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Vancouver Art Gallery might have to bail on False Creek

June 3rd, 2009 · 20 Comments

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are lots of simmering undercurrents in the city’s attempts to plan Northeast False Creek.

One of the biggest is what is happening with the Vancouver Art Gallery. If you’ll recall, Premier Gordon Campbell made the strangest announcement of all time last May when he said the gallery would be relocating to a site near the old Expo Plaza of Nations. That was even though he is 1. not the owner of the land 2. not the director of the art gallery 3. not a city planner or council member. Whatever.

There was an obscure line in the news release saying that the landowner, Canadian Metropolitan Properties, which now owns the Plaza of Nations land, was willing to allow the gallery to move there in return for “future development considerations” from the city. We’ve NEVER had the details on what all of that meant and neither has the city. Staffers to this day will talk about how the announcement came as a “total surprise” to them, even though they were in the midst of allegedly trying to plan this area.

At any rate, fast forward a year and the VAG has has feasibility studies done by architect Richard Henriquez. Neither I nor anyone on council has seen the report, but there seems to be a lot of information floating around from it about the negatives for the site. It’s essentially fill, which means construction will be tricky. The water table there is high, which means you can’t go underground for storage or parking or anything.

I haven’t heard anyone specifically mention it, but it is a bit of a bold move to put an art gallery in an area that currently doesn’t attract what I’d call a super-arty crowd. There are two sports stadiums, a casino, a Costco, a nightclub and, if I’m not mistaken, a sports-video-gaming type place. As well, it’s cut off from the rest of the city by the stadiums, the two sections of Pacific Boulevard and the mini-cliff at that edge of the downtown.

On the other hand, you could imagine that area transformed into a dramatically new kind of waterfront filled with activity, like London is along certain parts of the river. The Tate Modern, which occupies a former power plant on the river, has turned into a hub of activity, with all kinds of bars, restaurants, and other forms of entertainment clustered around it. There are many who’ve criticized Vancouver over the years for creating such a boring waterfront, with walkways and parks and nothing else. An art gallery on the seawall might be just the ticket to start changing that.

So it could potentially be a great spot, if everything converged in the right way — or it could be disastrous.

However, it is sounding increasingly as though that argument is moot, as you can read here. People from the gallery are holding to the line that they are still looking at the site as an option, but I am hearing from several, including mournful ones who would have liked to see the gallery there, that it’s increasingly unlikely.

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  • jimmy olson

    The news about Campbell’s “announcement” is indeed strange… up to a point. Might it be yet another example of back-room wheeling and dealing, ala BC Rail? Keep on digging.

  • Joe Just Joe

    Frances, the complete report hasn’t been made public but there was an open house late last year which discussed most of what’s in the report. It seems like you are somewhat aware of the details with your mention of the Tate Modern as that is exactly what was used as the baseline.
    That announcement even caught the VAG off guard as well, as they had invested a lot of time and effort into the cultural precinct concept at the Bus depot site. Some powerful members still feel very strongly towards the Larwill Park site and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it revert back there.
    I prefer the Georgia St location as well but feel something is needed down in NEFC to attract the masses, and not a public square.

  • Michael Phillips

    The idea of relocating the Art Gallery has always mystified me. It’s currently situated in what is probably the single most coveted location in the city and it’s fantastic city design to have an art gallery right in the centre of the city’s action. For instance the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square in London.

    The idea that there is not enough room at the current location and that this is a 200 to 400 million dollar problem is strange. The art is very spaced out, much more than at say the National Gallery or the Tate Modern. There is nothing wrong with putting painting right next to painting, that’s how the pros do it. Even the Mona Lisa doesn’t have the space that some of these artworks have.

    In any discussion about reinvigorating the Art Gallery and having it be capable of drawing more tourists and bringing cultural capital to our city, the elephant in the room is that the Art Gallery is missing one important thing: great art.

    It wasn’t the Tate Modern which reinvigorated the Southbank of London, it was Rothko, Lichtenstein, Picasso, Dali, Bacon etc. who brought the tourists; their paintings happened to be located in the Tate Modern. We could put our gallery anywhere in any new shimmering building but it won’t matter much unless the art is capable of bringing the people. Let’s face it, alot of the art is forgettable and the urgent and expensive need to house more of it is a doubtful case.

