Posted by: Andrew Pask | March 15, 2010

The Art Gallery two-step: the dream of a cultural precinct returns to Larwill Park


Art Gallery - 1146 West Georgia Street

Construction of the “new” art gallery, 1145 (not 1146) West Georgia, 1931
Vancouver Archives
Item Bu P401.1

Like a fine piece of performance art, the recent announcement about the relocation of the Vancouver Art Gallery has it all: contentious elements, colourful ideas and lots of audience participation (or blog posts, call them what you will…).  It started at the beginning of the month, with what seemed to be a formal (and perhaps presumptive) media release by the VAG that it had selected a site on which to develop a new Gallery structure. 

(You can read the March 4 Vancouver Sun story by Kevin Griffin here, as well as Charlie Smith’s lament about the “news release — oops, article” here.  (Smith was commenting on the idea that that there was something too orchestrated about the announcement).

The announcement – whether strategically motivated or not – is the latest in a saga of locational decisions and expansionist plans that go back a few years now.

The recent history began with the appointment of Kathleen Bartels to the position of  Gallery head in 2001.  Bartels has always been keen on the idea of expanding the gallery.  With much of the VAG’s collection (apparently over 96%!) out of sight and in storage, Bartels has been eager to find a way to develop the gallery and allow it to showcase more of its work. 

After undertaking a search for possible sites that lasted over three years, the Gallery landed on the same Larwill Park location presently under consideration.   (Most people, incidentally, know this site as the large, City-owned parking lot bounded by Georgia, Dunsmir, Cambie and Beatty).  Before acquiring its present state of aesthetic refinement, the area was actually a park for the first half of the 20th century, then leased out and used as a bus depot for a few decades.

At any rate, the suggestion at the time was that the VAG, by moving to the Larwill Park site, would help to create a Cultural Precinct in the area — further energizing a set of city blocks with its proximity to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the central library and the CBC building.

Fast forward to 2005 and the province — seemingly out of the blue — offered to kick in $50 million to assist the VAG to move to an entirely different space: that being the area occupied by the former Plaza of Nations on the north side of False Creek. 

This idea to take the VAG out of the downtown core puzzled many, but since it had an incentive with some heft to it (remember, this was back when the Province had money) thing seemed to shift accordingly.  That is, until recently…when the due diligence research on the site determined that the overall cost of locating a collection so close to the water table wasn’t all that much of a bargain.

And so the discussion has turned back to the Larwill Park site, and the debate over whether this is a Good Thing or a Very Bad Idea (a debate which ignited after the initial VAG selection report) has begun anew.

The critics got their first chance to rebut the idea a couple of days after the initial annoucement — in an article in the Globe and Mail.  They now appear to be organizing against the VAG’s plans. 

Leading the charge (at least in this piece) is Bing Thom, renowned architect who points to the fact that:

“The Olympics have proven that the gallery has the best site in Canada. It’s the perfect location… We don’t want to hollow out the centre of city. Vancouver is strong at the edges, near the water, but we desperately need something at the centre. The art gallery is the visible symbol of our culture and it should be at the heart.”

Thom argues against the move, and against the development of a new structure for the site, suggesting that there isn’t the need “to do a Bilbao.”  (By which he means a Bilbao-style, “starchitect” designed structure…  Bilbao, Spain being the site of Frank Gehry’s iconic gallery — and the most frequently sited example of gallery monumentalism). 

Thom, and others on the “no move” side argue that the Gallery already has the pride of place in City locations, and should make better use of the site it has.  (This is a line that also gets nicely articulated in a Globe & Mail piece by Lisa Rochon from last month.) 

(In fact, in the recent past Thom has also argued for the possibility of a more decentralized approach to Gallery expansion – moving away from one big development, or one central cultural precinct, and towards the creation of many smaller precincts). 

My take is a bit less emphatic, perhaps more ambivalent.  While having the Art Gallery in its present location is good, I don’t think it is essential.  The Gallery has moved before (as recently as the early 1970s) and could potentially do so again, provided a suitable location were found (“suitable” being reasonably accessible to the public, and in the city centre). 

Of course the cost of such a relocation (cost being that that great big, ballooning elephant of an issue), would need to be looked at alongside other priorities, social and cultural.  Given that we have a very recent, gold medal example of spiraling budgets and crunching deficits, it would be smart to take a very deep breath and think about things before getting to enthusiastic.  Doubtless, there’s a study somewhere that talks about the role of a newer, bigger Gallery as an economic generator for the City.  On the other hand, while staying put is less glamourous, it also doesn’t cost us money (currently estimated at between $300-$400 million) that we don’t actually have.

On this note, it would be good to have a more public discussion about the VAG’s need for space, since that seems to be the prime reason for moving (or at least the prime reason that is being publicly advanced). 

