Now, as a city-imposed February deadline approaches for the VAG to prove its case to obtain the city-owned site known as Larwill Park, Arden felt artists should have more of a voice in the debate. “Purpose-built things always function better than jerry-rigged things,” wrote Arden in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail (he refused a telephone interview). “The current VAG is below par for cities of comparable size. I have been in cities one-third the size of Vancouver that have three times the art infrastructure in size and quality.”
While some describe the problem as the VAG outgrowing the facility, others say the design has been problematic from the start. “It’s a substandard gallery,” says photo-based artist Wall. “… I knew that when I walked into the gallery in 1983. I thought, ‘They’ve made a huge mistake here; this is really too bad.’ I thought that the first two seconds I was in the place,” adds the internationally celebrated artist, who lives in Vancouver.
“It just seemed like a poor plan. I don’t think that the architect was really on his game for that one,” he says. “People have gotten used to it, but I’m not used to it.” (The Erickson point can also be touchy in Vancouver, where the architect, who died in 2009, was a hometown hero to whom some remain fiercely loyal.)
Wall remembers confronting the inadequacies of the space head-on in 1990, when preparing for an exhibition. “It was one of the worst struggles to make a half-decent show I’ve ever done,” he says. “I don’t like it and I’m not satisfied with it and I wish it wasn’t our gallery. And I’m not the only one who thinks that.
As for a new building, he says, “Whether we can afford it is another question. If we can afford it, I can’t think of a reason why we wouldn’t want it.”
Indeed, artists have lined up to support a new VAG building – at public meetings, at city council, and now online. Along with debate about the new shape such a museum would take, how to pay for it is, of course, a huge issue. Talk of a new VAG has been going on for a decade, and over that time, there has been a decline in the economy. Further, there are other cultural projects – albeit on a much smaller scale – that will be competing for capital dollars, including a proposed new Presentation House Gallery for North Vancouver.
And the ambitions for a new Vancouver Art Gallery took a hit last week when Michael Audain, a wealthy real-estate developer, philanthropist and collector, announced his intention to build a gallery in Whistler to house his own substantial collection. Audain has – along with Bartels and former VAG board chair David Aisenstat – been a driving force for a new building, functioning for a time as a spokesperson, while he served as chair of the relocation committee. Audain, who remains chair of the VAG Foundation, says he still supports a new VAG. But there is a pervasive feeling that, along with much of his art, his money will now be going north up the Sea to Sky Highway.
“Michael Audain announcing Whistler is, I believe, his recognition that Larwill Park is not going to happen,” says Michael Turner, a Vancouver-based writer, critic and curator who has been closely following the saga. Or as another person, who asked not to be named, put it: “It’s the last nail in the coffin” for Larwill Park.
In any case, in light of the potential challenges, and with time moving on, there is quiet talk about drifting back to the expand-on-the-current-site solution.
Turner, who, like others, signed the petition despite disagreeing with the use of the term “iconic,” says that, in conversations he has been having, the feeling increasingly is that this move is not going to happen. Among the reasons he cites is Rennie’s powerful position in the city, and Rennie’s well-known personal disdain for Bartels.
Persona non grata
On this front, things came to a head last month during what has become a notorious dinner-party incident, related this week by Turner on his blog.