    Naturally this perspective is antithetical to how a government thinks. The bureaucratic reaction is to build a newer, shinier, bigger building. When the province, the city and developers sit down to discuss land use, I’m sure Rothko is not on the agenda.

    Before anyone mentions that we can’t afford these works consider the money we are thinking of spending on a new facility, 200 to 400 million. Even in the big leagues that’s alot of great art. With careful quality contemporary art shopping and a few iconic older names, VAG would be an art landmark for this kind of money. And isn’t that what an art gallery is for, not a shiny new legacy building to increase land values, but great art. And the local economy will follow.

    In any case we need more money for a new big-picture, specific and honest plan for drug rehabilitation before we start in with Picassos, let alone a new 200-400M art gallery. But maybe in 15 years, when we’re proud of having helped the DTES become the amazing neighbourhood it will be, we can contemplate making the Vancouver Art Gallery great in the only way that really matters.

  • gmgw

    Michael Phillips:
    VAG management says that its exhibition space in its current location is restricted enough that only something like 15% of its collection can be displayed at any one time. The fact that much of that collection is fusty late-Victorian-era work that no one except scholars of the mediocre would want to see is beside the point (in fairness, the VAG actually has some good modern work in its vaults, including an important Kienholz piece and an excellent photography collection). Moreover, the VAG also claims that it has to pass on the kind of major international exhibitions commonly seen in Toronto and Montreal due to that same lack of space.

    I think there’s no argument that the VAG needs more room. Something that concerns me is that if money remains tight– or even if it doesn’t– the city may decide to finance a new gallery by selling the old courthouse location to a major developer. It would be almost impossible to adapt the building to a new use; and as for the courthouse’s heritage status, that means less than nothing in a city where money talks as loudly as it does in Vancouver.

    If money was not a problem, an interesting compromise might be reached whereby a new gallery was built wherever and used for major traveling exhibits and the like while the courthouse space was used for a permanent Emily Carr exhibit, or material equally crowd-pleasing from the permanent collection (if there is any such thing), or perhaps some kind of performance space.

    In any case, MP, I’m charmed by your well-meant but somewhat naive suggestion to take “$200-400 million” and do some “contemporary art shopping and a few iconic older names”. Have you checked the prices being realized at auction by work by major artists in the past few years? In 2006, David Geffen sold off a Pollock, a de Kooning and a Jasper Johns for $14o million, $137 million, and $80 million respectively. Well, how about a Monet instead? A nice one went for $41 million in New York last month. Even with the ongoing economic crisis, which has lowered auction prices for major crowd-drawing works of art somewhat, the art market still routinely buys and sells at levels stratospheric enough to prevent all but a tiny handful of institutions from acquiring them; and then only with government help, as a rule. Even the Getty, the wealthiest art museum in the world, has had to drastically cut its budget recently after seeing the value of its massive endowment plummet with the rest of the economy.

    Nice idea, though, MP. Know any spendthrift billionaires who are culturally inclined?

  • There is nothing unusual about 15% display at any one time: its called rotation: actually, a good process!

    Spacing has little to do with quantity of collection. The Mona Lisa, last time I saw it, three years ago was sort of “on-its-own-special.” So too the Night Watch.

    Spacing has more to do with curator creativity than quantity in the basement. European galleries display cheek-by-jowel because history has provided far more art than space.

    More importantly for VAG . . .

    The art market world is in a state of severe re-ajustment after the frantic bubble of the last decade or more.

    Damien Hirst’s multi-billion dollar objects are deteriorating: leaking formaldeyhde. Saatchi made some pretty shallow decisons back in the days when an unmade bed was art (Is it still?). Its east London warehouse had a fire that got rid of lots of junk (wise biz decision?)

    To use Tate Modern as a model is baffling: the huge cavernous ex-power house has so much empty space scale alone discounts the exhibits: smaller side spaces for special shows often go unnoticed. Scale alone makes the comparison inappropriate.

