The Vancouver Art Gallery and the Eviction of a Political Idea — PART II

Vancouver's Wall Street


After the predatory spectacle of the 2010 Olympic Games, a state of precarity and relentless eviction has become the norm in Vancouver. A landmark example was the closure of the Waldorf Hotel, and since then casualties have piled on top of each other like a sea of ivory in an elephant graveyard: VIVO Media Arts Centre, the Junction, ROYGBIV, Nowhere, Spartacus Books (temporarily reversed), to name just a few. Although each case is different, these evictions are a result of a pernicious mix of excessively high rents, restructured state funding, profit-driven renovictions, and an apathetic city council who turns a blind eye to slumlords and developer greed while maintaining an absurd regulatory protocol for cultural space.

The Zoo Zhop, located at 223 Main Street, is an exemplary starting point for insight into the current landscape. The Zoo Zhop is just one of many cultural spaces frustrated by the city’s double standards and bureaucratic red tape. Since 2009, the Zoo Zhop has hosted about eight to ten shows a month, providing aspiring and more established musicians with a local venue.

In the city’s drive to close the Zoo Zhop over the past year, city inspectors — with the help of the VPD and the Fire Department — have served the venue with piles of paperwork and other bureaucratic formalities, which the tenants have completed with no help from their landlord. In the last month, the Zoo Zhop was served an impossible demand: legal notice to change their business licence, at an unsustainable cost, to host music shows. Since then, the Zoo Zhop was recently served a temporary 5-day business suspension. In an interview with the CBC, David Mattatall, the owner of the Zoo Zhop, challenged the ridiculous protocol that the City of Vancouver places on cultural space. One of the issues mentioned in the city’s paperwork is incredibly minor, like the presence of a kitchen sink just behind the venue space. “The city says they want to take away our business license over a kitchen sink? It’s ridiculous. It shouldn’t even be an issue,” Mattatall stated. “What does a kitchen sink have to do with anything? Nothing.”

Zoo Zhop - Image courtesy of Scamcouver
Zoo Zhop – Image courtesy of Scamcouver

This cold bureaucratic policy can only serve the interests of well-heeled businesses, restaurants and corporations at the expense of community and autonomy. The Zoo Zhop, no doubt, is another casualty of the eastward push of high-end restaurants, condos and cocktail bars throughout the DTES. At the end of the CBC interview, Mattatall concluded with a shot at the City’s contradictory policies: “Support for the arts? Yeah, they [City Council] talk about it. I need to see it for real in order to believe it, and I have never seen it, not once.”

Coming to terms with the ubiquitous state of evictions and displacement in the city means acknowledging that the casualties of development have disproportionately affected the city’s low-income residents, especially First Nations residents and people of colour, robbing them of the homes, diners, community spaces and common ground essential to community and culture. During the three day conference, Rent Assembly: a gathering of renters in a time of siege, DTES artist Karen Ward asked a pressing question: how can we make art without first securing housing? In the DTES alone, low-income spaces are rapidly being pushed out and priced out, replaced by towering condominiums, overpriced restaurants, coffee chains and other seasonable fads for the propertied classes. The DTES is a model for the city at large, where private property is protected by a profitable coalition between the Vancouver Police Department, Business Improvement Agencies, the Mayor’s Office and private security firms. In the long term, cultural and artist-run space is deemed an expendable luxury and an obstacle to progress; something that exists only for those with the financial means to secure a loan on the city’s fringes.

The current situation is not only geographically restrictive but also detrimental to the city’s political unconscious. In a recent statement on the displacement of the Waldorf from the Hastings Corridor, artist Ken Lum berated the unrestrained developer logic and current wave of developer-led evictions, all of which have dimmed the city and narrowed its capacity to envision an alternative: “bland people sipping franchise coffee shop lattes who love to ride bikes against a bucolic urban setting only to return to their condominium. This image of the city is becoming the only one that people are allowed to imagine.” If this is the ever-present condition of cultural space in Vancouver, I have to revisit three larger question of this essay. Namely, what does the move of the new Vancouver Art Gallery represent in this environment of eviction and displacement? Secondly, what is the role of cultural space today in the midst of the crisis of cultural presentation? And finally, how do we confront the larger social demand to foster, construct and produce an advanced and challenging form of cultural activity?


