Art cities to watch 2021: Vancouver, Canada –


For an overview of the future of the art world, ARTnews dedicated part of the June-July 2021 issue of the magazine to 10 cities for viewing: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Vancouver, Guadalajara, Bogotá, Oslo, Tallinn, Casablanca, Abu Dhabi and Taipei. Stay tuned as each city digs in online for related reports from Seoul and Paris in the coming weeks.

Vancouver, the idyllic coastal destination in southwest Canada, owes a good part of its artistic heritage to artistically-run centers that were established decades ago and are still some of the city’s most important institutions today. In recent years, as artists faced the rising cost of living, various institutions have come together in a spirit of camaraderie and collaboration to keep the creative community thriving. The history of the Vancouver art scene – whose ranks included Emily Carr, Stan Douglas, Brian Junge, Ian Wallace, and Ken Lum – is a story of kinship and support amid intersecting changes and challenges.

The exterior of Western Front, an influential, artist-run space founded in Vancouver in 1973.
Courtesy of Western Front

Start-up culture

The most momentous art from Vancouver dates back in many ways to the creation of artist-led spaces in the 1970s. Western front, one of the most important institutions of its kind, was founded in 1973 by eight artists and has since been known for their exploration of poetry, music, media art and more. Regarding the mission of the room, the manager Susan Gibb said: “The purpose of the room has always been to support artists. In the future, it will also be a matter of emphasizing this support again. “

Notable recent activities for Western Front include an online exhibition of the work of artist and researcher Jawa El Khash and a livestream performance by Autumn Knight. On the horizon is a planned renovation of the historic building, which will be 100 years old in 2022 and is partially funded by the Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program (CERIP) of the Province of British Columbia.

Artificial languageAnother artist-run organization dedicated to interdisciplinary thinking was founded in 1986 with the mission of “promoting the dialogue between the visual arts and writing”. Early on, Artspeak shared space with the local Kootenay School of Writing, and the organization has hosted extensive exhibitions, lectures, and readings by artists and writers since its inception. “It was born out of a collective need to share space,” said director and curator Bopha Chhay about the origins of Artspeak, “but also to provide space for ideas to develop.” Artspeak has both exhibition and publishing programs, and Chhay noted that special attention is being paid today to how the language arts could be used to improve the institution’s position in the non-ceded areas of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

Annie Segal, Vincent Trasov and Eric Metcalfe star in Surfacing on the Subliminal (1974).  Archive image showing two musicians playing the saxophone on either side of a person disguised as Mr Peanut playing the violin.

Annie Segal, Vincent Trasov and Eric Metcalfe play in Appeared on the subliminal (1974).
Courtesy of Western Front

Also plays a key role in Vancouver Grunt Gallery, an artist-run center founded in 1984 dedicated to a “story” [that] was really defined by an emphasis on performance art and indigenous contemporary art, queer artists and colored artists, ”said program director Vanessa Kwan. “It has always been a place where different kinds of practices have been welcomed.” Artists the gallery has shown include Tsēmā Igharas, Marlene Yuen, Gabi Dao, and Rebecca Belmore. Recent initiatives have included talks and presentations with emerging indigenous artists, as well as community workshops on subtitling, transcription, and non-auditory access.

A newer, but similarly influential organization in Vancouver is 221A, which started in 2005 as a student initiative focused on fusing contemporary art and design practices. Starting from its roots in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, 221A has gone through several changes since its inception, evolving from an exhibition-oriented platform to a scholarship program in 2017. Jesse McKee, Head of Strategy at 221A, said the fellowship model serves the organization’s goal of “working with people over time to develop new types of cultural infrastructure.”

Solidarity against inequality

Tom Hsu has exhibited in several galleries in Vancouver.  Pictured here is his sun worshiper printed in 2019.

Tom Hsu has exhibited in several galleries in Vancouver. Pictured here is his print from 2019 Fingers crossed for sunbathers.
Courtesy of the phone gallery

As soaring house prices and consistently low artist wages make Vancouver less welcoming to the growing creative class (as has been the case in so many other cities), local energy has been devoted to creative ways of nurturing the community. “We really suffer from the fact that people cannot afford to work and live here,” said Vanessa Kwan, the director of the grunt gallery. Efforts to build coalitions and networks to support emerging practices include collective studio spaces like Duplex, which was founded in 2015 and is run on a voluntary basis, with an emphasis on supporting the practices of emerging artists and interdisciplinary and experimental practices.