    Why move the gallery? There is no reason other than some arcane politico/money-talks reasoning.

    NEFC High Level Review

    refers, page 13, to a 35,000 sq. ft. Civic Plaza and a VAG forecourt of 33,000 sq. ft. with a projected density of some 1,200 units . . . an absolutely inadequate density.

    I am at a loss to understand the all-of-a-sudden interest the mayor shows in NEFC: maybe there is nothing else on the books.

    I would feel more comfortable if he would take a closer look at the Review and urge the planning department to forsake it’s 20th century replication of all the brutal horrors of FCN and start again. Refrain from cherry-picking public input to fit its own preconceptions.

    Don’t be taken in by “green” and “sustainability” marketing. Good urban design will take care of that.

    Thinq affordable, spatial, air, noise and foot print impact.

    Plan conceptually not statistically.

  • Tate Modern: the huge bulk of masonry, with its smoke stack is a work of art in itself.

    No Vancouver talent can match that . . . leave VAG where it is . . .

  • Worth noting that the Carrall Street bikeway project provides a traffic-calmed route from Gastown to the northeast side of False Creek, which would facilitate tourists walking a few blocks from G-town and visiting a re-located VAG.

    On my one and only trip to Singapore I was astounded to see their seawall. A bustling, colourful place with little shops, restaurants, etc making for an exciting place to stroll and enjoy the ambiance. I’d much sooner see that kind of development over isolated, big, pricey establishments like Watermark… but frankly, there’s room for both.

    I guess it comes down to a question of what’s going to pay the bills for our city. We need more income from business taxes as far as I know, and certain areas of the Seawall would be excellent places for expansion of entertainment and dining facilities, esp since development won’t obscure the views and the majority of economic activity would probably occur at night during the week and or course all day on the weekends.

    I think the issues of shared space can be solved with some consideration for other users by all sides… and agreement to stop calling each other names and start looking for solutions we can all support. We need to stop acting like grown-ups and start acting like children. I’m continually amazed by their ability to find common ground when given the proper tools of respect and consideration.

  • Michael Phillips


    The media always pick out the really high-value sales for the big iconic pieces, but the “normal” market for these artists is much lower. For instance look at the estimated prices (which were considered expensive) for a major art sale at the top of the market in 2007:

    200M pounds is about 350M dollars, well in the range of the art gallery move budget estimate, and you know those budget estimates only move in one direction. So in other words, for the same price or less we could buy the entire 4-day Sotheby sale. We could always then take a quarter of such a stock of art and trade it around for the top works of other galleries on an ongoing basis.

    To find space for this we would probably have to sell the bulk of the existing collection to other galleries.

    So the two options are A) a new building who knows where to house the same or lesser quality art in much greater quantity vs. B) the existing beautiful building in the centre of downtown to house world class art with most of the existing collection sold off to other galleries.

    Or C) drug rehabilitation.

    C > B > A

  • Denis

    Don’t get overly exicted when Saint Gordo has a vision and he starts taling as if he runs most everything. He probrably forgot that vision within a few days and moved along to another one. The fact that his muttering might upset folks doens’t bother him in the least or so it seems.

  • Bill Lee

    Frances Bula said: …”There are many who’ve criticized Vancouver over the years for creating such a boring waterfront, …”

    And if you lived in, say the Begbie School neighbourhood, you would have no waterfront at all.

    CBUT did a set of camera-in-the-car shots some decades ago of the waterfront from Boundary to downtown along the formerly free access pierside streets and played it back in fast motion.

    There were waterfront cafes, fishing places, places where you could touch the water and come up alongside huge ships.

    You can’t do that now. Vancouver has lost its heritage working waterfront to the false claims of security of the docks, cutting off the entire eastside from easy access to the water in the 21st century.

  • Darcy McGee

    > Saint Gordo has a vision and he starts
    > taling as if he runs most everything

    Gordon always talks like he runs things. That’s why his ministers get frustrated: smart people don’t like working for controlling micro-managers.