“Do you think the families of Vancouver don’t have money?” he asks with mild amusement. “We don’t have Microsoft, but we do have very substantial families here.” – Michael Audain to Vancouver Magazine, June 2010

In popular discourse, the museum of today is no longer viewed as an elitist fortress of conservative culture. In contrast to the older radical critique that viewed the museum as “restorationist instruments of cultic and commercial values” (Wall, 1983), Andreas Huyssen treats the museum as a mass medium. In his Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (1995), Huyssen argues that the mass element of the museum comes with added problems that demands analysis. As the “new kingpin of the culture industry,” museums operate in the absence of danger, confirmed merely as a site of “spectacular mise-en-scene” and “operatic exuberance.” As a product of late capitalism, Huyssen claims that the museum is suspended between two cultural desires: the need to forget and the desire to remember. Such memory-work necessitates an affective relation with entertainment and spectacle. Throughout the essay, Huyssen charts how the contemporary museum actively invests in a whole range of experiences: animated happenings, entertaining illuminations of history, emphatic events and a whole series of other encounters which challenge the museum of old. The contemporary museum, in Huyssen’s frame, is no longer simply operational as a site of nationalist patrimony, aesthetic reification, or political neutralization.

Huyssen’s argument taps into the cultural logic of the museum under the triumph of spectacle. However illuminating, the argument also skirts over a localized question still persistent in Vancouver and elsewhere: how museums today are repurposed and redeployed by the city’s financial and cultural elite. When looking at Vancouver, the question that should be posed is precisely the question of how aesthetic reification and political neutralization exist alongside the vicissitudes of spectacle and entertainment, rather than in spite of them.

The philanthropy on which the Vancouver Art Gallery depends performs a circular logic. As a product of dignified business culture, “great works” are collected by “great men,” effectively positioning Vancouver’s corporate elite as publicly beneficial and culturally responsible. If we take the indisputable historical argument that Vancouver is constructed, managed and administered by the rich (developers, restaurateurs, investment bankers — most often men, most likely white), we should be able to pay attention to the particular interests that lie beneath this construction.

Thus, the starting point of this critique is at the very top: the VAG’s Board structure. The VAG’s current board presents a list of some of the major players in the real estate, restaurant, resource extraction industries in B.C.

  • Terry Hui, Director of Concord Pacific (real estate);
  • Michael Audain, Chairman of Polygon Homes (real estate);
  • Phil Lind, Director of Rogers Communications (telecommunications) and Director of Brookfield;
  • Peter Wesik of Wesgroup Properties (real estate/finance);
  • David Aisenstat, principal owner of the Keg (restaurant);
  • David Calabrigo, (Canfor) (resource extraction);
  • Bruce Wright, managing partner of Goodmans corporate law firm (corporate law);
  • Shenoo Jadavji, founder of Lotus Pacific Investments (real estate/finance);
  • Michael O’Brian, Comwest Enterprise Corp
  • George Killy, Keg and Harley Street Holdings Inc. (restaurant/finance);
VAG Board of Governors (c. 2012)
VAG’s Board of Governors (c. 2012)

The list of names plays the part of a placeholder where roles are more important than names. “Whether artists produce or rich people die,” Adorno once said, “whatever happens is good for the museums.” We only need to add the proviso: “as long as money is flowing through its coffers.” Money, as the old adage goes, is not neutral.  It is not coincidental that the major players on the Board of the VAG are also major donors to the BC Liberals and Vision Vancouver. David Aisentat, principal owner of The Keg, donated $25,000 to Vision Vancouver, and relies upon the hyper-inflated Vancouver market to expand his fortunes. In the aftermath of to the 2011 municipal election, it was reported that The Keg planed to open 10 new restaurants in the next few years. Terry Hui, Director of Concord Pacific, is Vancouver’s largest condominium developer and has in certain years produced almost half of all new condominium stock in the city. Phil Lind, one of the founders of Rogers Communications, one of the more interesting characters on the VAG Board with active ties to the multi-billion dollar communications firm as well as Brookfield Management (same Brookfield of Zuccotti Park fame).

Taking into consideration the current wave of evictions and unlimited rent increases, a critical perspective can come to the conclusion that our neoliberal city is constructed to serve the rich, and that the interests of the rich are met by their ability to exploit their position within culture and economy. Amidst a similar crisis in culture, Martha Rosler addressed the question twenty years ago:

Corporate sponsors want their names to reach the widest museum-going audience and, as in their own galleries, wish to support only sure winners, art that poses the least challenge to entrenched points of view. Corporations sponsor exhibitions of securely commodified art and that which is most acceptable to mass culture.

