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Kathleen Bartels, Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, is photographed in Rodney Graham's Canadian Humourist exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Kathleen Bartels, Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, is photographed in Rodney Graham's Canadian Humourist exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Star-studded open letter pushes for new VAG building in Vancouver Add to ...

An online letter supporting a proposed new Vancouver Art Gallery has been signed by an impressive list of artists, curators, gallerists and others connected to the visual arts. Among those who have put their name to the letter calling for a “new, stand-alone, iconic building” and pledging support for gallery director Kathleen Bartels are artists Jeff Wall, Roy Arden and Ken Lum; and director/curators Reid Shier (Presentation House Gallery), Nigel Prince (Contemporary Art Gallery) and Scott Watson (Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC).

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“We believe it is time for a new gallery and that the benefits it will bring to visual arts culture in Vancouver, British Columbia and Canada are beyond question and will be shared by everyone,” reads the letter, in part.

VAG officials want to move to a plot of city-owned land a few blocks from its current location in the city centre. The land has been set aside for the VAG by city council, which in February of 2011 granted the gallery two years to prove its case for the move and the new building, adding the building would have to share the block with an office tower. The VAG has said that the current building – a former provincial courthouse renovated by Arthur Erickson to house the gallery – is not large enough to accommodate its vast collection or activities, including its education programs.

“I think the present facility is woefully inadequate,” said Watson, director at the Belkin. “I know that Arthur Erickson was a god of architecture, but the galleries just don’t work well. The ceilings are too low, the rooms are too small. They can’t show the collection.”

Vancouver-based writer, curator and art critic Michael Turner also signed the letter but did so, he says, holding his nose, regretful that such a letter did not appear toward the beginning of the VAG’s campaign, and put off by the mention of the “iconic” building.

“For me, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. There’s this move towards a supermodel iconic building,” Turner says. “The collection’s more important than the building. … It’s a magnificent collection and it really has to be out there in permanent displays and be seen.”

The fact that the bulk of the permanent collection – which numbers over 10,000 works – has to remain in storage and cannot be seen by the public has been at the heart of the argument put forward by VAG officials that the city needs a new gallery, estimated to cost roughly $350-million.

Facing a February of 2013 deadline, Bartels says communication with the city is ongoing.

“[We’re] moving along with getting our business case finalized and presenting that to them, which is one of the criteria that was laid out in the council resolution,” Bartels said on Monday. “Making sure that we kind of look at all site options, so that’s in process, and we’ve been working very closely with the city on that, including the post office and the viability of that. All these things are moving forward. So there’s a lot of activity, but nothing public at this particular moment.”

Bartels said that while the city asked the VAG to look at the possibility of moving to the post office site, which is to be vacated by Canada Post, the focus of the discussion has been the site at Georgia and Cambie streets.

The letter was forwarded to The Globe and Mail by Arden, but he would not identify who organized the campaign or who wrote the letter.

“It doesn’t matter who started it or wrote it, what matters is who has signed the letter – it is an impressive list of practically everybody who is responsible for visual arts in Vancouver and the list is still growing,” wrote Arden, who said he preferred to be interviewed by e-mail.

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