Thursday, July 8, 2010

Should They Stay, or Should They Go?

Last night at Robson Square, Kathleen Bartels, Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, convened a public information session and discussion on the Gallery's proposed relocation from its current site on Robson Street, between Howe and Hornby, to the former bus depot six blocks east, between Cambie and Beatty streets.

On a panel chaired by Michael Goldberg, professor of business at UBC (whose Sauder School occupies the basement of Robson Square, where we were meeting, and which no doubt is eying a potentially vacant space upstairs for possible expansion), we heard depositions from the following distinguished persons:

1. Michael Audain: CEO of Polygon Homes, arts philanthropist extraordinaire, VAG Board Member and Chair of its Relocation Committee, whose case for why the VAG should move was initially a little vague (we need an education centre and an outdoor space to display sculpture), why the current site was a no-go even vaguer, and who all-in-all just isn't the best public speaker.

2. Ray Spaxman: Vancouver's Chief City Planner from 1973-89, now an independent urban design consultant, who said that in order for this project to succeed the VAG had to be as transparent as possible in its presentations to and consultations with the public, and that above all there needed to be a comprehensive independent and unbiased review of the pros and cons of relocation. Much talk was made of this being the public's art gallery, that the works in its collection were held in trust for the people of Vancouver. But, as Spaxman suggested (and as several questioners later pointed out), the VAG has so far done a poor job consulting the public on the move, and engaging them in an open debate on its merits. Instead, it has presented the relocation (and above all the bus depot site) as a fait accompli, and has asked us to get on side.

Spaxman made another very compelling point: he noted city representatives' absence at the forum and said that, really, it should be the City leading this conversation. The City should be taking charge of what kind of art gallery Vancouver wants, and where it wants it, instead of the Gallery lobbying its patrons to lobby in turn elected officials to agree to hand over the desired plot of land the Gallery has chosen.

3. Mark Soo: a local artist (whose work Richard and I in fact own) included in the Gallery's collection, and who reminded us that the artwork should always be at the centre of these debates, and that the Gallery had a responsibility and obligation to display its permanent collection to the citizens of Vancouver (something it cannot do effectively at its current site).

4. Stanley Kwok: developer, buddy to Li Ka-shing, and major Concord Pacific player, who made the point that when people travel to major cities around the world, art galleries and museums are often first on their itineraries. In order to brand itself like Bilbao, according to Kwok, Vancouver needs to create a "masterpiece" of a new gallery, which means holding an international architectural competition and commissioning a bold design by a bold designer--something Bartels very much wants to do.

5. Hank Bull: legendary Western Front founder and current Centre A Director, who reminded us that Vancouver is a very young city, and that this presented us with opportunities that other cities didn't have, especially in terms of the (un)built environment. Despite the "For Rent" sign in his own gallery's window, Bull remains very optimistic for the future of arts and culture in Vancouver, and supports the Gallery's relocation, with the proviso that as part of that conversation there is included discussion of what happens to the VAG's current site post relocation, that something equally visionary occur with respect to who gets to occupy the old courthouse space (Bull's suggestion, a very good one, was that a new institution for the display of classical and contemporary Asian art be set up there).

This last point was picked up in the Q&A discussion that followed, with many in the audience worrying about the flight of cultural institutions from the downtown core, and while I'm willing to be convinced that expansion and conversion of the current VAG is impossible and too expensive, I'm equally anxious about what happens after the VAG leaves. To this end, I'm reminded of what happened when the central branch of the VPL moved east from Robson and Burrard to Robson and Hamilton, near to where the VAG now wants to go. Not only did it give us--through a major design competition of the sort Kwok is in favour of--a questionable new grand building in the form of an ersatz Coliseum, but it also lead to the ruin of what was once a beautiful modernist building--and I'm not just referring to the fact that HMV now occupies the premises. If some cultural presence is not maintained in the old courthouse space, then the commercialization of Robson west of Granville will be complete and what is at present the closest the city has to a central public square will be abandoned wholesale to the spectacle of consumerism.

Interestingly, in her opening remarks Bartels concluded by saying that she envisioned the new VAG at the bus depot site as being a "town square for the 21st Century." This theme was picked up on in the discussion by a number of relocation supporters on the panel and in the audience (the first few people to speak at the microphones were all former or current VAG Board members), many of whom made the point that the centre of the city is moving east, and that a new VAG, positioned adjacent the VPL, the Queen E, and the Playhouse, would be at the heart of a vibrant new cultural zone that would shift the axis of the city (indeed, this is the theme of an op-ed by Goldberg recently published in the Vancouver Sun).

However, many of the comments from at present skeptical observers of the VAG's conversations on relocation subsequently expressed concern about the former bus depot site as the de facto choice for a new building. Why has the Gallery put all its eggs in one basket in settling on this site, and why hasn't it revealed what--or even whether--other options were considered?

It also bears remembering that a VAG relocated to Beatty and Dunsmuir is also adjacent the Downtown East Side, an area of the city that was not mentioned once last night. In addition to doing a poor job of communicating to the public--and the City, for that matter--any sense of a vision of what a new Gallery in the east might have as its mission, I have yet to hear any reassurance that a relocated VAG wouldn't be used as a further gentrifying agent in the DTES or, worse still, as effectively a cultural cordon sanitaire between the DTES and the rest of the downtown core.

I want to hear someone address some of these issues, as well as reassure me that whatever design is chosen for a new gallery that it's one that serves the art rather than the architect, and then maybe I'll get on board.


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