    My favourite was when Gordon announced a 30% fare cut on BC Ferries…which he privatized (along with his friend David Emerson.)

    Um….if it’s private, why is the premiere announcing a fare cut?

    Sounds similar to what happened here. Gordon has a plan for the VAG, whether or not the VAG likes the plan.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    My recollection is the Premier hand-picked Bing Thom for the Cultural Precinct and, not liking the community-based approach his plan took, fired him and went for the “starchitect” idea of the VAG on False Creek as his grand legacy to the City. His double-dipping right hand man, Ken Dobbell (that bastion of the arts community) was hired by the City and wrote the Cultural Precinct Plan with Sue Harvey, presented to council back in Oct. 2006 (guess how much the City paid him?).

    The negotiations to move the VAG to FC were behind closed doors with Bartletts, who easily won the biggest piece of the Cultural Precinct pie: the “surprise” location and a cheque for $50 million. None of this was a surprise to Bartletts, she was in on it from the start! Understandably, the arts community (sans the VAG) was horrified to find out the lengthy public consultation process was a total sham when the Premier made his “surprise” announcement.

    So after all this backroom dealing, I find it sublimely ironic to hear the VAG chair now say, “I’m a bit shocked they would take it to a public forum like this without a conversation with us.”

  • Sarah Albertson

    I’d like to see the VAG take over the Eatons/Sears building. Add a Patric Blanc green wall
    and perfecto.

  • td

    Bing Thom talked at a lecture a while ago about the concept he had developed for the old bus depot side, with many cultural institutions and businesses creating, what he called, a “cultural Granville Island”, with the VAG above the fray in the upper floors. The VAG liked the site but not the competition/closeness of others. They want the starchitecture, that’s why they have also been cool on the idea of converting the postal headquarters on Georgia St. into their new home. Not enough architectural firepower for them in a conversion (though, of course, that’s a ridiculous position to take).
    The VAG has ambition, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They’ve made amazing progress since twenty years ago. They need more space not for their permanent collection, which isn’t that fantastic except for the BC stuff, but for exhibitions. Their place, though, should be in downtown.
    The postal headquarter is a fantastic building with great opportunity, conversion to a cultural building would allow to maintain the heritage while bringing public life into it. Let’s put the VAG there, and give the courthouse to the Museum of Vancouver.

  • Darcy McGee

    Starchitecture is ruining architecture.

  • MB

    Richard Henriquez is not a starchitect. He is an excellent architect.

    Maybe Gordo’s NEFC art gallery pronouncement will vapourize along with the one about the giant arches over Robson Square.

  • I expect that the real problem here is that the province was wanting to fund a good portion gallery through real estate development. I suspect the city would rather see that money used to pay for affordable or social housing or making the development greener.

    It is time the province stopped trying to use development as a cash cow for initiatives that should be funding out of general revenue. The bubble is over after all.

  • gmgw

    Actually, Richard, the development fees on the nearly two dozen new towers planned or proposed for NEFC– a veritable orgy of densification– are going to pay for the new retractable roof on BC Place stadium. At least that’s the City’s plan at present, and that’s why City planners are facilitating a developer’s paradise down there. If those fees were instead to be directed toward something culturally stimulating (in a town that’s in dire need of such stimulation), like a new art gallery, rather than to keeping the jocks happy, I might at least have found that a small mitigating factor in years to come when I look to NEFC and see the planning abomination that it is currently doomed to become.

  • Joe Just Joe

    The CACs on the Pavco land were waived by the city as it was deemed the stadium is a public amentity. That amount was only in the million dollar range as well. The stadium is certainly not a jock catherdal, in fact most of it’s business is trade shows and exhibitions. They will also be providing a much needed link between Georgia St and Pacific Blvd in the redevelopment.
    All other properties in NEFC will be paying their full share of CACs, hope that clairifies things a bit.

  • sarah

    Actually …it WAS the Tate Modern that reinvigorated the South Bank….not just the art (although I am an art lover). Tate Modern is a dynamic building and meeting place. People go there just to experience the architecture. I know, I worked there for a number of years and encountered this phenomenon nearly every day.