces. It takes Rubik’s Cube planning to get at some of the stored work. There’s no room for school programs, no theatre, no proper conservation room, not enough space to display more than about 500 of the 10,000 art pieces the gallery owns.

These are the practical arguments Vancouver’s queen of art and her high-powered knights—patrons Michael Audain, tall and slow to speak, and David Aisenstat, a tanned and vivacious Wallace Shawn—make. The three have been campaigning for a grand new building, one they hope will come to epitomize Vancouver the way the Tate Modern’s rehabilitated power plant says London and the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim says Bilbao. The VAG’s Facebook site has documentary-quality videos promoting the need for a new space. Bartels, who carefully controls the faucet of her charm and has not been media-friendly since she arrived from her position as assistant director at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2001, is suddenly throwing open the door to reporters and visiting editors. She, Audain, and Aisenstat made a joint plea to a packed Vancouver Board of Trade lunch crowd at the end of April. The gallery has hired the Pace Group to do PR just for this file. And the three have been meeting intensively with city staff, who say the gallery needs to show, more than anything, that they’ve got a business plan and public support if they want the city to give them all or part of the $110-million piece of land they’re lusting after.

The campaign, which has been growing for five years—ever since Bartels and the board commissioned Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan to come up with ideas for add-ons and then quietly rejected his ultra-modern concepts—is creating a Mason-Dixon Line through the city’s culturati. It’s an odd divide, because it’s not really about whether Vancouver needs a bigger gallery or whether art should have a more important place in the city. Instead, the debate, at its most personal level, revolves around Bartels, the kind of building that her fans hope (and her critics fear) she’ll build, and how her determination to move it six blocks east will alter the city’s centre of gravity.

 

MANY SAY BARTELS has made Vancouver a must-visit place for art lovers. “Kathleen is on my shortest list of my finest colleagues,” says the effervescent director of the National Gallery in Ottawa, Marc Mayer. “She is very smart. She has a very high level of programming and that makes it always worth coming to Vancouver. I’m disappointed when I hear people say it’s about Kathleen’s ego. It’s about Vancouver’s standing in the world.” Bartels’s supporters—people like Mayer, Museum of Anthropology director Anthony Shelton, and Emily Carr professor and artist Landon Mackenzie—think the current gallery is unworkable, Vancouver needs a new building, and she is the one with the vision to drive it forward. “A new VAG helps all of us,” says Shelton, who just presided over a $55-million expansion of the MOA that gave him the kind of storage and conservation space Bartels can only dream of. They’re joined by people outside the arts galaxy who have a powerful interest in Vancouver’s image. “The cultural draws here now don’t motivate people to come,” says Rick Antonson, president of Tourism Vancouver. “I applaud the VAG for doing this in a city that isn’t often bold. This would be part of a statement that says Vancouver takes its culture seriously.”

 

That’s one view. The other is held by a wide array of equally passionate culture lovers—architects, planners, arts enthusiasts—wary of Bartels’s agenda and dubious about the idea of a mega-gallery on a lacklustre block at the edge of downtown. Among them is the gallery’s most prominent public critic, condo marketer and art collector Bob Rennie, whom Audain and Aisenstat have been attempting to appease. To date, they haven’t swayed him a millimetre from his view that their project is an artistic Gallipoli, an expensive building that the city can’t afford and doesn’t need—and even if it could, the dollars should be spent on art and artists support. “Kathleen has proven to me since she came to town that it’s not about the content for her. She wants a monument,” says Rennie. Famously on non-speaking terms with Bartels almost since she arrived, he says publicly what others mutter privately. “Her plan to rely on starchitecture, that’s such an unnecessary old-economy move.”

“I think Vancouver’s having an identity crisis,” adds local architect Bing Thom, another vocal critic who says moving the gallery will damage the city’s vibrant centre. “I think the Olympics have made people realize we need to come to grips with what we want to be. People are saying, ‘We don’t think we want to be a tourist resort.’ And more and more, Vancouver people are realizing we don’t have to be like everybody else. People come here because they don’t want to be mainstream.”

Catriona Jeffries is the foremost private local dealer working with artists who’ve made Vancouver a name in the international art world. Like many in this drama, she has close connections with both Bartels and Rennie and picks her way carefully through the minefield. If the gallery is going to build a new architectural shell, she believes, that shell will have conditions attached. It should embody Vancouver’s contemporary approach. “Is there a really interesting architect in Vancouver who could take this project on? Is there an interesting young architect in Japan who understands our histories and the architectural trajectories that make up this place?” she asks. She’s also worried about what the demands of a $350-million gallery, with higher operating costs, will mean. “There are important artist-run centres and other public galleries, recognized nationally and internationally, which cannot be sucked of financial support whilst the VAG has increased funding requirements.” Finally, she says, the VAG has to ensure the art inside matches and raises the building. “Sure, a progressive architectural shell will attract people,” she says, “but ultimately this is about content. The corporate world must understand this. You can say, ‘Build it and they will come.’ I’d say, ‘Content it and they will come.’ ”

 

ULTIMATELY, THE proposed new VAG unites Vancouver’s prevailing small-town conservatism with the indie-cultural-creative faction who mistrust anything from the man—a bloc that includes Bartels and her group, people who collect First Nations art and the hypermodern photos of Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham. Their efforts to create a new gallery seem too bold, too American, too rich for little Vancouver—and, at the same time, too conservative, an attempt to make radical, daring Vancouver into just another city chasing after a post-industrial civic branding strategy, a city that can’t think of anything more imaginative than to build a second-rate Parthenon. An internationally renowned architect? How predictable, they say. Can’t we do better?

