Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Vancouver Art Gallery debate is a blank canvas

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, a two-hour symposium was held in the subterranean Robson Square theatre to discuss the burning civic question of, Whither the Vancouver Art Gallery? Two mind-numbing concept-filled hours later, nothing had been settled except I definitely had a headache. For this, I missed 30 Rock.
Here's an important fact about that evening:
It was exactly 46 minutes into the proceedings before one of the five panellists deigned to mention the issue of money, and then only in passing -- which was odd because, as we all know, art is about money.
In this case, the VAG's desire to relocate to the block just east of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre would demand a whack of it, somewhere in the range of $350 million, give or take a king's ransom.
Is such a sum problematic? No, we have been told. A couple weeks ago, developer Michael Audain, chair of the art gallery relocation committee, assured the editorial board of The Sun that raising it was not at all a difficulty; that with the $50 million the provincial government had already promised for a new gallery, and the $40 million the committee had lined up in pledges, the rest could be made up by private donation. Audain travels in rarefied company.
But since then, Europe has filed for Chapter 11, the markets have dropped off the edge of the world, and Audain has started campaigning for the feds to chip in money, too. If Ottawa was willing to buy the votes of arty Torontonians and Montrealers, he reasoned, it was only right it should do the same for Vancouverites. Any pork in a storm, I guess.
All that money does not include the cost of the three acres of land, which, the VAG committee insists, should be donated by the City of Vancouver, which owns it. There is also the matter of a $48-million encumbrance on the property, money devoted to the renovation of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and money that the city wants to recoup. While the city would surely admit that you can't put a price on the feeling great art inspires, the profit on an office-tower development on prime downtown real estate is another matter. The former is incalculable; the latter makes your bond-rating agency do handstands.
This gap between purposes deserved to be discussed at the symposium: It was not. None of this was brought up by the panellists. Instead, there was talk of "iconic structures" and "public space." There was talk of Vancouver being a "frontier city" as opposed to a city whose cutting-edge artists deserved a space commensurate with their world-renowned talents. Audain even mentioned a recent visit to New York just to view an Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, a devotion to art with which I, and my bank account, am unaccustomed.
A city's movers and shakers propel a city forward with the cultural edifices they create, of course, but there was, in all this high talk, a baser and unspoken undercurrent of meaning that seemed to be concerned more with image than with art, and that Vancouver had outgrown not the VAG, but its britches. The VAG wanted to move because it wanted to play with the big boys. The new gallery would be our first real pair of pants.
At the end of the evening, the panel entertained comments from the floor, most of which centred around the should-we-stay-or-should-we-go issue. The sentiments were 50-50. My personal favourite came from Andrew Gruft, professor emeritus with the University of BC school of architecture, who was, true to his name, gruft. Preferring plain English to artspeak, he argued that the gallery should stay where it is, that it should be gutted and expanded outward toward Robson Street. Yes, it would present difficulties, he said, but to move the gallery away from its present location would destroy the city centre's focus.
"The VAG's move to a new location would be tearing out the heart of the city. And why?! People would kill to get in [the old location], and we're going to walk away from it?! Give me a break!"
To be honest, I'm not sure what to think about the idea of the VAG moving. I know what a great art gallery can mean to a city -- in another life I was a member of the Detroit Institute of Arts, a welcome island of enlightenment in the midst of a wrecked city.
But after what they say was several years of spade work, the VAG board and relocation committee have given the public and government nothing to work with except questions.
Funding? Architectural plans? Land costs? The cost of operating a new gallery once it's built? The accommodation of other cultural institutions on the site, such as a mid-sized symphony hall? The draining effect that so huge an investment of public and private donations will have on the city's other, more needy, cultural institutions? The finding of new tenants for the old gallery once the new one has been built?
These unanswered questions betray a sense of entitlement that art and money bring, I think, as if the folks at VAG are telling us that they needn't bother with the hard details. Perhaps they have but aren't saying.
What they have offered, instead, is a blank canvas on which any vision is possible, as long as it's theirs.

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