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.  


Another option nobody seems to be fielding is that the VAG gets disbursed across the city a bit. So stay in Robson Square and for your entry fee, also get to walk four five blocks to a new space, perhaps which specializes in contemporary, rotating exhibits. Maybe even the VAG could show some objects on a path between sites to help integrate the gallery with the city? One example of this might be the Smithsonian in Washington, which has a lot of different buildings spread over the city, or the way SFU now has a number of 'campuses' spread around downtown as well as Burnaby Mountain. This proposal also has the advantage of being a complete antidote to the Bilbao idea which has, well, been done. (Do we really need to 'compete' with Edmonton on this score?)

VAG location

Thank you to Darlene Marzari for bringing to our attention the work that was done twelve years ago. It is worth taking a look at those files, if only to ensure that we don't spend a lot of wasted time re-inventing the wheel. I believe that the VAG should stay in its current location, not least because the public sees the location as the heart of the city. That's one of the compelling reasons for its being a public gathering place. Would they feel the same way if the new location were to require that they walk for another 20 minutes, to a space that is in proximity to theatres open only in the evening and to the Central Library? I don't think so.

Art Gallery on the move?

Having just been to Europe last year to see the greatest galleries ever put together in Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Florence, etc., and being familiar with the British Art Museum in London and the Metropolitan, MOMA, the Guggenheim and many others in New York, as well as some more modern outstanding structures like the Milwaukee Art Museum, I feel like the Vancouver Art Gallery has some definite pros in its current location as well as some decided cons. It is small. However, I have seen some powerful exhibitions there and the space does work although it seems to be mismanaged very often missing opportunities to reveal perspectives on installation pieces, whether by closing off sections so there is no access, or a myriad of other somewhat odd experiences I have had while exploring art work from BC and around the world. Even the entrance to the gallery which bypasses the stairs and the pillars and the lions seems strange. Some of the exhibits in the VAG could easily move and not lose anything. Video and Photo works would hang as well on any wall and play in any small theatre space. So a new gallery for modern art and/or temporary exhibits would make sense to me. However, the whole aspect of a traditional classical museum is so much a part of the architecture of the art gallery, unless the whole facade with the stairs and the pillars and the lions was to move to the new location along with the spiral staircase, etc. a tremendous amount of history and context would be lost. After all, art means much more in context. Naturally, developers in Vancouver want to build new stuff. The nightmare of traffic congestion and dust, green house gas emissions from concrete, etc. are nothing compared to the money these people stand to make off a new mega-project. Is this a good enough reason? I suppose if another empty tower on the proposed site is the alternative, a gallery would be preferable. So. Why not keep the old one, and improve its operations through the construction of a new one?


I do agree that the VAG should stay in its current location. An art gallery has a soul, as well as space and modern commodities. The VAG is one of the best and most satisfying galleries I have visited, equal to galleries in Munich and London. Instead of moving the gallery, if more space is truly needed, let's open another smaller one, like the Tate Modern, for example. Judie Sahadeo

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