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Artist Jeff Wall looks over proofs of his work at his studio in Vancouver, October 10, 2012. (Globe and Mail)
Artist Jeff Wall looks over proofs of his work at his studio in Vancouver, October 10, 2012. (Globe and Mail)

VISUAL ART

Big-name artists square off over the Vancouver Art Gallery Add to ...

A letter – just a single paragraph long – began circulating by e-mail throughout the Vancouver visual-art community a few weeks ago. Sent by artist Roy Arden, with a deadline looming for a plot of city land, it calls for a “new, stand-alone, iconic building” to house the Vancouver Art Gallery, and also declares support for VAG director Kathleen Bartels and her board “as they work towards its realization.” More than 200 people have since supported the letter by adding their names to a website calling for a new art gallery, among them art-world rock stars Jeff Wall, Douglas Coupland, Ken Lum and Brian Jungen.

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“It seems so very uncontroversial,” Wall told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview. “Why would we not want to have a purpose-, custom-built, hopefully very distinguished, beautiful building for art in this city?”

But the fight for a new VAG – a concept overwhelmingly supported by the visual-art community in an important contemporary-art city – has been anything but uncontroversial. While the public stands by, awaiting word on whether there will be a new museum to visit, the behind-the-scenes machinations have been intense at times.

There has long been a debate about whether to simply expand on the current site in the centre of downtown, as opposed to undertaking what the VAG is calling for: a move to a brand new building on a site a few blocks to the east. The letter calling for a new facility has been signed even by some who feel uncomfortable with the the mention of an “iconic” facility; some have signed it despite a hesitation to tie their support for a new VAG specifically to Bartels (not that they don’t support her; they simply feel the issue is bigger than the current director).

And there has been a great deal of chatter about a conflict between Bartels and local art collector/condo marketer Bob Rennie, which has escalated in the wake of Rennie making public this summer his counterproposal for expansion of the VAG, and following a recent dinner-party incident that has had tongues wagging.

Rennie’s idea – put simply, that the new VAG consist of a number of smaller facilities rather than a single building – created some heated debate. When a story about this was published in The Globe and Mail in August, some – including Arden – were upset that Rennie’s vision was given so much attention. Some also made the argument that, as a marketer of condominiums, Rennie has an interest in scattering museums around the city, given the potential impact on property values.

But in Vancouver – and in contemporary-art circles that stretch far beyond the West Coast – Rennie is an important figure. Internationally, he chairs the Tate’s North American Acquisitions Board. Locally, he has strong connections to City Hall and is hugely influential not just as a generous cheque-writing collector and philanthropist, but as a cultural and business leader who has an eye for art, and the ear, it seems, of just about everyone.

As government dollars become more scarce, it’s hard to deny the increasing importance of this kind of private influence. But this fight for the future of a vital public institution has been compared by more than one person in the art community to something you might witness in a schoolyard. And fingers are pointing in various directions.

Challenges on all sides

The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently housed in a 1906 provincial courthouse that was renovated by Arthur Erickson Architects before its opening in 1983. People may love the location, but it’s hard to find anyone in the visual-art community who thinks the space is adequate. Among their oft-cited concerns: an awkward entrance, low ceilings, small rooms, no auditorium, and environmental issues that require unsightly portable equipment in the galleries. An argument you often hear is that, because of the inadequate exhibition space, most of the collection remains hidden away in storage, which is also inadequate.

For years, Bartels has been making the case for a new building – with the public, with government and with donors.

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