 

While Vancouver’s monumentophobia is familiar to locals—witness the anguish over every other major project of the last two decades, from the central branch of the public library to the expanded convention centre to the Canada Line—it’s perplexing to people outside Vancouver, where cities have thrown themselves with enthusiasm into the global culture-monument industry that has flourished in the last 20 years. In Montreal, museums, galleries, and culture spaces go up with clocklike regularity and no one whispers “Pourquoi?” The Patkau-designed Grande Bibliothèque, opened 2005: $90 million. Le Quartier des Spectacles, ongoing: $130 million. In Toronto, the city has just gone through a binge. The Frank Gehry addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008: $276 million. Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal for the Royal Ontario Museum expansion, 2007: $270 million. The Jack Diamond-designed opera and ballet theatre, 2006: $181 million. The British architect Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art and Design, 2004: $42.5 million. Among others.

“It seems odd to me,” says Phil Lind about the great divide he sees in Vancouver. Lind is a VAG fan who happens to live in Toronto. He’s not your everyday fan. The VP of Rogers Communications, one of the country’s wealthier men, and a noted art collector, he oversaw the corporate side of the capital campaign for the Art Gallery of Ontario expansion. But he loves Vancouver art with a passion. “There’s so much to see,” he explains, “and it’s so current. Vancouver is on the leading edge of contemporary art in the world.”

He also epitomizes the little-known support network of wealthy collectors that a place like the VAG is now able to count on, people whose voices will be as important as any of the locals’. Lind fell in love with art and Vancouver when he was a UBC political-science student in the 1960s. He wandered into a gallery showing Iain Baxter’s work Bagged Place, a series of rooms with every household item encased in clear plastic bags. “I thought it was the most unusual thing I’d ever seen in my life. I pondered that for a long time.” Four decades later, he collects, as he says, “Rodney and Jeff. I collect Stan. I collect Scott McFarland.” That would be Rodney Graham, Jeff Wall, and Stan Douglas, the Ian Wallace-inspired photoconceptual artists who are internationally renowned, though the vast majority of local residents have no idea who they are or the way their city is hallowed in the art world.

Lind is also part of an exclusive, rotating group of gallery donors who go on once-a-year tours that Bartels organizes. They travel en masse, 10 or 20 of them, to Berlin or London, Chicago or Los Angeles, and spend three or four days touring the homes of private local collectors—millionaires and billionaires like themselves—getting behind-the-scenes tours of local museums and lunching with prominent players in the art scene.

“I happen to think Kathleen does a better job than anyone in Canada of those tours,” says Lind, who’s been on several. “She just makes everything go tickety-boo. She makes sure we have access to the best collections. In this world, you have to earn their trust, and she does. It’s who you know.”

Those connections have paid off for Bartels. She’s scored major donations of art and money from art lovers inside and outside Vancouver. She, Audain, and Aisenstat have also demonstrated that they have pull provincially. Not only did the premier promise $50 million for a new gallery two years ago, but he took the extraordinary step of trying to find a piece of land in Vancouver where they could put it. This winter, after two years of studies, it became clear that Gordon Campbell’s offer to put the gallery on False Creek near the Plaza of Nations was unworkable—there were just too many technical obstacles to building on the waterfront—but the move made it clear he’s willing to arrange deals in the city for the gallery’s benefit.

But it’s Bartels’s ability to connect locally—not out in the big art world or in Victoria—that’s being put to the test now. She and her group have to turn their attention to some immediate problems: how to convince the city to let them have, for free, the last empty downtown block for the new gallery, and how to convince their many resident critics that the whole project is worth doing.

Raising the $350 million they’re likely to need doesn’t seem to be the biggest issue. Contradicting the idea that Vancouver doesn’t have the kind of freefloating dollars that a tech-rich Seattle does, Michael Audain—whose Polygon Homes generates $375 million a year in revenue—expresses little concern about fundraising. “Do you think the families of Vancouver don’t have money?” he asks with mild amusement. “We don’t have Microsoft, but we do have very substantial families here.” And they have more than Vancouver money. There’s the Toronto money of people like Phil Lind and financier Alan Schwartz, who gave 60 major photo works to the VAG in 2002. As well, David Aisenstat—who owns, among other things, a massive art collection, his own plane, the Shore Club, and the Keg restaurant chain—notes that Calgary people love to come here for the culture. Vancouver is their New York and they’re ready to support it.

All the VAG needs to do is make them feel as though they’re making a difference. Other cities have done it, cities that might not seem awash in art money. Dallas, for instance. To some, the desolate plains city is home to nothing but drive-by shootings and the occasional hurricane. But Aisenstat sees a lot more. “Texas was eye-opening to me. We’re not New York or London or Berlin or Paris. But we could do at least what Dallas has done,” he says wistfully. Audain, who visited the Dallas/Fort Worth museums last October as part of Bartels’s yearly tour, chimes in: “What impressed me was the calibre of the museums in the Texas cities we visited. When I went to Dallas 30 years ago, none of those institutions existed. Yet it’s fair to say those cities didn’t have anything like the artists that Vancouver has.” If Dallas, land of oil and cowboys, can pull enough money out of its wealthy locals to build a Tadao Ando-designed Museum of Modern Art, and a Louis Kahn-designed Kimball Art Museum, and a Philip Johnson-designed Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, surely the city that’s home to the revered Jeff Wall et al. can come up with the needed $350 million.

So goes the argument. In Dallas, though, it was sufficient just to convince culture-starved locals that an Ando-designed museum would put their city on the map. There was no battalion of local collectors, architects, and artists saying that simply wasn’t good enough. If Bartels and her team are to succeed, they’ll have to persuade their much more feisty opposition that Vancouver’s going to end up with something more than just a designer building.VM

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