Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Shifting Gears: Private Philanthropy Versus Public Sponsorship in the Arts

The proposed new building for the Vancouver Art Gallery, designed by Herzog & de Meuron.

“We used to build temples, but museums are about as close as secular society dares to go in facing up to the idea that a good building can change your life.” – Alain De Botton
Even if a new gallery building design is elegant, aesthetically pleasing and curatorially sound, as the new former Vancouver Art Gallery conceived by Herzog & de Meuron definitely is, unless there is ample cash in the coffers it will never see shovels in the ground, remaining an abstraction or a pipe dream. The only question that remained for the VAG building, soon to be officially renamed The Chan Centre for the Visual Arts once it's in its new location site, was exactly whose coffers the cash came from. Now we know, and the answer is an enhanced relationship between the private and public sectors way too long in the formation, at least in my considered opinion. One important detail to clarify in this whole expansion and patronage support process: the building itself will have a new name, but the gallery inside will still retain its historical identity and name.  The Vancouver Art Gallery will be housed within the Chan Centre.

As a result of the largesse and generosity of the Chan family, a dynasty already appreciated in Vancouver for both their Chan Centre for the Performing Arts and the Polygon Gallery, and their donation of $40 million to the VAG’s relocation and new site construction, a dramatic upgrade of the VAG from its decorous former courthouse building on Robson Street to a spanking new location several blocks west on West Georgia and Cambie, that long-awaited dream is closer to being a reality. It might only be a couple of years away now, instead of what it was almost beginning to look like its fate might be: never.

Before I relocated from Toronto to Vancouver, where my wife was appointed an Associate Professor at Emily Carr University in 2012, and from where I have since closely followed the ongoing path of the VAG through its evolutionary labours (starting slowly in about 2013), I often had occasion to observe other museological expansions (such as the Gehry Façade and blooming of the Art Gallery of Ontario) and to frequently muse on mutually beneficial and crucially needed private/public cultural/commercial partnerships.

As a matter of fact, I have long been an advocate, often a voice in the wilderness, extolling the virtues of strenuous and aggressive private business, personal philanthropy, and corporate sponsorship of the arts. I say a wilderness voice because the most frequent response I received, from several public arts organizations with which I was affiliated over the years, was “But Donald, that’s more of an American model. In Canada we’re more reliant on the public purse.” To which my reaction usually was, “Maybe so, but the way of the future here will be to follow the private Yank model, once public funds begin to dry up, or at least wilt substantially, as they inevitably will.” Well, this is now the future I was referring to, so welcome aboard. After working in the corporate world myself for several years (including in an agency where I was basically an '80s version of Don Draper from Mad Me), I began applying certain business models of communication management to the public sector. When I was the Public Relations, Promotion and Advertising Director for the Ontario Crafts Council in the late '80s, I was a strong supporter of their ambitious foray into real estate and the embrace of private philanthropy via the generous Chalmers Family for their expansion to a large Council-owned downtown building on McCaul Street.

Current Robson location of the Vancouver Art Galley, a courthouse renovated in 1983 by Arthur Erickson.

Alas, their reach exceeded their grasp and they collided as well with early '90s shrinkage in the market that compelled them to abandon their dream. But the model for it was there: a partial blind date between public culture funds from government and a healthy infusion of good old-fashioned capitalist wealth. It was basically the American model modified to fit our own social environment, and it resulted in the Chalmers Building. I wasn’t able, of course, to convince them to change their name from crafts to design council, but that was another kettle of fish, one that many of us pursued in ventures such as the Group For Design in Business and eventually the Design Exchange.

Subsequently, as Executive Director for both the Professional Art Dealers Association (as it was then called) through the mid-'90s and then ED of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries towards the turn of the century, I was positioned to further lobby (or try) for private-public partnerships to replace the rapidly dwindling government funding for the arts. The former was, of course, a trade association of hardcore sellers as dealers of art, though they also coordinated the extensive private donation program from collectors to public galleries and museums in exchange for charitable tax receipts monitored by the Cultural Property Board in Ottawa.

The latter, OAAG, was and is another trade association, but one representing non-profit institutional members of some scale and stature, engaged in professional development and promotion of public collections. In other words, the very outfits to which the prior donations were coordinated by my former association of dealers. Once again, in light of evaporating funds, I was tasked to seek alternative funds to public money, and to explore the possibility of merging the association of galleries with another separate organization representing museums.

Once again I advocated for bold private-public partnerships, to all but eliminate our dependence on grants and programs that were disappearing anyway. Seemingly my attempts were once again either too strenuous or too soon. They balked at receiving operating funds from the business and corporate worlds, fearing that the CEOs would somehow interfere with or otherwise try to control their curatorial programming (though there was never any evidence of this mythical sinister control). They also balked at actually joining forces with the Ontario Museum Association, maintaining that both institutional models were too different to be compatible (a position that seemed logical until one examined it more closely). They seemed especially irked that I might be crass enough (which I was) to discuss with the Chrysler Car company, placing a new car on a pedestal in front of every gallery or museum in the province in exchange for operating and program funds.