At first blush it is easy to feel sympathetic to the argument that more space is needed to display the Gallery’s collection.  These holdings are part of the creative commonwealth of the city, and keeping such a large percentage of art shuttered away doesn’t do us any good. Are there ways to use the current space more effectively?  What’s the ratio between the amount of a Gallery collection on display versus that which is in storage?  The VAG is claiming they only showcase about 3% of their work, and while this seems low, how does this compare to other prominent galleries in Canada and elsewhere? 

What, as well, about about some of the other expansion possibilities that would see the VAG remain in its current location while expanding in one or more directions – either over Robson, further north, or eastward into territory currently occupied by Sears.  As an article in today’s Vancouver Sun notes, these were, at one point, quite viable possibilities.  Are they worth looking at again? (Interestingly, the same on-site expansion ideas discussed by architect Michael Maltzan in the article were picked up, albeit in different form, by entrants to the VPSN’s Where’s the Square? design competition a year ago).

Setting aside the questions of cost and space, what I find important from a city-building/quality of life perspective is that the actual site of the Gallery (the striking, neoclassical structure designed by Frances Rattenbury, and the Erickson and Oberlander designed additions to the Gallery site) remain open for public use.  The whole Robson Square complex is probably the best natural gathering place in the city.  Irrespective of the specific occupants, having a use (or set of uses) that support public access to the site is of paramount importance. 

And if the VAG does move, that doesn’t automatically mean that the current site need be any less a centre or hub.  In fact, we could look at this as an opportunity to make it even more of a showpiece and public space than it is now. 

A few possible alternatives have also been suggested in the recent discussion.  One that appeals to me is the idea of moving the Vancouver Museum here, from its present, out-of-the-way location in Vanier Park.  The museum has a smaller collection, puts on amazingly relevant events, is indubitably “Vancouver”… and could gain from such a central location.  This, in turn, would have a tangential benefit of opening up the Museum’s current “Salish Hat” building for other uses – a permanent staging ground for the many excellent festivities that take place in Vanier Park such as the Children’s Fest, the Salmon Fest and Shakespeare in the Park.  Or new events, for that matter. 

As for the site of the proposed relocation, I’ve always been taken with the story of Larwill Park and its role in the development of Vancouver (the park will be the subject of its own post later this week).  More recently, when the VPSN held its aforementioned competition we were intrigued by the fact that, in addition to the popular Robson site, several designers chose to submit plans for a grand gathering place on the Larwill grounds.  In other words, Larwill Park, like the VAG site, resonates.  It’s got a lot of possibility attached to it, and is an important location in the city.  Whatever it gets used for — museum, tower, perhaps even a new park — should be thought about very carefully. 

In the meantime, the project — what ever “the” project is, will make for some striking drama as it unfolds.  There will be artful appeals on all sides, statuesque posturing and and the sort of architecturally infused, high priced spectacle that only comes along every few decades. 

Kind of like one of those traveling exhibits, except that all the pieces have been assembled in our own back yard!



  1. With the caveat that I haven’t yet given this topic a great deal of thought, I find myself coming back to an idea that someone else mentioned somewhere….. that the Sears building would make an excellent and enormous art gallery. I mean, we already have an enormous, windowless structure… let’s use it for something more than a dept store. =)

    And the Vancouver Museum does put on fantastic exhibits and events and would do so well downtown; I would love to see it in the old courthouse (current art gallery, that is).

    • Hey LB,

      I agree – the Sears building is another great big elephant in this discussion. Many of the entries we received for the WTS Competition zeroed in on the space it occupies. Regardless of whether the VAG stays or goes, any future planning around Robson Square needs to address this adjacent building.

  2. The Sears Building has a few problems as an option. First off, Sears is in there. Are they willing to just up and leave?

    I’m being a bit silly with that comment, of course. But the main reason I am very much in favour of a new purpose-built building on a new site is that our city needs it. We should have an art gallery, a repository and archive of our visual arts output, that is purpose built, useful, inclusive, community oriented and a beacon for cultural tourism. All the talk of “go down” or “go sideways” or etc. seems like so much scotch-tape-and-staples to me.

    This will be the fourth move for the gallery in its history. Its not like the current location has some kind of DNA level association with the VAG. It was a great building at the time — at that point in the growth of the gallery and the city — but like a newlywed couple who have a growing family, we all need to move on sometimes.

    This should be a celebration of success! Yay! We’ve been successful! The collection has grown! So has the city! Hundreds of thousands of people want to see some art! It’s time to take this to the next level and build something that we can all point to and be proud of, I think.

    And, I think your idea of making the current courthouse site into something even MORE central to the community, with the Vancouver Museum, other arts groups, more access, more of all the goodness that everyone wants to preserve — is superb! Let’s do both!

    Yes I am a supporter of the gallery, but I think we all are. I just think we should help them get to the next level, and build for tomorrow an amazing new home, instead of making do with a great location that was built as a fabulous courthouse, not a gallery.

    Just my two cents.

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