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Debate over art gallery draws standing-room and thoughtful crowd

May 21st, 2010 · 19 Comments

It was packed last night at the Robson Square Theatre as people came out to hear the debate over whether and where the Vancouver Art Gallery should move to, along with contributing their own opinions.

Fourteen people spoke in all. Seven were outright in favour of the gallery moving to a new site, including documentary film-maker Michael Cox, who said he’d come in against the move but been convinced that it needed to move. Another two people offered qualified support for a new site, saying that the gallery should either share it with other cultural institutions (Sean Bickerton) or split its collection between two sites, the existing one for more historical work and the new one for one contemporary work (volunteer Cathy Burrell).

Noted architect Bruno Fresci suggested expanding into the Erickson’s courthouse and getting the offices now there to move elsewhere. UBC architecture professor emeritus Andrew Gruft suggested gutting the existing courthouse and building something new over, around and under it. Brenda Burke said the gallery needs to convince her and others that it can serve the people who can’t afford a $21 entrance fee before it asks them to pay the taxes to support a new building.

All in all, a wide-ranging discussion, which Globe reporter Marsha Lederman has detailed more of here.

And just to give you a perspective from outside that room, here’s my most recent column in Vancouver magazine, where I talked to people elsewhere, including the director of the National Gallery in Ottawa and one of the VAG’s major supporters in Toronto, about the VAG and the debate swirling around its potential move.

This debate is so mesmerizing because it really is about how we think of Vancouver and how we imagine it in the future. Artist Ian Wallace mentioned several times that Vancouver is a frontier town that needs to take the next step into the future, although being a frontier town, it tends to be conservative when faced with change. Andrew Pask from the Vancouver Public Space Network provided an interesting insight into the past about the Larwill Park site where the gallery’s directors want to move it. While some say that would remove the gallery from the centre of town, he pointed out that Larwill Park used to be a major public space that hosted city demonstrations and protests, military displays, and carnivals. It could become a locus of that kind of public gathering again.

What has become clearer to me as all the points of view roll out is what should be (and should not be) explored more.

It seems to me, if the gallery is going to make its case to the public, it has to prove:

1. That it really can’t build on the existing site. I personally think it would be hard to build some modern structure over and around the building because heritage advocates in this town would set themselves on fire on the front steps in an effort to preserve one of the city’s few remaining historic buildings. I’d be tempted to join them. I also think Michael Audain has a point when he says it’s a no go to build on the plaza. He said that he personally would be out picketing in front of the gallery to protest a move like that, because the space is a valuable urban gathering space (one where he helped organize the city’s biggest peace march, in the 1960s, that it had had since the 1930s). But the gallery’s reps need to explain more why they can’t go underground or over into the courthouse or split its collection between two sites, as the Tate did in London and as Cathy Burrell suggested.

2. That it won’t hurt other arts groups. One of the biggest fears that serious art lovers in town have is that the VAG’s fundraising efforts will drain all the arts money in town towards them. There are many small galleries and museums living on the edge. As well, Emily Carr University of Art is planning to build a massive new campus on the False Creek Flats within the next five years — the same time frame as the gallery’s fund-raising campaign. It too has to raise money for what it wants, in spite of getting generous provincial backing. VAG education director Heidi Reitmaier, who spoke in favour of the move at the conversation late night, said there were all kinds of fears when the Tate Modern opened in London that it too would suck the money and life out of smaller arts ventures. (She was working at the Tate at the time.) “The amazing thing was that as more money was poured into the Tate, it benefitted other institutions and strengthened all of them.” The VAG’s leaders need to show they’re working with other arts groups, that they’ve developed a plan so that others will benefit and that those other arts groups are supporting them.

3. That it has a business plan for running the future gallery. I’ve heard all kinds of criticisms and worries that the VAG is operating on the thinnest of margins already. So how will it support a much bigger building that needs more staff, more maintenance, more of everything.

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