Artist-run and artist-friendly spaces suffer, but so too do low-income spaces not dictated by the profit motive. The deliberations that control, manage, and delineate the political and aesthetic possibilities of society are reduced to money, which disrupts material conditions as much as the psychic life of individuals. As a profit-driven industry the VAG carries on as long as it pays. Yet its smooth functioning in the era of crisis capitalism obscures the fact that aesthetic presentation has ossified. Supported by non-existent governmental tax policies, the VAG orients itself towards the city’s philanthropic class, who collects art through the spectacular expenditures of their surplus profits (minimally taxed by the state). The collecting of art, as the aggrandizement of cultural choice, is understood as a surplus dividend. Rosler’s critique is pertinent here: art is viewed through the double logic of tax exemption and the spectacular deification of the master-collector.

In this frame, art functions as an expression of metaphysical truth — a mythos wherein the project of universal humanity is reproduced by a privileged class of producers and patrons, in which the inheritors of great wealth ensure even greater accumulation and expenditure down the road.

Your response at this point might take the following form: “So what? As long as the VAG’s curators assume a modicum of autonomy, it shouldn’t matter who controls the VAG.” But take for example one of the more frivolous exhibitions in the VAG’s history, Shore, Forest and Beyond (2011) works from Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa’s art collection. The exhibition was a perfect demonstration of a shameless celebration of condo-developer Michael Audain amidst one of Vancouver’s worst housing crises. In an entirely thoughtless manner, VAG curators Ian Thom and Bruce Grenville temporarily borrowed a few works from Audain’s home and corporate office and placed them alongside one another in the most uncomplicated and predictable manner possible.

Occupy Vancouver outside the Vancouver Art Gallery (2011)
Occupy Vancouver outside the Vancouver Art Gallery (2011)

In the exhibition, it was necessary to perpetuate the old romantic image of artistic creation through recourse to a few masters: the photography of Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace, the sculptures of Jim Hart and Sonny Assu, the paintings of Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco, to name just a few dominant males. But only a single, authoritative image of mastery and originality was truly present throughout the show. This master was Michael Audain himself, Vancouver’s consummate art collector and philanthropist. No wonder certain practices were absent from the narrative, feminist and video art being just two worth mentioning. The presence of either artistic practices would inevitably undermine Audain and the VAG’s phallocentric narrative of B.C. art and its histories.

Corporate patronage not only diminished the curatorial ethos, but was matched by an equally insipid form of art-criticism. In most reviews of the exhibitions, nothing exceptional was said about the works on display. Anything that resembled art criticism was regurgitated from Audain’s own mouth. Worse, local reviews simply re-jigged the dominant narrative hand-fed by the gallery: the fact that Michael Audain was an “accidental” freedom rider during the civil rights movement, that he was a major patron of the arts, Board Member at the National Gallery, or builder of 19,000 (leaky) homes.

Michael Audain Mug Shot (1961)
Michael Audain mug shot (1961)

The folktales of official culture always omit the dark violence that makes history possible in the first place. Omitted from this narrative was that Michael Audain’s great-great grandfather was Robert Dunsmuir, builder of castles and coal-mines, ruthless strike breaker and founder of the first phase of primitive accumulation in British Columbia. Absent too was the fact that Audain’s Polygon Homes built the infamous leaky condos, or worse, that his corporation has actively made it more difficult and more expensive for working people to live in British Columbia.


On Vancouver’s Eastside, entire city blocks are being demolished to make way for luxury condominiums. Whole neighborhoods are being commoditized as if they were New York imports (Hastings Sunrise is being renamed the East Village), while multigenerational communities are threatened with sudden displacement. For a relatively new city such as Vancouver, the new is often just another name for the new-old: a fresh, light commodity-scape of brick-clad condominiums, coffee chains and cocktail bars. The ‘new’ stamped with the aesthetic seal of profit, undiminished plentitude, visual pleasure, but also with the accompanying class and racial seclusion and their constant embedded nod to the colonial past. The new-old represents the attempt to revitalize the past.

