Friday, March 5, 2010

As angry signatories continue to circle National Gallery director Marc Mayer, critics of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s latest relocation plan have formed a circle of their own, this one based on the VAG’s second attempt to move to the former bus depot on Georgia Street, now that the False Creek site has been quashed.

So far, the Globe and Mail has run back-to-back stories.

In yesterday’s paper we read (once again) how the VAG is pressed for space, that it can only exhibit 3% of its collection. “Pure and simple, we need to expand,” said VAG pater familias Michael Audain -- to which former VAG board member Bob Rennie opined, “They should go underground. The Louvre did it.”

Audain doesn’t like the suggestion. For Audain, digging down would mean "as much as 90%" of the gallery would be below street level. Where he got that figure, I’m not sure. If it were based on the collection, versus the 320,000 square feet currently available above ground, that would add up to over a quarter-billion subterranean square feet, with the entire collection on permanent display.

Hyperboles like Audain’s are often borne from pressure. This appears to be the case, for the VAG has said repeatedly that it will stand for nothing less than a stand alone building of its own design.

According to VAG board chair David Aisenstat, the gallery has met with “some of the most famous architects in the world,” and to share the site, as city manager Penny Ballem has suggested (with “a tall building or even anything else"), is not enough. “We simply would not embark on a project of this magnitude with ordinary as our goal.” As if sharing should be equated to “ordinary”.

Today’s article had a different slant, with architect Bing Thom leading the charge. First: “The Olympics have proven that the gallery has the best site in Canada. It’s the perfect location.” Second: “There’s a whole bunch of us in town wanting to say that the business case for the move is not convincing.” Third: “The feeling is that we have a small number of people on an ego trip, wanting to do a [Guggeneheim] Bilbao.”

As for the VAG’s argument, that a move is necessary based on the volume of their collection, former VAG associate director Chris Wooten is unconvinced, describing the gallery’s holdings as “mediocre,” and that back-to-back deficits suggest that they are in no position “to pay to maintain twice the square footage.”

So the stage is set, the actors emerging. All eyes are on Bartels. How will she respond? Will the VAG mount a publicity campaign, like they did during their last move, in 1983? As for Bing Thom, is his desire to see the VAG remain on Hornby Street related to his desire to see the viaducts leading to and from the proposed VAG site removed? And if the VAG were to share this site, who would their neighbours be? Indeed, who would want to share a site with those who do not want them?

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