This crass act would also be in addition to placing a plaque or signage somewhere saying The Chrysler or Ford or Toyota (or whoever) Gallery. After all, I was Don Draper, let loose on an unsuspecting public culture domain, and I was entirely capable of trying to maintain the very existence of a visual art community by creating slogans for galleries such as: “We’d like to teach the world to look,” if you recall that familiar soft drink jingle. I still think it’s a potentially good slogan for what public galleries and museums actually do.

New West Georgia design for The Chan Centre for the Visual Arts, created by Herzog & de Meuron Architects.

Which brings us back, as if by what Joyce famously called circuitous circumnavigation, to Vancouver and environs, where I am delighted to applaud and embrace the sound of shifting gears. The sound of cultural coffers being filled with personal generosity, and yes, the sound of a new name for a grand old gallery about to be reincarnated in the deft design hands of Herzog & de Meuron. The Chan Centre for the Visual Arts: it has nice ring to it, and those who don’t like it will learn to get used to it eventually.

After all, when you give away $40 million of your own money to the public sphere to support the creation of a new aesthetic temple, you deserve to see your family’s name above the doors, if only because you bought the very doors that all the rest of us will be walking through.

Those new doors, and some of the building surrounding them, have undergone some modification and design developments since the project was first announced and a preliminary design unveiled to the press back in 2015. Such changes are to be expected in a real-world scenario: the cedar wood cladding originally envisioned (which made the building appear to be a series of stacked bento boxes, something I loved about it, by the way) have been replaced by translucent glass panels instead. Understandable enough, though I for one would have cherished seeing the wood go as grey as barn wood over the course of many Vancouver rainy seasons, something I’ll now miss seeing.
It’s still a stunning addition to the cultural community of the city, and the private Chan funds pretty much secured the necessary stability in order to receive matching public money. And therein lies my main point: I’m a huge supporter of public culture, designated for free (or almost) access to all citizens and visitors, but I have absolutely no objection to a wealthy philanthropist or corporate entity providing the capitalist fuel to run the cultural engines.

As an observer of the design field for many years, I might also have enjoyed having a Canadian architectural firm selected to undertake the building shift (Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg or Patkau Architects would have suited me fine); however, the choice of Swiss-based Herzog & de Meuron is a solid one as well. They will acquit themselves well in manifesting a 300K-square-foot structure that accommodates the gallery’s expanding collection, showcase outstanding curatorial work and hosts educational programs for a hopefully ongoing expansion of public visitors.
I also agree with Blouin Artifino’s recent assessment that the “sculptural, symmetrical and upright new building combines opaque and transparent surfaces, with larger volumes concentrated at the top and minimal mass at the bottom. By lifting the structure high above the street, the design allows light and air to filter down to an active, open-air courtyard below.”

Christine Binswanger, partner in charge at Herzog & de Meuron, characterizes it accurately in terms of its dynamic strategy: “The project has a civic dimensions that can contribute to the life and identity of the city. The building now combines two materials, wood and glass, both inseparable from the history and making of the city. We developed a façade out of glass logs which is pure, soft, light, establishing a unique relation to covered wooden terraces all around the building.”
Binswager also articulated what for me is an essential ingredient as an optimal situation, “The new gallery is a vertical building, distinctly spectacular at first sight, with an arrangement that resonates with the place where it is built. Visitors to the building will be able to perceive Vancouver’s urbanity and its amazing natural setting in many different ways.” Now all we have to do is get used to not calling it the “gallery” and instead referring to it as the “centre for the visual arts,” with that generous private surname preceding it.
The Chan lead gift of $40 million is accurately described by the Gallery as an unprecedented act of generosity towards the new purpose-built facility, and more than warrants the shift in name. It is the largest-ever single private donation to an arts and culture organization in British Columbia and it clearly builds on the family’s long history of supporting the arts with the aim of enriching communities in Canada and beyond. It is a legacy project, pure and simple.

With the designation of the land at Larwill Park from the City of Vancouver in place, along with the provincial and municipal funds that complement this large private Chan donation, the capital campaign for a newly-named building project can continue apace to secure the senior level government funding that matches this private infusion. Other models in the city are already demonstrating how the new partnerships between individuals of means and societies at large can succeed. 
The Audain Museum and Polygon Gallery in Vancouver come to mind as examples in Canada, while America, as I’ve already stipulated, has always been ahead of the curve in this respect. The Walker Art Centre in Minnesota, the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles are all fine marquee examples of the phenomenon.
That sound you hear in the background might well be the stirring of future digging and construction in Vancouver, but it is definitely also the sound of shifting gears in the love affair between the private and public sectors. It’s a mutually advantageous romance that I’ve been hoping for many years, and one that hopefully will inspire others to follow suit: a money marriage made in cultural heaven.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book was Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. He is currently trying to complete a book on the life and work of Yoko Ono.

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