The condo as a unit of culture calls forth the new vision of today: a selective myopia, joined at the hip by a conservative amnesia. Founded on forgetting, the city’s official image sets out to ruin any vestige of working-class culture and community. Erasure is almost total.

A passage from the collectively-edited journal Tidal: Occupy Theory Occupy Strategy is illustrative of the predicament of cultural memory:

It becomes increasingly clear that cities depend upon ignorance and forgetting to thrive. We pave the wilderness into infertile submission so we can ignore it, without really understanding what we’ve buried. We cover our past in the same way, and discount the costs incurred to build everything around us. This habit confers incredible power. We can extinguish entire native populations, enslave millions, swindle land, drive species extinct, brutalize the poor, and then forget it all ever occurred. What’s done is done, if it ever really happened.

The ever-the-same is not a radical novelty but a false novelty. The current project of Vancouver’s monopoly developers is determined and methodical: encircle, acquire, renovate or demolish existing spaces. Let the old perish for the new. Let the new assume the figure of the revitalized new.

In the generalized pandemonium of development, city-states and corporate powers assert a naturalized sheen to the process of capitalist accumulation. The cracks in history are filled with concrete. Pervasive amnesia discloses the ruination of historical experience. In the drive to remonumentalize the given state of the world, what little historic identity remains is reflected in the glass walls of buildings and product displays, a bug-spread of fogged restaurant windows, and occasional historic plaques urging us to attempt to imagine what once was. These brief remembrances of Vancouver’s past don a melancholic tone. Monumentalization, and its attendant forgetting, invites us to take on a tragic acquiescence: a hopeless surrender to the given state of the world.


In an age of corporate control and the triumph of a professional managerial class, critique is forced to take a subdued view of any cultural victory. Theodor Adorno’s epigraph, situated at the beginning of Part I of this essay, provides a more somber perspective to the cultural predicament. “That the world is out of joint,” Adorno writes, “is shown everywhere in the fact that however a problem is solved, the solution is false.”

Dented by such pessimism, we are given the necessary desire to look towards moments of struggle in the present. It might be advantageous to look back to 2011, at the same time as Audain’s triumphant exhibition Shore, Forest and Beyond, that is, the occupation held on the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In a roundtable conversation with Silvia Kolbowski and Matthew Friday on “The Social Artwork” (October 142), David Joselit weighs the political significance of Occupy Wall Street for the artworld. Joselit looks beyond the project of institutional critique and calls for a politics of occupy transported onto the artworld’s own institutions. Joselit mentions the work of Helen Molesworth’s work at the Boston ICA where she has fostered a “truly feminist program.” For Joselit, the power of Molesworth’s presence are her actions, “The museum is not critiqued but repurposed: occupied by something else. This is the lesson I take from OWS: Don’t just critique, occupy!”

Occupy Vancouver
Occupy Vancouver

For Joselit, Occupy Wall Street calls for a series of moves from critique to occupation. Yet while the move from critique to occupation is welcome, there are also reasons for caution. When art criticism today is replaced with a promotional form of ‘art-writing,’ critique’s merciless clarity appears more necessary now than ever. To add to this point, there is also a conservative element to Joselit’s argument. It curiously resembles the same contemptible politics of the post-68 generation who advocate institutional complicity after so many defeats and denials suffered from outside the institution.

At this juncture, it might be helpful to bring up how the VAG was deployed during the 2011 Occupation. If you remember back to November 17, 2011 at the injunction to evict Occupy protesters, City of Vancouver lawyer Ben Parkin cited how Occupy Vancouver posed a threat to the VAG’s permanent collection. Parkin argued that the 40 centimetre membrane that protected the gallery vaults from the outside might be penetrated by rainwater from the protesters digging trenches and hammering spikes into the ground. Not only did Occupy Vancouver serve as a real material threat to the VAG’s collection, it also functioned as a disarming psychic threat: condensed into little droplets of water, the occupation ate away at the VAG’s institutional edifice. Parkin’s argument, and many others made in a similar vein during the occupation, demonstrated how the VAG’s grounds were not only occupied, but mentally perforated.

This is the power of critique as occupation. Critique keyed to the promise and threat of occupation. If there is any promise for the new VAG it is contained, metaphorically and materially, in those little droplets of water. However diminutive, the occupation perforated the psychic life and power of the VAG’s professional edifice.

PART I – “Vancouver Art Gallery and the Eviction of a Political Idea” can be read here