Given our population of 600,000, limited land space and relatively short urban history, Vancouver will never be home to art museums like the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid or the Tate Gallery in London, England. Give us another 500 to 1,000 years perhaps.
Everyone agrees, however, that the Vancouver Art Gallery needs to be relocated to a much larger building than its current residence in the former courthouse on Robson Street. But do we need to spend $300 million as suggested by VAG director Kathleen Bartels and Bruce Munro Wright, chairman of the board of trustees, to build a massive new gallery in Larwill Park?
Uber real estate marketer Bob Rennie and avid art collector has stated publicly that VAG’s ambitious $300 million plan is too expensive given the tough economic situation facing B.C. and the city. Rennie and urban expert David Baxter suggest splitting VAG into a number of buildings, keeping the current location for historical art and building a 50,000-square-foot gallery at Larwill Park for contemporary art at half the price of VAG’s plan.
The fate of the art gallery has become a contentious issue, which I think is marvelous. Others disagree. Apparently some people have stopped talking to each other. Art is making news. It’s also worth recalling we did spend half a billion dollars on a sports stadium roof.
When I heard Bartels and Wright make their Larwill Park pitch on CBC Radio a few weeks back, I was inclined to agree with Rennie, not so much for his proposal to split up the gallery into several buildings — who wants to traipse around to several locations? — but for acknowledging the tough times we live in and agreeing that a $300 million price tag is pretty steep indeed. (Tough times for regular joes like you and me, not so much for Rennie, who is Vancouver’s condo king.) Try as I might, I can’t escape my paternal genes. My dad was a Scottish chartered accounted (read: cheap bastard). He was the poster dad for the parent I did not want to be, but he did instill in me the important lesson of living within my means, which is acutely challenging in high-priced Vancouver. Three hundred million bucks isn’t chicken feed and there are more important items where our limited dollars should be directed, including improving public transit, increasing social housing, reducing surgery times, taking better care of our parks, cleaning our dirty streets... and supporting the arts. It’s what makes a city interesting after all. Art is as vital as all the aforementioned.
During a recent visit to the remarkable Dallas Museum of Art, I rediscovered how much I enjoy and miss exploring large art galleries. I have been fortunate enough to visit the Louvre, Prado and Tate but those trips were a long time ago. My last visit to VAG (admission $17.50 plus tax) barely rates a comparison to any of these. The First Nations-focused Beat Nation exhibit left the only impression. I can’t remember anything else.
It’s unfair and silly to compare Vancouver to Paris, London or Madrid, but not to Dallas, which is the ninth largest city in the U.S. and has roughly double the population of Vancouver. The DMA, however, reinforces just how puny VAG is with its 41,400-square feet of exhibition space in a building that wasn’t built to house art.
The DMA has 130,695-square feet dedicated to an impressive permanent collection, another 28,580 square feet for special exhibition space and 21,900 square feet of education space, not to mention tens of thousands of more square feet for administrative, library, outdoor, retail, food service and art handling space. Best of all, general admission is free (except for the special exhibits, which at the moment features the only U.S. venue for the Chagall: Beyond Color exhibit and the final stop of the U.S. tour for a Cindy Sherman retrospective.)
You can’t tell how massive the DMA is from the outside, but it seems like the building could swallow the VAG whole when you enter it for the first time. My time was limited in art-rich Dallas and I wanted to experience as much of the museum as possible in two short hours. The amount of art — permanent collections include, among others, African art, American painting and sculpture, ancient Mediterranean art, Asian art, European painting and sculpture, contemporary art — is overwhelming but that’s the way it should be. Leave ’em wanting to come back. I have never felt that on the rare times I’ve gone to VAG.
In fact, Dallas is an art lovers delight and not just because of the DMA. It has the impressive Nasher Sculpture Center (with pieces by Henry Moore, Joan Miro and Rodin) and the Crow Collection of Asian Art. Heck, even that bastion of football the Cowboys Stadium has eye-popping art — 46 art pieces, many of them site specific, throughout the $1.2 billion stadium thanks to owner Jerry Jones. Do Texas oil barons have more money than B.C. mining and forestry giants or even real estate tycoons? All you with deep pockets, come out come out.
VAG’s Bartels and Wright say they have secured about $90 million for their proposed 311,00-square-foot building on Larwill Park, which is city land. Council will decide on what to do with the land within a few months if not as soon as April.
Let’s not allow Dallas to be the only city where “big things happen here.” It’s time Vancouver had a purpose-built art museum.