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Another take on the Vancouver Art Gallery: Roy Arden

March 29th, 2010 · 14 Comments

An interesting letter from artist Roy Arden that has made its way to me.

I submitted the letter below to the Vancouver Sun ‘Commentary’ section. Although it is under the word count limit, they wanted to publish an edited version. The edited version did not correct grammar but removed the reference to the media and changed the tone and intent of the letter. Rather than enter a back and forth negotiation which, I doubt would end in a letter I would agree with, I am circulating this email. Please feel free to pass the letter along or post it on any blog – but in full. Thanks, Roy

Dear Editor,

I am appalled by the efforts of some people who want to thwart the Vancouver Art Gallery’s efforts to create a new home. I am disturbed by some of the leading and blatantly biased journalism that has recently appeared around this issue. The media is meant to report on controversy not manufacture it. A new building will do nothing to harm the historic courthouse as a structure or civic meeting place, it will surely find good use either for the Vancouver Museum or another cultural purpose.

It has been proven definitively that cultural spending returns many times the revenue invested. Institutions define a city. Investing in institutions like the Vancouver Art Gallery ensures a rich culture for the next generations.

When the VAG moved from its former site to the courthouse, it signalled a new era and was a huge boost for the role of visual arts in Vancouver. Vancouver  is ready for, and needs a stand-alone, purpose-built facility. As an artist who has exhibited, and guest-curated exhibitions at the VAG, I am very familiar with its numerous practical shortcomings, many of which would not be apparent to a casual visitor. Yes, many think the courthouse is a fine building, but I am sure they will like the new building too – once they experience it.

Vancouver is a young city, defined more by its future potential than its short past. I have been involved with the VAG since the late 70’s and have seen it suffer years of doldrums and sometimes embarrassing blunders and underachievement under past directors. We are very lucky to have Bartels as a director who has proven time and again, that she has the vision and skills to take the VAG in the right direction. She has grown the membership enormously, raised the quality bar, and inspired a board that is eager and capable for new challenges. Why on earth would anyone want to undermine them?

Those who imagine that this will lead to a folly need to look around at the many other museums around the globe that serve as models. I have been in cities half the size of Vancouver  that have already built new museums along the lines that the VAG proposes. In most of the developed world this project would be seen as an inevitable no-brainer.  Vancouver used to have a sense of long term investment in institutions but seems to be losing it. There is little that humans do that can compete with a new museum for it’s positive ratio of civic and economic good versus downside. In fact, I can’t honestly see a downside.

Ask any architect or well travelled person, and they will tell you that Vancouver may be in a beautiful place but its architecture is at the very low end of the scale. A new VAG could lead the way in inspiring a sense of excitement and direction regarding our built environment. Nobody can know at this point what the new building will look like. New buildings, like almost anything worth doing, always involve a little risk. Taking on that small risk fearlessly is what moves a culture forward.

The VAG’s move to the courthouse had its naysayers too, you don’t hear much from them about it today.  I was on the board of Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery when it moved to its present space on Nelson Street. I remember angry people suspicious of the move at the annual general meeting, and wild accusations were flung in the press. Eight successful years later I have never heard anyone say that the CAG should move back to it’s old space – which has since provided an affordable home to other smaller galleries. I hope today’s obstructionists think hard about how they will be regarded  in the future.

There is a tendency here of boasting about how “World Class” Vancouver is. Yet, it is only when locals succeed abroad that they are lauded at home. Truly world class cities do not promote themselves as such. They know something local is good because they can see that it is good – they don’t need other people to tell them that it is good. We had to wait for the rest of Canada and the world to tell us that Vancouver has an exceptional visual arts scene, maybe now we should see this for ourselves and give it the flagship it deserves.

Roy Arden

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