The co-owners of Gallery Jones are storing art into just-carpeted racks, installing work on freshly painted (and built) walls, and emerging from weeks in construction mode as they prepare for their first opening in their new industrial-feel space in East Vancouver. There's a wholesale bakery next door, seamstresses working upstairs and across the street, barbed-wire circles atop a chain-link fence surrounding an auto-collision-shop parking lot.
This is the Flats, an in-transition industrial neighbourhood just east of Vancouver's Olympic Village, home to a growing number of commercial galleries – and the future home of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, now under construction. To the west, condos continue to rise around Vancouver's Olympic Village. Up the hill and to the east, Ken Lum's Monument for East Vancouver (commonly called the "East Van Cross") glows some light into these dark, rainy November nights (or afternoons).
"This is Vancouver's contemporary-art district," says Gallery Jones co-owner Shane O'Brien, who relocated with his two partners after 11 years near Granville Island. "Where we were is becoming less and less of an arts area."
A few years ago, the city's commercial gallery district was headquartered on South Granville, a major shopping street that slopes down toward a bridge over False Creek to downtown. But with rents on the rise, galleries – in particular those showing contemporary art – began closing up their west-side storefronts and moving east, where industrial warehouses with their wide-open spaces (and lower price per square foot) beckoned.
Once an industrial area that acted as a sort of psychological barrier between east and west, this neighbourhood has now been activated by art, creating an east-west connection – a pivot point is how Emily Carr president Ron Burnett puts it.
One catalyst for the cultural shift was the donation of False Creek Flats land by Finning – a major Caterpillar equipment dealer – in 2001 to four of the city's postsecondary institutions: Emily Carr, along with the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the British Columbia Institute of Technology, which together created the Centre for Digital Media.
The neighbourhood at the time had very little cultural life; there were certainly no galleries. (The Western Front, a leading artist-run centre, is a few blocks away and up the hill.)
But a decade ago, Catriona Jeffries became a pioneer. The art she was showing was literally outgrowing her gallery on South Granville (now a hair salon); at one point, she punched through the roof for a Geoffrey Farmer installation. In 2005, she found an auto-parts warehouse and began renovations; she moved in in February, 2006.
"Ten years ago people could not believe that I would go east of Main Street and it was seen as extremely radical," she says. Her new large, dynamic space showing internationally acclaimed artists was surrounded by auto-body shops, wood-working operations and large trucks hurtling through the neighbourhood. "It's changed around me."
In 2012, she got some company. Equinox Gallery left South Granville and relocated to a renovated warehouse that once housed tractors and large machinery. Equinox's new home is a stunner – large and airy and a destination – and the move signalled a shift in terms of the city's visual-arts cultural centre.
"Everybody thought there's nothing there. But it was quite the reverse. The impact was so profound," Burnett says.
Other galleries took notice.
"Obviously Catriona was the pioneer years before. But when Andy [Sylvester at Equinox] developed that space and experienced great traffic as a destination gallery, that was a very big draw for all of us," says Winsor Gallery's Jennifer Winsor.
Winsor Gallery left South Granville that same year – there's a Max Mara store there now – taking on a too-big space because it did not want to let the opportunity slip. This fall, it announced that it would co-locate with Gallery Jones. The space, formerly occupied entirely by Winsor Gallery, has been converted into two separate but adjoining galleries.
This weekend, the two galleries held their first joint opening since the co-location. On that same stretch of East 1st, Jeffries opened a big Valérie Blass show. There's also an opening at Monte Clark nearby. It makes for one dynamic art crawl.
There is certainly still art to be bought on South Granville – home to Heffel Fine Art among others. But it's a High Street experience. A few kilometres east the Flats have transformed into the city's contemporary-art district – still somewhat gritty, with large gallery spaces on industrial streets; no Anthropologie, no Restoration Hardware. You might pass by a Brink's depot or a Midas Muffler.
"I think it's really gained a fabulous momentum in the last year. We've got Emily Carr moving in and even the [Vancouver Art Gallery's new] location can be viewed as an extension of our location," Winsor says. "There's not a smattering of art galleries; it's becoming quite a densely populated area, which works for everybody."
The biggest change in the neighbourhood is to come, of course, with the opening of the new Emily Carr campus, scheduled for September, 2017. Burnett anticipates a great synergy between the university and the commercial galleries that will surround it; he points out that many of the galleries show Emily Carr grads.
Emily Carr is planning to produce a series of maps that will take students and visitors on a sort of culture walk in the neighbourhood – connecting nearby Science World, Emily Carr and the galleries of the Flats.
And Burnett has another dream: to build a High Line-type park over the train tracks connecting the neighbourhood with False Creek. He talks up the idea at every opportunity with officials from the city, potential funders – anyone who might be able to help realize what he says could be a profound connector.
"My ultimate hope is that it will be a real cultural precinct," he says. "That has always been the vision."