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Artist Jeff Wall looks over proofs of his work at his studio in Vancouver, October 10, 2012.

The Globe and Mail

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.

"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.

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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.

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

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."

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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

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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.

Bartels was attending a dinner, auctioned off at a Vancouver Symphony Orchestra charity event; the winning bid came from one of her board members. The dinner was at the Rennie Collection at Wing Sang, Rennie's museum. When Rennie and collection director Carey Fouks heard that Bartels was there, they rushed over to the building, and she was told to leave.

"This is the point where most people would say 'No comment.' But I'm going to make a comment," said Rennie, when reached by telephone Thursday in London, and asked about the incident.

"We donated the space to the symphony to have a dinner. We were alerted that there was a guest on our premises that emphatically knew they were not welcome – evidenced by the fact they have never been in our building since we acquired it in 2004. Like anybody else, we all protect our own home. And the shame is that potential philanthropy was put at risk by a very poor sense of judgment to even show up where one is not welcome."

Bartels "respectfully" declined a request to speak about the incident.

Has this become a distraction? Of course. The serious discussion about what is arguably the most important cultural institution in the city has veered off into the trading of juicy tidbits about a high-powered charity dinner party gone horribly wrong.

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But Rennie says this isn't about personalities; it's about financial viability.

"I don't care who signs a petition; nobody is addressing what it is to spend $300- or $400-million dollars in this new economy and it is irresponsible to simply go out and say we want an iconic building," he says. "The public discussion should now be around alternative models and the tough questions that have to be asked in this new economy: Do we spend the money on art, or architecture? And how does this institution fit in with the cultural fabric of Vancouver as a whole? It cannot be talked about in isolation."

While the issues, economic and otherwise, are obviously layered and complex, Arden's desire – the desire of many in this art community – is simple: He might not have become an artist if the VAG was less than it was, he says, and each generation wants to make things better for the next.

"We don't care about gossip," he writes. "We want to see a new building for everyone to enjoy."

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