Lunch with VAG Director Kathleen Bartels

Vancouver Art Gallery director Kathleen Bartels on building ?relationships and a new home. And planning a “wonderful exit.”

“Fundraising,” says Kathleen Bartels, “is always a challenge, whether in Chicago or Vancouver, but we can do this.”

Vancouver Art Gallery director Kathleen Bartels on building 
relationships and a new home. And planning a “wonderful exit.”

It’s early February and Kathleen Bartels is raring to go. As she takes a seat at her table in the Wedgewood Hotel’s Bacchus restaurant – a short stroll from her Vancouver Art Gallery offices – the director’s excitement that City Hall has tentatively backed the VAG move to a new site is palpable. It takes, in fact, an hour to even think about ordering lunch, as she enthuses about hopes for the super-sized museum on Cambie at Larwill Park, the city’s last unoccupied block. Bringing in more artists, for starters, but also not having to turn away school groups or endure outdated systems in the erstwhile courthouse. 

For someone with a reputation for being preternaturally guarded, she seems openly irritated about the latter. “Yeah, I get frustrated,” she exclaims in her Chicago accent. “Our building and its lack of space is holding us back.”

It would appear little else is holding the 54-year-old back of late – not the task of raising $300 million for the project, nor convincing council that the city can support a larger gallery. Put a bet on it, and the stats from her decade-long tenure would make for short odds: from 2001 to 2010, the gallery’s earned income nearly doubled from around $3.5 million to $6.5 million; its institutional endowment went from $200,000 to more than $10 million; and gallery membership grew from 5,000 to 50,000. 

Bartels, visibly pleased, says that list of accomplishments will help fuel the up­coming expansion campaign. “Fundraising, of course, is always a challenge, whether you are in Chicago or Vancouver, but we can do this,” she insists, as we eat finally (halibut served with “little starch and light on the dressing”; I opt for full-fat Cobb salad). “My gauge is that we didn’t even have an architect or a site, yet we still managed to raise $90 million.” 

It’s a far cry from when she first arrived from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where she was assistant director, and inherited a VAG that had seen the ousting of its former director in a membership-and-board brouhaha. 

Was it hard rebuilding relationships? 

“No,” she replies, matter-of-factly. “It was a question of listening. It helps to be an outsider because you aren’t aligned with anyone.” 

Beyond art circles in the city and internationally, however, she finds it tricky developing other bonds. “It is hard as a director of such a prominent institution to have friendships outside that world,” Bartels admits. “You always represent the gallery and there are expectations made of you.” 

Although she enjoys running with others near her west side Vancouver home – which she shares with her husband, Brian, a stay-at-home dad, and their 12-year-old son Nicholas – downtime does not play a major role in her life. “There are few places to be your ‘other self’ and I find that refuge with my family,” she says. “I can’t ever relax. I love the hype, going from one event to another; it’s just my personality. To be successful, you just have to.”

For all those successes, her reign has not been free of vocal digs. Most famously, Bob Rennie, the condo marketer/art aficionado and former VAG board member, publicly commented that the expansion was “a monument” to her. Bartels says she doesn’t take it personally. “If I did I wouldn’t be here,” she says. “I respect Bob for what he has done as a collector, but it’s really not ego-driven or an icon to ourselves. It’s about what the gallery can be for this country.”

As for her own future, Bartels is hoping that her five-year contract is renewed this fall. “But,” she adds, diplomatically, “it is the prerogative of the board I serve.” If all goes according to plan, the director estimates the new VAG building will take six or seven years to complete. And while the opening “will be a huge climax,” it is not her focus. “The test of the mettle is looking at two years down the road, making sure it is sustainable.” 

And then, Goodbye? 

“Well,” she says, “new people bring in another level of energy, so it’s important to know when it is the right time to exit. 

“And,” she adds, laughing, “I want to have a wonderful exit.”