The Vancouver Art Gallery and the Eviction of a Political Idea | Part I

old vancouver art gallery

“That the world is out of joint is shown everywhere in the fact that however a problem is solved, the solution is false.” – Theodor Adorno

After years of political negligence, a failed architectural proposal, and prolonged economic recession, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) is finally getting a new building at Larwill Park. A good dose of public elation, institutional relief, and civic boosterism has accompanied the announcement. But situated squarely within the double-edged contradictions of cultural production and presentation, the new VAG might be less a rebirth than a last gasp. To complicate matters, a wild spate of developer-city-state evictions of artist-run spaces have recently exacerbated the fierce symptoms of Vancouver’s rapid gentrification. And with the surprising yet decisive re-election of a BC Liberal majority at the provincial level, coupled with unilateral corporate control at the municipal level, the political and aesthetic status quo appears practically guaranteed. The VAG’s announcement in the context of ongoing neoliberal reforms and much decried cultural fragmentation and displacement, may yet be a “kiss of death” for Vancouver — sweet at contact, but fatal in the long run. Viewed critically, the announcement seems more sobering than joyous, more foreboding than fortunate.

Over the past year, the debate concerning the VAG’s move was repeatedly depicted in the media as a controversy, in which an otherwise professional discussion — tedious and financially determined — was occasionally disrupted by headline-catching tensions between warring factions (Bob Rennie on one side, Kathleen Bartels and a handful of artists on the other). The Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman would cite “intense” debates and “behind the scenes machinations,” fanning the flame of controversy over Rennie’s crude proposal for the VAG in which multiple mini-VAG’s satellites would be scattered in new institutional and condo developments across the city. In the end, the debate was just a lot of hot air conducted under the tame atmosphere of a tentative truce. Real political and social antagonisms between the city’s financial elite and its cultural producers were suspended or displaced, while concerns over the production and circulation of art in the city were reduced to apolitical transactions of real estate, finance and state support. This entente constituted a bizarre denial which passed quietly into a normalization of the crisis.

In an era of corporate restructuring of cultural funding and the creative destruction of urban space, the frantic call for a new VAG marshaled an acquiescent and an uninspired consensus. Although the call stressed the ‘new’ in the New Vancouver Art Gallery (a ‘new’ cultural facility, a ‘new’ era for cultural production, a ‘new’ creative city), the call paradoxically functioned as an apologia for the existing order of things. Lost in the mediatized support of the VAG was any attempted criticism of the gallery itself, its curatorial programme, its board members, and the cultural transactions dealt therein.

Vancouver Art Gallery under construction, 1931.  1145 W. Georgia Street. CIty of Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Bu P401.1
Vancouver Art Gallery under construction, 1931. 1145 W. Georgia Street. CIty of Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Bu P401.1

The debate, corralling a mandatory audience, oscillated between the anodyne and the banal. Artists, art-bureaucrats, professors, critics, and an assortment of other professionals rushed to sign the petition, “Visual Arts Professionals in Support of a New Vancouver Art Gallery.” Names included the young and old of Vancouver’s cultural establishment (Jeff Wall, Stephen Waddell, Gordon Smith), a pack of notable gallery directors, curators and dealers (Catriona Jeffries, Scott Watson, Reid Shier, Karen Henry), a handful of academics (Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, Maureen Ryan, Gareth James) and a few critics to boot (Aaron Peck, Michael Turner, Shepherd Steiner).

Bob Rennie, as is now well known, called for a series of spaces which would, possibly, at some point or another, contain art. The proposal, which called for the dispersal of the VAG’s collection in seven different venues, was nothing of the Situationist sort.* Particularly when read in the context of Rennie’s more offensive gentrification projects, the plan read like blatant urban renewal project. In the Globe and Mail Roy Arden was right to criticize the undue attention Rennie’s proposal earned in the debate. But misplaced in the uproar over Rennie’s proposal was any criticism of the VAG institution itself. The critique of Rennie only served to pathologize larger structural inequalities — inequalities which also happen to permeate all institutional levels of the VAG.

In the media and fleeting conversations held in bars, cafes and openings, the VAG’s pending move was framed as an emergency situation: if the VAG failed to secure Larwill park, its Director, Kathleen Bartels, would possibly resign; investors might walk away (or in the case of Michael Audain, die off); Bob Rennie, finally, might place a stranglehold over the arts community, securing absolute hegemony. As a result, Vancouver’s artists would be left to drift on the shores of aesthetic negligence and rejection, abandoned, stranded to the summer biennial circuit without a local “world class” museum to call their own. The professional conditions of liberal subjectivity — property, art, consumption and order — were faced off against a pending collapse. Recourse to danger served to close off the discussion. If you are not involved in the promotional discourse of art-writing, criticism was either viewed as politically meddlesome or aesthetically retrograde, or worse, irritating intrusions on the investment cycle.

