OP-ED: Time for Plan B at the VAG

By Darlene Marzari

I am no longer accustomed to throwing in my two cents on civic issues, except around dinner tables and in canoes on distant lakes. But I am ready to join those who are concerned about the Vancouver Art Gallery's (VAG) decision to move to Larwill Park (aka, the old bus station site at Cambie and Dunsmuir).

Frances Bula, Abe Rogatnick (prior to his death), Bing Thom, Cornelia Oberlander, Lisa Rochon and a few others have already aired their thoughts on the matter, and have been very eloquent in doing so.

They have clearly outlined the reasons and benefits for keeping the Gallery on its present site: these reasons having to do with the location being the very heart of the city, the place where art should be, and the building being purpose-designed and renovated for the use by Arthur Erickson in the 1980s.

I would add to these reasons that, if the intent is to hold an international competition and strive for an architectural statement of Bilbao proportions, then I suspect that excavating under the plaza facing Georgia Street and moving into the adjacent quarters in Robson Square (now rented by the University of British Columbia) may well be a much less expensive alternative.

Twelve years ago, a committee appointed by the VAG board brought forward a comprehensive plan for a potential expansion of the gallery. The committee was co-chaired by Michael Heeney, an architect and partner with Bing Thom, and myself. We contracted with Michael Lundholm, an architectural planner with remarkable credentials and museum planning experience - and a Canadian, I may add.

Mr. Lundholm spent a year studying the capacity and shortcomings of the existing site and reported to the VAG board with a proposed building program and a number of options for expansion. The proposed program would have increased the floor space of the gallery and its storage area by 50 per cent.

He demonstrated that there were a number of different approaches that could be taken on the existing site to accommodate this additional space. No grand architectural plan was drawn - the project was simply an assessment of the VAG's needs and what might be feasible as well as a few drawings to illustrate these possibilities. These design ideas were run past Arthur Erickson, who saw the possibilities and did not object to our final presentation. The Board also endorsed the concept.

Pre-2000 was not the time, however, for huge capital fundraising in the city. Moreover, the City of Vancouver had other cultural issues to deal with and was not on side for a protracted exercise that inevitably would have raised significant, long-standing legal questions about whether the building and lands came under authority of the city or the provincial government. And if a major excavation project was undertaken, who might be left holding the bag?

The ideas for expansion were left unresolved, the committee was disbanded and the materials remain in Michael Heeney's files and probably at the gallery for anyone to peruse.

I exhume the story now because the material might well be worth looking at again should the board reconsider its plans. In other words, there is a plan B. It's a decade old but well worth a re-reading.

I should say I have huge respect for Michael Audain and I can understand why he might be taking such a strong position on Larwill Park. The site has many claimants and has been studied over five years as a possible home for a variety of cultural uses. But nothing conclusive has emerged, however, so now is an ideal time for him to stake a claim at Larwill Park. It's as if there is nothing for the VAG to lose by engaging in this strategy.

But the VAG does risk losing the Robson Street site in the process. And to delay looking at possible alternatives that would keep the Art Gallery at Robson Square could well be a huge loss for the city as a whole. If it's true that heritage considerations are limiting any meaningful expansion possibilities on the present site, then perhaps it is time for some compromises to be made by and with the appropriate agencies.

I think the situation calls for some leadership and getting the relevant bodies around a table somewhere to work it out before positions are completely entrenched with somebody winning and somebody else losing.

Of course, as always, I am concerned how such major decisions can be made in the first place without a decent public involvement. The city planning commission used to be the place where issues like this would be discussed and communities canvassed for opinions, sometimes formally, and sometimes informally.

There are ways to canvas opinion by including citizens in the process rather than by forcing reactions in the press. It's time to involve citizens and explore all the options.

There is a lot at stake here – for the art gallery and for the future of Vancouver. Please make a difference if you can on this issue.

Darlene Marzari is a former Vancouver city councillor and BC minister of municipal affairs.

OP-ED articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Think City. To make a submission to the OP-ED section of the Think City Minute, please email editor@thinkcity.ca for details.  

does authenticity flourish in what remains untouched?

Well, I think you may get your wish, due simply to the continually flailing world economy and "new frugality" we are seeing. The age of Bilbao has passed, and even the high-end architecture world is seeing a lot more cases of remodeling and renovations in the place of mega-builds. For example, take a look at the expansion of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which at one time had contracted the super-trio of Rem Koolhaus, Frank Ghery, and Joshua Prince Ramous. An interesting media-blurb of that project (from the OMA website) "Koolhaas suggests not developing some of the rooms. He asks the question: "Is there a virtue in neglect; does authenticity flourish in what remains untouched?"

VAG stays put

The VAG will stay where it is... with the following changes.

- a great expansion of the current inadequate entrance/gathering area, and renovation below ground to create a new large scale exhibition space.

- a separate storage facility needs to be leased or built (not downtown), to hold the current collection in the basement.

