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Gallery Views

We are art: a new narrative
for the new Vancouver Art Gallery

By MARYSE DE LA GIRODAY
nano@frogheart.ca

Conceptual drawing of proposed design for Vancouver Art Gallery, view across Queen Elizabeth Plaza

Conceptual drawing of proposed design for Vancouver Art Gallery, view across Queen Elizabeth Plaza ©Herzog & de Meuron

It is widely accepted by those who know and care that the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) is in sore need of more space and – if VAG officials and city officials are to be believed – a monumental new building is the only solution. By contrast, Bob Rennie, a Vancouver real estate marketing mogul and internationally respected art collector/expert, and David Baxter, an “economist-geek” and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) school of business, have proposed a bricks-and-mortar solution of their own seemingly inspired by online networks.

Christos Dikeakos, a Vancouver artist and member of the Vancouver photoconceptualist scene with Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall and others, is an enthusiastic supporter of the VAGS’s vision. In response to the conceptual design presented by the VAG and Christine Binswanger, partner in charge for the gallery project with lead architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, Dikeakos enthused: “From an artist’s point of view, these would be the best galleries in the world. In fact, artists would want to be revived from the dead to show here … Herzog & de Meuron aren’t obsessed with winning an architectural beauty contest. They’re conscious of the necessity of recovering the public space here … ”

The concept, revealed at a September 29, 2015 press conference, has not evoked similar enthusiasm everywhere. (Despite requests there was no time for an interview with Kathleen Bartels, VAG executive director, but staff did respond with prepared statements to various questions.) “We’ve received tremendously positive and enthusiastic feedback to the design from the community, civic leaders (the city council and mayor included), architectural critics and design journals (in Canada and around the world), etc. That said, as with all major architectural projects we expect there to be a wide spectrum of opinions.”

An informal poll (829 votes) taken on September 29, 2015 by a local television station had over 80% of the respondents voting “No” to the design.

The new gallery, at approximately 70 metres (230 feet) high, could be one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings, roughly doubling exhibition space from 40,000 square feet to over 85,000 square feet. In a nod to Vancouver’s history as a lumber town, the new gallery could be made of and clad in wood. The design narrative is compelling and appealing for anyone tired of steel, concrete and glass, and the prospect of a wooden tower, sunken garden and pedestrian-friendly space is refreshing.

Binswanger noted that there are not many tall wooden buildings (a misleading term as these are hybrid structures with a higher percentage of wood utilized than usual) of the size and scale envisioned. At approximately 32 metres, the Forté building in Melbourne, Australia is the tallest at this writing. Binswanger also indicated technical issues with the concept (e.g., assuring that the exposed wood cladding would not deteriorate and rot in an untimely or unsightly fashion).

“We should design according to the capabilities of the material. It might not be the smartest thing to make wood water repellent, “ suggests Guido Wimmers, an associate professor and the chair of the University of Northern British Columbia’s Master of Engineering in Integrated Wood Design. Wimmers’s program is housed in the tallest modern North American wood building, the Wood Innovation and Design Centre, in Prince George. He notes that the expertise in and technology for building with this “material du jour” is in Europe. The Canadian industry is nascent, and locally there is only one supplier (StructurLam of Penticton) of the type of wood material – massive wood panels (MWP) – used in this type of construction. Canadians are currently net importers of MWP.

Building technology and local suppliers are not the only issues confronting Bartels. Current estimates are that $350 million is needed to build the gallery. The VAG has $50 million in funding from the province and an insistence there will be no more. An April 2013 city staff report documented $40 million in pledges in addition to the provincial funding for a total of $90 million. Yet, at the September 29, 2015 press conference, $23 million in pledges from the VAG board of trustees were announced for a total of $73 million. From a fundraising perspective, this seems like the wrong direction to be taking. As well, Rennie notes that local millionaire-artists and supporters have not publicly offered financial support (e.g., committing $1 million from the sale of one art piece).

Despite the VAG’s talk of public engagement, most Vancouverites are blithely unaware that the VAG is reputedly the envy of many other U.S. and Canadian public galleries. In response to a question about marketing to and winning Vancouverites’ hearts and minds the VAG replied: “We believe the design speaks for itself and are not relying on marketing to win favour. We feel strongly that the more people know about the project, the more they will support it. We have been actively engaging Vancouver’s citizens in the design process.” (A model of the concept is available for free viewing at the VAG.)

By comparison, the Rennie/Baxter alternate narrative is modest and deliberately amorphous. Where the VAG has predetermined a solution to their problem – a monumental new building – Baxter and Rennie are attempting to open the discussion by asking one question: “What solution to the VAG’s space problem best fits Vancouver?”

As Baxter says about plans for the VAG, “We’re not saying we’re right, but other alternatives need to be discussed publicly.”

“I find what’s happening in Vancouver quite perplexing, “ says Rennie. “It should be all about the viewing spaces, art, sustainability, philanthropy, and the common good. Big buildings are beside the point.”

Rennie, chair of the Tate Museum in London’s (UK) North America Acquisitions Committee and member of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Board of Trustees, and Baxter, an expert on population and economic change and the resulting implications for business and society, seem an unlikely pair to be championing embedded art in the community.

Their proposal’s featured talking points include: a renewal of the VAG’s current location, off-site storage, a second, specialized downtown gallery, and a series of specialized galleries embedded in various Vancouver neighbourhoods. Theirs is an incremental approach (expanding when money becomes available) with a 21st century twist.
Meanwhile, the VAG’s concept has an undeniable appeal as a nod to the city’s history and a potentially dazzling centrepiece for art shows attracting larger local and international audiences.

It is simplistic to present this story as two competing narratives. Art, the pursuit of art, and how we support it is a grand enterprise. In a sense, we all are art, and what is chosen will set the arts environment in Vancouver for the foreseeable future.

Gallery lobby

Gallery lobby ©Herzog & de Meuron

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