Vancouver Art Gallery Real Estate Debate

Like everything else in Vancouver, the ?VAG imbroglio is all about real estate. The debate surrounding the relocation of the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) has turned a discussion on art into a power play of words.?

Vancouver Art Gallery
Is the Vancouver Art Gallery relocation plan about art or “starchitecture”?

Like everything else in Vancouver, the 
VAG imbroglio is all about real estate.

The debate surrounding the relocation of the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) has turned a discussion on art into a power play of words.

The gallery’s board of trustees have been overt in their desire to reflect the city’s position on the “world stage” with a “landmark art museum,” as they have trumpeted in a two-page advertisement in local newspapers. It was not predicted, however, that as events unfolded, the top dogs in the local business community would descend upon this issue, each vying to write themselves into the script with a speaking part.


For the past five years, the powers that be at VAG have been planning a new home for the gallery, having deemed the current Robson Square location too small. The gallery has proposed that the City of Vancouver donate its last remaining plot downtown, the former bus depot site at Dunsmuir Street, as an alternative site. The province has already donated $50 million toward finding a new home for the gallery. Strong criticism has emerged about moving the gallery from its central location and about the expense involved in building a new facility.

The fanfare surrounding this relocation has prompted eminent local business figures to weigh in, resulting in a clash of standpoints and opinions. Such a cultural war of words has not emerged since the conflict surrounding the radical design of Library Square in the 1990s. 

The argument for the relocation centres on the exterior: the building, its location and the potential benefits it will bring to the city. Little has been said about the art itself, and some suggest the silence speaks volumes about where the real interests lie.

Condo market maestro and art collector Bob Rennie is curious about the issues dominating this debate: “Why is it that all this emphasis is being put on the ‘starchitecture’? Why has the box become more important than the content?” Rennie’s voice is not simply a case of another leading business figure throwing his two cents into hearings. He owns a private gallery in the Downtown Eastside and sits on the North American Acquisitions Committee for the London’s Tate Modern, where dialogue, he says, is centred on the art itself. “If you were going to build a building for ballet, all you would talk about is the dance company and what they need. What is missing from this equation is the art. Instead, all I hear about is this grandeur that is going to ‘save’ the city.”

The notion of grandeur indeed weighs heavily in these discussions, marked by such catchphrases as “world-class” and “high profile.” The implication is that a trophy location will lure visitors and fuel the local economy. Susan Stewart, dean of culture and community at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, is well aware of this agenda. “Instead of having a real citizens’ debate, what we have is a lot of high-profile pitching going on,” Stewart says. “These kinds of big-money projects don’t come by that frequently. Some people have the potential to make a lot of money if it goes ahead.”

Both Stewart and Rennie express unease about the motivation behind the move. “The VAG is pushing for starchitecture at the expense of all small art and community groups,” Rennie declares. Stewart admits there is a certain apprehension in the art community regarding the situation: “Right now the developers are leading the debate . . . . It’s not an in-depth discussion about what we really need in Vancouver.” 

According to Rennie, the real issue here is how money should 
be spent in the current economy. 
As a result, instead of emphasizing art, the focus has been on developing a grand landmark for the city. “With some engagement rings, it’s about the diamond, and with others it’s the hand it is on,” Rennie says. “It’s about how you wear a quarter-carat ring – proudly. When you need a five-carat ring, I think you are showing, this is a marriage with a pre-nup.”

The verdict is out as to whether the VAG will remain loyal to its childhood sweetheart or jump into bed with a potential sugar daddy.