VAG collection

Under Ms. Bartels the VAG has become a much more exciting gallery. The quality of its large exhibitions puts it on a par with any major North American city, even though it cannot compete with many of them for floorspace. The FUSE events, the VAG's OffSite exhibits at Shangri-La, and the Olympic CODE video screen on Robson attract people who perhaps otherwise would not attend the gallery. That's the positive. The negative is that the VAG's collection, mostly in storage, is good, and in some cases very good, art which should be shown more often, but it is not necessarily great art. Pieces do get to see the light of day (or artificial light) from time to time as part of the many themed shows. If the Robson Square site were to be enlarged fifty percent by building OVER Robson and Howe streets, and by adding onto the courtyards at front and back (whichever is which--the back being front), the VAG could show more of its stored work, have larger exhibition space, create an exciting architectural statement in the centre of the city which integrates the classic old courthouse with a 21st century addition, and maintain its centrality. If the VAG moves to the Larwill Park site, however, it will not be granted the entire site. Like the Library, it will share the block with an office tower, or, heaven forbid, yet another condo for the wealthy. Look at Larwill Park: if a new art gallery is built there, what does it face? The backside of the Queen Elizabeth theatres (their loading bays); an office tower; the renovated but still imposing CBC north facade; the old armoury to the east. It is no cultural precinct. So while I agree that the VAG needs to increase its floorspace, adding lecture halls and more exhibit rooms, I would like them to get "unstuck" about Larwill Park and get some input from architects into conceptual plans for a Robson Square revival. This would also serve downtown better; Larwill Park can be developed as a concert hall, perhaps, more in keeping with the QE and the CBC nearby.

The VAG

The location of the VAG is the heart of our city and is integral to keeping it's vitality. New is not always better as many intelligent people have affirmed already.

lovely architecture, lovely location

Thank you for the balanced article, Darlene. It's seems among the corporate choir of VAG supporters there are many voices lost in the wilderness - like ours, the taxpayers, many of whom are fans of the current gallery. I fear our voices are not being heard, and why consultation is key. The current VAG has been carrying out a slick and insidious marketing job on why the gallery has to move - the whys have not been compelling - and I have noticed over the last several months that many of those leaving comments on Think City, or the VAG site, write as if a new art gallery is a fait accompli. But listen up folks - new is not better, bigger is not better. We have choices, as many have pointed out - expansion being among them.

Keep the Vag and expand up and over Robson Street!

I would like to see the earlier plan that Darlene Marzari is talking about. Just because it didn't go forward at that time doesn't mean that it isn't a good design for today. Location, location, location: you can't get a better one than at Rosbson Square. It is one (or maybe a few) of the places in Vancouver where people can gather reminding me of some of the great public squares I've seen in Europe. We need to bring people together, not push them away. I can't image a better use of that building than it's current one to attract so many people. It's a space where anyone, no matter what their circumstances can go, to sit on the stairs, relax, meet friends, eat lunches and simply people watch. It's at the crossroads of the downtown centre where Robson, Georgia and Granville Streets converge. The buses and skytrains are just steps away. Most visitors to the city will end up walking by this landmark at least several times during their stay. Architecturally it's a beautiful building with lots of free public spaces for anyone to enjoy. As for an idea for expansion, why not build something up and over Robson Steet above the revitalized ice rink. It could be built in such a way that it would not encroach on the architecture of the Art Gallery or the court houses. I think the City owes it to it's residents to continue the dialogue.

We must also think of other ways to reinvent the gallery space

I can see some of the arguments and the desires, even nostalgia, surrounding the VAG. Be we cannot be so myopic in our vision for the space and need to think of other ways it can be utilized for the benefit of our community. The key is to keep it as community space. For sure the VAG is where our community comes to express itself politically, artisiticly, through festivals and community focused initiatives. I think the tragedy of the VAG as it stands is that it does not reflect the true nature of the space. My vision of the Art Gallery is to have it be a freely open, artistically drivin, community orientated, politically aware, ecologically centred space for our community to express itself. As an Art Gallery the space is constricting when viewed from an international context. I support moving the Art Gallery to an new architecturally expressive place which can be a world leader in the art world. The place at Robson square should become part of the commons which facilitates Vancouvers art, culture, politics, ecology and expresses itself it a deeply community orientated way. Let's think outside the box on this one folks. We can make this space, which is in the heart of Vancouver, socially revolutionary.

VAG Relocation

One need look no further than the renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario to see how an existing building can be adapted and renewed (costs notwithstanding). "New" isn't necessarily better.

VAG plan B

Thank you Darlene and yes, where is the leadership on this? When architects, columnists and retired politicians are leading the discussions one has to wonder what our elected representatives are doing. In any case, there could be a lot to gain with the VAG looking or being forced to look at the "build down" expansion of it current site and a tremendous amount to be lost if the site reverts to the provincial government who have no reason to do anything in the interests of downtown Vancouver.

Re: Art Gallery Relocation?

The issue of space can be resolved by implementing the plans that were suggested a decade ago. Rather than spending exorbitant amounts of money relocating to another area of the downtown core, there's a lot of square footage that can be used such as: restaurant, shops, and the entrance could be modified, there's too much space offered to show some art pieces that might be minimized, and I'm certain that there's more space that could be remolded and become useful. Where there's a will, there's a way... The building's architecture is quite suitable for the purpose of presenting art to the public. It's grounds could certainly be used to encompus the restaurant, shop and whatever else--public benches and the fountain can remain the focal point. At the present, the grounds are mainly taken over by drug dealers and various rallies, skate-boarders, people who may sit down for lunch, or even movie shuts. There's so much that could be done to emblish and improve this central and great Art Gallery; why relocate?

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