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February 28, 2010

Getting its houses in order

Any city is a collection of people in search of homes to house their ideas. The ideas vary in complexity according to need: giving shelter to families, to culture, to sports and entertainment, to the homeless. So Vancouver’s desire to redefine itself through its collection of homes is commonplace.

The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) has been in a state of psychological homelessness for several years. Though it occupies an entire city block in the heart of downtown, the VAG’s significance has been undermined. Why? Kathleen Bartels, the director of the VAG since 2001, has suggested the gallery abandon its current home, imposing a condition of exile on the venerable institution since leaving her position as assistant director at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. (MOCA, by the way, is attempting to recover from the last decade’s unfettered spending and a nearly exhausted endowment.)

In a city like Vancouver, with its thinly supported cultural scene, where many people would rather sail or hike than tour the stunning Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition now open at the VAG, dreams of relocation are not only unaffordable – they’re damaging. Bartels may be attracted to the idea that a fancy new home might attract more customers, but the Bilbao/Guggenheim phenomenon but was a one-off conceived by very fortunate city and cultural leaders drinking some fine Spanish wine.

The Vancouver gallery’s historic building overflows not only with the fundamentals of neo-classicism such as a central dome, porticos, Ionic columns, but also with collective memory that’s worth more than the building’s exquisite marble. Originally designed as a provincial courthouse (1905) by Francis Rattenbury, the chief architect of B.C.’s Parliament Buildings (1897), and reconfigured for $20-million in the early 1980s by the late master architect Arthur Erickson, the VAG is ripe for reinvention. Consider that the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto has undergone seven expansions since opening to the public in 1918.

The Globe and Mail

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