Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bettman to Bartels

Only yesterday did I notice the incredible volume of construction/destruction going on in my neighbourhood. Every second block has an infill project; every other block a lifted house. At the west end of my block, two houses were razed to accommodate a three-storey, nine unit cluster with underground parking, while a block south on Kingsway, another car-lot-cum-condominium-complex.

It was while watching the installation of a large pane of glass that my ears tuned into the workmen's boom box: a sports talk show dissecting the current NHL lock-out and what is likely the suspension of the entire 2012-2013 hockey season. Representing the players is Donald Fehr; representing NHL team owners, Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Every June, Gary Bettman walks onto the ice to present the Stanley Cup, and is routinely greeted with boos. Rarely is his name mentioned in a positive light. But that's his job, for Gary Bettman is a well-paid whipping boy whose duties also include the maintenance and marketting of the NHL on behalf of its teams' owners -- because it is the owners, not Gary Bettman, who are calling the shots.

While sports talk shows operate on emotion (as opposed to analytical critique), I have on a occasion been inspired by something I have heard on these programs, an insight that has altered the way I think about professional sports. But on this day, with the workmen's boom box blaring, and this huge window being craned into its frame, it occurred to me that the contempt for Gary Bettman is misplaced, that Bettman is merely the messenger, and that the greater problem lies in a group of owners with their own agendas, some of whom have formed a majority. And as is the case with most boards, majority rules.

It was while considering the NHL lock-out that my thoughts returned to the current situation at the Vancouver Art Gallery, under the direction of Kathleen Bartels. When Gary Bettman was hired in the 1990s, the NHL was moribund; since then he has built the league into a powerhouse (by corporate standards). Kathleen Bartels achieved something similar after she was hired to direct the VAG in 2000. But somewhere along the line the board decided the VAG required a bigger space to house and display its collection (no doubt bolstered by the inclusion of long-serving board member Michael Audain's impressive accumulation of B.C and Meso-American art and artefact), and that it was Bartels's job to sell it.

Like Gary Bettman, the name Kathleen Bartels is often greeted with scorn. During her eleven years at the VAG, we have heard stories of poor working conditions, low staff morale, union troubles, insensitive donor "asks", budget shortfalls, a lack of curatorial support and, most recently, disdain for the manner in which she has presented the gallery's case for moving -- not the end goal, which many of us agree on (a larger space to display the collection, where the stories of this city's art can be told), but the means by which she has gone about selling this purpose-built, stand-alone "iconic" building to taxpayers, business and government. I, for one, have been appalled by some of Bartels's presumptions, while at the same time aware that the awkwardness and injury that have accompanied the VAG's proposed move is not wholly her fault. For this I blame certain members of her meddlesome, self-serving board, just as many of us blamed another meddlesome, self-serving VAG board twelve years ago, when an ad hoc group known as VagConcern formed to protest not the "resignation" of the gallery's previous director, Alf Bogusky, but the arrogance of board member Joe McHugh, after he was appointed from within that board to serve as the VAG's interim director.

Those who participated in VagConcern will remember visits from VAG board members Christos Dikeakos, who, with all the righteous indignation this artist-restauranteur-gadfly could muster, admonished us for our principles, to developer-philanthropist Michael Audain, who entered our forum as a self-appointed peace-maker, a gesture that would have been better received had he not come to us insisting that he would leave with our blessings. Yet whereas the aristocratic Audain was relatively low-key during the VagConcern era, he took a different approach after the VAG announced four years ago its desire to move, when he paired himself with Bartels at public information sessions and made himself available to journalists. That he took this tack seems consistent with a man whose interest in a move was linked less to the public good than the vanity that comes from wanting to see, in his lifetime, his collection on permanent display -- in a gallery room with his name above the entrance. Michael Audain is not the VAG board, merely its wealthiest member. But with wealth comes influence (and Audain's influence, we are told, is far-reaching).

But back to Bartels. The reason she has my sympathy extends beyond her character. For here is yet another blithe U.S. American who came to Vancouver to be a first-time gallery director, only to be shepherded by Audain, who introduced her to his good friend Gordon Campbell, the then-premier of this province and a top-down autocratic so unilateral in his approach to governance that caucus members not only quit on him but quit politics altogether. So this is the political economic culture Bartels was exposed to during the first days of her directorship, the culture she did her best to adapt to, learn from. But with Campbell gone, and his party unlikely to form a government after the May 2013 election, so too are the millions Campbell committed to a new VAG building. But rather than stick by his director, what does Audain do? He sulks, loses interest, then announces two weeks ago that he is considering moving his collection to Whistler so that he might see his legacy enshrined ("in my life lifetime").

I am not sure when the NHL lock-out will end, but when it does, it will not come from Gary Bettman but from team owners. As for Kathleen Bartels, until her board tells her otherwise she will have no choice but to continue lobbying for a purpose-built, stand-alone "iconic" building, whether she believes in one or not. So next time you hear the name Kathleen Bartels and feel compelled to hiss, look not to the messenger -- but to those who wrote her message.

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