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.  

Stay at VAG site, right on, Darlene

Yes, it is interesting how circumstances have improved for implementation now of an idea that was ahead of its time ten years ago. UBC's use of the old scateing rink and small-convention centre is not the highest and best use of that space, so moving it elsewhere in downtown and expanding the VAG into it seems to me a win-win alternative and a means of keeping the historic monumentality of the erstwhile Courthouse while respecting Erickson's new Courthouse, another heritage landmark. Perhaps the old ice surface could be restored in the winter. The open space could be an alternative site for medium size celebrations and demonstrations in a proud and respectful city, and used as an outdoor tea and lunch garden by the VAG when not otherwise in demand. Those who remember the VAG prior to its move into the old courthouse will be reminded that the symbolism of its present location says something important about the place of art and community celebrations in a good city. Planning for a renewed and expanded VAG should be treated as much broader than a real estate transaction. Henry Hightower Emeritus, UBC School of Community and Regional Planning


I love our gallery but I do understand the need for more space. I think the Main Gallery should stay where it is and have satellite galleries set up, one in each of our old Neighbourhoods. Each one should be situated in an older building that would have to be refurbished to current standards for fireproofing and earthquake proof. This would allow more more art to be available for everyone especially children. I vision each one having a theme like contemporary, Asian, or whatever. Also have travelling exhibitions from the main gallery to broaden our idea of Art. Ideally the satellites galleries would be set up over time with one in the East Van, one in West Van, one in South Van etc. then it would be equitable for all areas.

I'd like to hear the

I'd like to hear the arguments for moving to a new location.

Help save the VAG

Here's a few VAG contacts you can write to and express your feelings about moving the VAG or to offer any the insightful ideas listed above for preserving it's location. customerservice@vanartgallery.bc.ca curatorial@vanartgallery.bc.ca development@vanartgallery.bc.ca

I would like to see the VAG

I would like to see the VAG stay where it is, expanded as is possible and necessary. We go to the VAG often and always take visitors there. The visitors always comment on the spiral staircase and how beautiful the building is. It is art itself and you can't replace that with a new building. I like the idea that some have put forth: open a smaller gallery to show photographs, installation artworks, or perhaps modern art, within walking distance of the VAG and included in the ticket price. I read a great suggestion elsewhere, that there might be space in the Sears site across the street. How convenient that would be! The VAG has an irreplaceable location right now. I truly believe that moving to the old bus depot site will mean lower visitor numbers. I know I would not be nearly as inclined to drop in, in the way I currently do. Now --- what do we do to convince the VAG Board??

Vancouver Art Gallery

We need someone with a little imagination. The Art Gallery should stay where it is. It is obvious the art gallery needs more space. Why not build a new building on the block bordered by Howe, Georgia. It could be built with a hidden underground and the first floor of the new building beginning 2 flights off the ground thus preserving the lawn. There are other art galleries around the world that have combined and old and new building with a connecting walkway (I am thinking of Copenhagen) that works really well. The Art Gallery needs to be in a place easily accessible to other downtown sites. At the risk of offending hockey games attendees, I can't see them going to the art gallery and then on to a hockey game.

expansion/relocation of the VAG

I am pleased to see this discussion taking place at ThinkCity. As a former Trustee, and member of the VAG expansion committee I also believe there are pros and cons to staying on the site, and relocating to a new site. If you are interested, I have outlined some other considerations on my blog http://gellersworldtravel.blogspot.com/

BC's pre eminent art museum

I think the discussion and people's expressed opinions surrounding the VAG move or potential move is wonderful. It is such a rarity to to hear impassioned discussion about things cultural in Vancouver or B.C. as a whole. When I read Lisa Rochon's and Bing Thom's comments critiquing the potential move and then again today reading Darlene Marzari it made me think about how the Tate Gallery--Britain's National Art Gallery handled the situation. The Tate did not move from its historic location on the banks of the Thames but rather established over a number of year's -- many years in fact-- satellites. How wonderful if following an expansion--hopefully using the Ludholm suggestions so as not to have to re-invent the wheel, to then consider a VAG satellite in Kelowna or Kamloops. And, as another letter writer suggested, perhaps even a contemporary art museum somewhere else in Vancouver. I do hope the decision makers will move away from considering building new monuments. It is important to note as well that institutions like the VAG need operational support. Whatever decision is made about the VAG the decision makers must remember that without infrastructure and people this important cultural facility wil not survive.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. A

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. A big new $400million gallery is not what Vancouver needs right now. Expand the current gallery.

Question for our Civic Leaders

Two questions to ponder............. The City was to have build a new concert hall on the site on which the new Conference Centre in Coal Harbour resides. There was an implied promise that a new Concert Hall would be build on the Larwell site. Do commitments from our civic leaders stand the test of time or do they change with the wind? Vancouver Citizens are on the hook for millions of dollars for the Olympic village fiasco. Regardless of whether this was the prior Council's decision or that this present Council extended the construction loan guarantees, before the City determines to give the Vancouver $100 million to 'buy the land' or enters into a 100 year lease - lets get the Olympic financial impact sorted out first. Taxpayers are at least owed this much. I

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