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A couple walks into the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday December 13, 2012. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)
A couple walks into the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday December 13, 2012. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)

On Culture

Vancouver wants new home for art gallery Add to ...

There’s something about spending time in an art gallery. It can open eyes, change minds, change lives, even.

Sound hokey? Well, it certainly did not this week at Vancouver City Hall, when more than a dozen members of the public spoke in favour of a new home for the Vancouver Art Gallery. Their reasons varied, but their support was unanimous – as, ultimately, was the council vote.

Some of the stories they told had people in council chambers in tears.

Artist Paul Wong has had a roller coaster relationship with the VAG. In 1984, days before the video installation Confused: Sexual Views was to open, the gallery’s director pulled the plug. Mr. Wong, who directed the video, was incensed, and launched a lawsuit. He ultimately lost, but it became a cause célèbre. Mr. Wong did not step foot in the VAG for 18 years. The boycott ended in 2002, when, under current director Kathleen Bartels, the gallery presented the show Paul Wong: from the collection – which included Confused: Sexual Views, one of several of his works acquired by the gallery. It was quite a moment for the VAG, for Mr. Wong and for the city.

But long before the controversy was the role the VAG played for a youth with a love of art who would go on to win the Governor General’s Award.

“As a very young man, I stumbled into that location on Georgia Street and I can say that I found a home there. And solace there. I found kinship there,” Mr. Wong told the packed, silent room. “As an outsider who didn’t really belong, engaging art through the Vancouver Art Gallery as well as many other places has changed my life, and I know that it has changed a great many other people’s lives. ... I think I would probably have ended up being an East Van street kid. I think I would not be who I am without having stepped through those doors. ...”

Mr. Wong urged council to lease the land to the VAG for a new building. “It is an institution that allows us to breathe. Allows us to see. Allows us to present and be challenged, and that’s what this bold city should be about.”

Artist Stephen Waddell was already making paintings with his father based on Matisse books when he saw a Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at the VAG – and attended a gallery talk, a very big deal for a 10-year-old boy. Later, Mr. Waddell moved to Europe to become an artist. He had what he called “an escape hatch.” But he said other artists here should not have to make that same kind of escape. “We have this opportunity here to do things that I’ve stumbled on in London and in Berlin,” said Mr. Waddell, who spent a decade in Berlin.

“All of my kind of laziness of being 10 years in Europe and watching the Tate Modern come up and watching Berlin build 10 museums in 10 years, I realize that I couldn’t be ... apathetic,” he told council. “I had to come out and say something about this.”

James Hart, a Haida master carver who has been working on a tremendous large-scale sculpture The Dance Screen (The Scream Too) in the gallery for months, talked about how much he enjoys seeing children come through each day, and the energy they bring. (Ms. Bartels later joked that Mr. Hart was having trouble getting his work done because he was spending so much time talking to people.)

The final public speaker was Susan Sirovyak, registrar of collections for the gallery.

“I love my job,” she began, even if, she said, it stresses her out at times. She told council about taking a researcher through the basement vault, crowded with art, and that researcher’s surprise at the VAG’s hidden treasures. Most of the permanent collection of more than 10,500 works is in storage.

“I look with optimism towards a purpose-built gallery that will bring the collection out of the vault and into a space that can permanently showcase these works,” Ms. Sirovyak said. “A purpose-built gallery with room to grow for the 10,523 works and more. A purpose-built gallery for the future Emily Carrs and the future Jeff Walls. I’m one of the rare group of individuals who gets to see first-hand the breadth and scope of the permanent collection, but I’d gladly trade this exclusivity for a gallery that will bring this remarkable collection out of the basement and into the world.”

Whether you believe the Vancouver Art Gallery needs to move or can be just as effective in its current home, whether you think it can raise millions for a new building, whether you want your tax dollars going to this project, it’s hard to argue with the power of an art museum; with the profound effect it can have, especially on a young life. For me, it was the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., where I first saw works by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. The colours, the bold strokes, the breathtaking natural setting of the gallery. It was all so powerful. I was a lousy painter and I couldn’t draw, but I could read – and ultimately write – about it.

Where was that place for you? Where will it be for your kids?

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