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.
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