Posted by: Alvin | March 4, 2010

A Vision for a New Vancouver Art Gallery

Vancouver Art GalleryToday it was announced that the Vancouver Art Gallery has abandoned plans to relocate to a new waterfront site on False Creek (the current site of the Plaza of Nations). That plan was announced with much fanfare in May of 2008 by the provincial Liberal government, and backed up with $50 million in initial funding. So what changed? It turns out the False Creek site was complicated for a number of reasons.

First, it’s a privately owned site and that requires a great deal of negotiation between the developer, the city zoning department, and council in terms of density swapping (which formed the entire basis of the VAG being able to use the site at no cost to the developer).

Second, the site itself doesn’t work well for a gallery. According to the VAG’s board chair David Aisenstat, the underground storage needed would be impossible due to the high tides and water table making the “potential architectural glamour” of the prime waterfront location too high a price to pay.

Finally, while a waterfront site would be quite striking visually, it would be located in a somewhat out-of-the-way part of downtown. Anyone who has gone to the Plaza of Nations knows that it isn’t the most centrally located part of the downtown peninsula. During the Olympics, we saw what a prime downtown location in the heart of the city can do for a tourist destination like the VAG where it currently stands. Unfortunately, due to either a lack of planning or a deliberate decision to pack visitors all together, crowds during the Olympics didn’t seem to really leave the core area of downtown (just ask Gastown business owners). So if we’re serious as a city of having a showcase high arts venue, it needs to be in a core part of downtown.

All this brings us back to today’s announcement. The VAG board has decided to rekindle their original plans to go after the city owned former bus depot at the corner of Cambie and Georgia. The block is owned by the city and was used for the LiveCity Downtown public venue during the Olympics. The site represents a slightly more simple way forward for the gallery as negotiations would occur directly with city hall. It is also only a few blocks from the current site; and as evidenced during the Games, a potentially high-traffic area.

The site is also key for another reason: it’s proximity to existing cultural destinations. The site is across from both the newly revamped Queen Elizabeth Theatre and the newly revamped CBC Vancouver headquarters. As a result, the potential to create a concentrated arts and culture district is something that could be very attractive.

So how should the city move forward? We need a comprehensive vision for the new VAG that takes into account the successes of public space seen during the Games as well as an eye to addressing some historical Vancouver weaknesses.

1) The city should embrace the idea of a standalone VAG site at the city-owned former bus depot. City manager Penny Ballem was quoted in the Globe and Mail as urging the VAG to not restrict itself “to a concept that precludes…sharing the site potentially with a tall building…” Basically, she sees the site as another mixed use development with an office tower or something similar. This, however, is a very narrow idea of the concept of “mixed use”. Instead of yet another condo or office development, why not have a mixed public arts site? Much like the current VAG site, this new city block should be showcased as a place where people can meet and interact within the context of arts and culture. Part of this means having enough public space to be able to stage outdoor events and exhibits, as well as LiveCity-type concerts and gatherings. The site could also leverage its proximity to the CBC and the QE Theatre by integrating one or more video screens that could project live concerts and broadcasts to the public (much the same way Montreal does for it’s orchestra performances). The video screens could also be used to showcase new media art installations, something that is key to making sure any new VAG is relevant culturally and artistically.

2) The site needs to be interesting! This addresses a historical weakness in Vancouver: the lack of visually stimulating architectural design. The city should push for an international design competition for the new building that includes the design of public space and integration into the surrounding street scape. If we want to think of ourselves as a world-class city, we need to open ourselves up to the world and not be afraid of finding out that the best design could come from an architect that isn’t local, or even Canadian.

3) The entire area should become the basis for an exciting new cultural district. While the VAG relies on paid admission to remain viable, the surrounding area should form the basis of a public arts showcase. This outside-inside approach would liberate the arts from the confines of a building, and also serve to get people exposed to the arts and encourage them to see more by paying for a VAG admission ticket.

I really believe this project could transform the way our downtown looks and functions in a very good way. The city needs to take a leadership role right now and work directly with the VAG to make sure arts can be integrated into our urban fabric – and that the idea of public interaction and celebration aren’t forgotten post-Olympics.

(photo: Brandon Godfrey)

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