As the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in Vancouver, mutual aid initiatives have become a central part of the art scene. WePress, a community art space in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside neighborhood, a community kitchen set up to distribute meals to organizations like Aboriginal Front Door, Overdose Prevention Society and Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society. The Sector Justice for Anti-Racism in the Arts (SEARA) Fund is an ongoing effort to fund British Columbia-based BIPOC artists through donations from the public, arts organizations, and private donors. The initiative’s steering committee includes initiative
Personalities like Brian McBay, managing director of 221A; Michelle Jacques, chief curator of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; and artist and designer Sierra Tasi Baker.

Tom Hsu, a photographer who lives and works in Vancouver and has exhibited in several galleries around the city said the “dense community of artists” is one of Vancouver’s greatest strengths – as is their shared tendency to “help each other” by having access to different people “. Types of mutual help.

The exterior of the Catriona Jeffries Gallery.  A single story building painted black.

The exterior of the Catriona Jeffries Gallery.
Courtesy of Catriona Jeffries Gallery

The commercial sphere

Catriona Jeffries has built a reputation as the driving force behind one of Canada’s most important galleries since 1994, while drawing on the history of the artist-run spaces in Vancouver. “They are of enormous importance for the ecosystem of this place,” said Jeffries about the roots of her gallery of the same name, which today artists like Geoffrey Farmer, Brian Boys, Damian Moppett, and Rebecca Brewer. “My gallery arises from a critical position and from a different structural perspective. Many of the artists I work with also come from the artist-led culture. “

The artist-centered spirit that shapes the city has also influenced newer commercial outfits such as Unit 17, a gallery founded in 2017 with a focus on emerging artists. Founder Tobin Gibson said Unit 17 preferred artists whose “practices have been hidden” over others who have already received attention. Among the artists who have shown with Unit 17 are Gabi Dao, Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, and geetha thurairajah, and Gibson said there is always more. “We are very happy to be able to work in a place where so many artists work. Although Vancouver is on the edge of the world, it is still able to get in touch with other centers. “

Sarah Macaulay, owner and director Macaulay & Co. Fine Arts, said that many artists “do some work for their peers and not for a market”. Macaulay represents artists, including Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun Letslo: tseitun and Walter Scott, and she has developed two other projects: Ceremonial / art, is dedicated to the exhibition of works by indigenous artists; and Telephone gallery, was launched in 2020 to allow artists to have a month-long solo exhibition and then choose the next exhibitor. Macaulay said the handover of the selection process allows me to “see a whole different kind of art scene in Vancouver that I may no longer have any connection with,” acknowledging that galleries may be too involved in their program to spy on emerging talent .

Installation view of the

Installation view of the “Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures”, 2016, at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Photo Maegan Hill-Carroll and Rachel Topham / Courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery

The new era of an institution

The 90 year old Vancouver Art Gallery, one of the largest art museums in Western Canada, entered a new phase in 2020 when Anthony Kiendl took the helm as director and CEO, and last May opened the second edition of a survey-style exhibition known as the Vancouver specialwhich will last until early 2022. A series that focuses on local artistic practices and is scheduled to take place every three to five years was titled “Ambivalent Pleasures” in its first iteration in 2016 and garnered a lot of attention. A review in Globe and post described it as “rich in discoveries”, with “works as diverse as the artists who created them”. The current issue with the title “Disorientationen und Echo” shows around 30 artists, including them Simranpreet Anand, Lacie Burning, Odera Igbokwe, and Lam Wong. Diana Freundl, curator and assistant director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, said the exhibition is a “snapshot” of art practices that have come to light in recent years in a “rapidly changing” city.

An even bigger update is imminent for the museum: A capital campaign is underway for a new building by Herzog & de Meuron and Perkins + Will, the construction of which could begin as early as January 2022, offering accessibility, inclusivity and environmental sustainability, and planned functions include classrooms for school programs and special rooms for the Institute for Asian Art. Kiendl, director, sees the present as “a very promising opportunity to reinvent the art museum”.

A version of this article will appear in the June / July 2021 issue of ARTnews, entitled “The Collaboration Station: Vancouver, Canada”.


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