When city council did vote to approve the move on April 24th, it was praised by Mayor Robertson along a financial logic. “In every respect on the arts scene,” the Mayor stated, “we are well-deserving of elevating to a purpose-built art gallery that brings all of this together and enables us to celebrate and to benefit from significant economic impact that a new gallery will have.” In the press, art and finance were collapsed into an unproblematic unity, according to which the new facility represents a “coming-of-age of a creative powerhouse.”

Similar to the City of Vancouver’s Green Capital Plan that seeks in a similar vein to consign the entirety of the environment to the throes of capitalism’s value-form, the new VAG was embraced by the corporate-state, but only insofar as it held out the possibility of generating revenue, shoring-up investors and delivering a profitable return.

As the prevailing economic logic was elevated to a transcendental maxim, the interlocking political questions of production, circulation and reception vanished from the discussion. Rightly so, since city staff reports and Globe and Mail articles were not penned to make sense of aesthetic theory. Constellating issues of aesthetics and politics, presentation and reception, creation and interpretation were naturally compromised by the prevailing order. All that we can detect with certainty are the effects: the affirmation of property relations and the crisis of cultural production, embedded in the further mystification of the basic coordinates of our lives. It is on this reified basis that the apparent solution was capable of producing a taming and therapeutic effect. In the triumph of a cold bureaucratic pragmatism which posits a quick fix to the crisis of artistic presentation in Vancouver, more pressing questions were left to the side. Art today has a business-as-usual mode.


Forty-two years ago Leo Steinberg in Other Criteria (1972) warned of the pernicious, subterranean effects of corporate culture on art criticism.

“It is astonishing how often recent Abstract American painting is defined and described almost exclusively in terms of internal problem solving. As though the strength of a particular artists expressed itself only in his choice to conform with a set of existent professional needs and his inventiveness in producing the answers. The dominant formalist critics today tend to treat modern painting as an evolving technology wherein at any moment specific tasks require solution — tasks set for the artists as problems are set from researchers in the big corporations. The artist as engineer and research technician becomes important insofar as he comes up with solutions to the right problem. How the choice of that problem coincides with any personal impulse, psychological predisposition, or social ideal is immaterial; the solution matters because it answers a problem set forth by a governing technocracy.” (77-78)

In Steinberg’s view, when artistic production is grounded in the economic conditions of advanced corporate capitalism, artists (in the eyes of the modernist critic) become petty technocrats: simple engineers and research technicians. Herein lies the mimetic character of this corporate life-world, an immediate identification of the artist with the society as a whole.

A more prevalent logic is at work. As museums and galleries adopt business models to justify capital investment, artists are forced to shape their own personas to match the logic of the entrepreneur. As artists professionalize and gain institutional accreditation, projects are administered, careers supervised, audiences turn into customers, and ultimately, artists-professionals stand hand-in-hand with real estate developers acting in “good faith” and “good behaviour” trumpeting about the financial benefits of culture. The acrimonious class tensions between corporate capitalists and a cultural workers are compromised. So much for art criticism.

The Current Vancouver Art Gallery at Robson Square
The current Vancouver Art Gallery at Robson Square

To justify the move, the City of Vancouver report quoted Price Waterhouse Cooper’s estimate that “in the first five years of operation, the additional impact of a new Gallery would increase Gross Domestic Product by $299 million, add 5360 person years of employment and generate additional government income (primarily from taxes) of $26.2 million (Federal) and $32 million (Provincial).” The placement of this statement is significant in the CoV policy document considering it weighs the total revenues of the VAG compared to 109 non-profit cultural groups that receive City operating funding. Compared to 109 artist-run centres, the VAG’s total revenues account for approximately one-fifth of all total revenues of 109 non-profit cultural groups that receive City funding. Certainly, for city bureaucrats whose eyes are desperately fixed to the bottom-line, this is a good thing, but again, the turn to financial logic blunts the debate. More detrimental, however, is how artist-run centres are depicted as financially insubstantial in the grand scheme of things. In the competition between Big Capital (VAG) and Small Capital (artist-run centres), the former and its monopoly powers wins out every time.

No doubt, critique of the current VAG should be read against the current curatorial and aesthetic practices that interlock and entwine with their spatial negotiations. As a product of corporate culture, the current VAG actively perpetuates the unscrupulous myths of conservative ideology: the mythology of the great collector philanthropist (Michael Audain or the Cone Sisters); the cult status of individual authorship; the privilege of artistic authenticity, experience and entertainment, not to mention other concretization of fraudulence and conservatism — all sedimentations of a professional managerial culture in the age of deep-rooted crisis, growing immiseration and widespread social depravity. What are the stakes in this form of political restoration? Criticism, negation, transgression, autonomy and collective determination are substituted by artistic individuality, self-expression, and the primacy of private property, liberal subjectivity and corporate control.


* In no. 23 of Potlatch the SI called for the redistribution of Philippe de Champaigne’s works into the run down Arab cafes of the rue Xavier-Privas and Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon (1808) on the Montagne-Genevieve

First Image: Vancouver Art Gallery Under Construction – 1145 West Georgia Street – AM54-S4-: Bu P401.3

“Part II: 2013 the Year of Evictions” can be read here