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To be here or not to be here? For VAG, that is the question

The following is a July 8 post from Ian Reid's blog East of the Sun which is about two guys, on the road to whatever.

Last night I made my way down, down into the bowels of UBC Robson Square to a public forum on the new VAG (Vancouver Art Gallery).

Arriving early, I grabbed an excellent cookie and watched the crowd assemble. Board Chair David Aisenstat of Keg fame, sat in front of me. I recognized a few more board members but couldn’t name them – just like a Malcolm Parry column. And that’s part of VAG’s problem – too much Malcolm Parry, too little everyone else.

I love the VAG, just like I love the other VAG – the Victoria Art Gallery – in my hometown. I visited it regularly as a kid, had my first and only art lessons there and gained an undying love for Emily Carr. It was the best place imaginable for a kid with different dreams who had a tough time fitting in.

I have a point of view on the VAG move. We need a new facility but I still don’t understand why the gallery has to move into a $300 million new “world class” building on a vapid piece of land on monument row.

We need a new building, and have for years. The exhibits are too small and inconvenient to see. And most of the good stuff is hidden away for lack of room.

It is a travesty that there’s no Jeff Wall, Roy Arden, Stan Douglas, Brian Jungen, Gathie Falk, etc. on regular view in our city. It’s as if someone had decided to hide Victoria’s Emily Carr. It makes this city poorer.

But I’m still not convinced that the VAG has the best solution, or even a good solution worth settling for.

Panelist Ray Spaxman alluded to the problem. The forum was a meeting of enthusiasts, not citizens. And the VAG is approaching this as a marketing problem instead of an engagement problem. “Not enough people know of our needs. And even fewer know about the work we’ve done to come up with the best solution. If they knew better, it would be clear sailing.”

Spaxman came closest to a contrarian point of view, arguing for public process and engagement that considered alternative points of view, or as he put it, “transparency”.  The rest of the panel ranged from strong enthusiasts to enthusiasts who you are pretty sure tolerate no dissent and have the money to enforce it.

That didn’t stop the audience from raising alternatives: appropriating and expanding the UBC space; using the old white lavatory that is now Sears – most of the old alternatives came up. Some new ones, too:  the law courts would make a beautiful gallery; and what about a new facility in a park, more accessible with room to grow?

There’s an idea I wanted to mention but my lousy palate holds me back from speaking these days – the throne speech mentioned a new Emily Carr Facility located somewhere east of Main. Why are two expensive buildings with some similar purposes across town from each other?  Maybe I’ve missed something but shouldn’t Emily Carr and the VAG be talking?

Sitting in the back, I got the strong impression from the front of the house that new ideas were about as welcome with the VAG powers-that-be as a New Democrat Premier. And like Campbell supporters who are unable to come to grips with 26% they couldn’t understand why Vancouverites aren’t falling over themselves to embrace a new facility and sign the deal right now.

Here’s what wasn’t said that might convince them to change direction: The new building was fronted in 2006, at the high point of an economic boom, by a now-hated premier and his now decimated allies at city hall. It came with a price tag that started at $300 million and a pre-determined site that seemed to spring, Athena-like, out of the premier’s skull.

Since then the bottom has fallen out on the premier, his party, the NPA and the economy. Operating funds for the arts do not exist anymore; hospitals, schools and other fundamental services in the city face cuts and the government has just imposed a range of new regressive consumer taxes, the most despised of which is the HST.

It’s different times folks. Time to listen and adapt.

Last night the VAG leadership heard a strong case for engaging Vancouverites in an open-ended discussion about a new facility, without a pre-determined site hanging over them. But as I climbed the stairs I heard several bright young things talking marketing… “If we could just make the case in a way that will convince them…”

Should I be encouraged or discouraged?  I truly hope the VAG comes to grip with the new reality sooner rather than later and we can get on with an expanded facility in the right place, not necessarily the pre-determined one. They are hearing voices arguing a change in direction, but it’s still not clear they are listening.

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