How Vancouver’s Art Community Counts on Kinship and Support to Navigate New Challenges

For a survey of what lies ahead as the art world looks forward to the future, ARTnews devoted part of the June-July 2021 issue of the magazine to 10 cities to watch: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Vancouver, Guadalajara, Bogotá, Oslo, Tallinn, Casablanca, Abu Dhabi, and Taipei. Stay tuned as each city joins related reports from Seoul and Paris online in the weeks to come.

Vancouver, the idyllic coastal destination in the southwest of Canada, owes a good part of its artistic legacy to artist-run centers that emerged decades ago and continue to rank among the most important institutions in the city today. In recent years, as artists have faced rising costs of living, various institutions have banded together in the spirit of camaraderie and collaboration to help keep the creative community thriving. The story of the Vancouver arts community—whose ranks have included Emily Carr, Stan Douglas, Brian Jungen, Ian Wallace, and Ken Lum—is one of kinship and support amid intersecting changes and challenges.

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Exterior of Western Front, showing double green doors with the organization logo on the doors' windows.

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

Start-up Culture

The most momentous art from Vancouver traces back in many ways to the creation of artist-run spaces in the 1970s. Western Front, one of the most prominent institutions of the kind, was founded by eight artists in 1973 and has since become known for its engagement with poetry, music, media art, and more. Of the space’s mission, executive director Susan Gibb said “its purpose has first and foremost always been about supporting artists. Moving forward, it will also be about reemphasizing that support.”

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

Artspeak, another artist-run organization given to interdisciplinary thinking, was founded in 1986 with a mission “to encourage a dialogue between visual art and writing.” Early on, Artspeak shared space with the local Kootenay School of Writing, and the organization has since its establishment presented wide-ranging exhibitions, talks, and readings by artists and writers. “It came out of a collective need to share space,” director and curator Bopha Chhay said of Artspeak’s origins, “but also to offer a space for ideas to develop.” Artspeak maintains both exhibition and publishing programs, and Chhay noted a particular focus today on ways that language arts might be utilized to address the institution’s position on unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

Annie Segal, Vincent Trasov and Eric Metcalfe performing in Surfacing on the Subliminal (1974). Archival image showing two musicians playing the sax on either side of a person dressed as Mr. Peanut playing the violin.

Annie Segal, Vincent Trasov and Eric Metcalfe performing in Surfacing on the Subliminal (1974).

Also playing a key role in Vancouver is grunt gallery, an artist-run center founded in 1984 and devoted to a “history [that] has really been defined by an emphasis on performance art and Indigenous contemporary art, queer artists, and artists of color,” according to program director Vanessa Kwan. “It’s always been a place where different kinds of practices have been welcome.” Artists the gallery has shown include Tsēmā Igharas, Marlene Yuen, Gabi Dao, and Rebecca Belmore, and recent initiatives have involved talks and presentations with emerging Indigenous artists, and community workshops on captioning, transcription, and nonauditory access.

A newer but similarly influential organization in Vancouver is 221A, which began in 2005 as a student-led initiative focused on merging contemporary art and design practices. Informed by its roots in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, 221A has undergone several transformations since its founding, shifting in 2017 from an exhibition-centered platform to a fellowship program. Jesse McKee, head of strategy at 221A, said the fellowship model serves the organization’s aim “to work with people over extended periods to develop new kinds of cultural infrastructure.”

Solidarity Against Inequality

Tom Hsu has shown work in several Vancouver galleries. Pictured here is his 2019 print finger crossed sunbather.

Tom Hsu has shown work in several Vancouver galleries. Pictured here is his 2019 print finger crossed sunbather.

As rising real estate prices and perpetually low artists’ wages make Vancouver less welcoming to the creative class on the rise (as has happened in so many other cities), local energy has been devoted to creative ways to nurture the community. “We really suffer from people not being able to afford to work and live here,” Vanessa Kwan, the director of grunt gallery said. Efforts to build coalitions and networks to support emerging practices include collective studio spaces like Duplex, which was established in 2015 and is run on a volunteer basis with a focus 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 central to the art scene. WePress, a community arts space in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood, established a community kitchen to distribute meals to organizations like Aboriginal Front Door, Overdose Prevention Society, and Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society. The Sector Equity for Anti-Racism in the Arts (SEARA) fund is an ongoing effort to deliver financial support to British Columbia–based BIPOC artists through donations from the public, arts organizations, and private donors. Among the initiative’s steering committee are
figures like Brian McBay, executive 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 shown in several of the city’s galleries, said that the “dense community of artists” is one of Vancouver’s greatest strengths—as is their shared inclination to “help each other out” through access to different kinds of mutual aid.

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

The exterior of Catriona Jeffries Gallery.

The Commercial Sphere

Catriona Jeffries has since 1994 cultivated a reputation as the force behind one of Canada’s most important galleries, while drawing on the history of artist-run spaces in Vancouver. “They are enormously significant to the ecosystem of this place,” Jeffries said of the roots behind her namesake gallery, which now represents artists including Geoffrey Farmer, Brian Jungen, Damian Moppett, and Rebecca Brewer. “My gallery comes out of a critical position and from a different structural perspective. A lot of the artists I work with come out of artist-run culture as well.”

The artist-centric spirit that has come to define the city has also influenced newer commercial outfits like Unit 17, a gallery founded in 2017 with a focus on emerging artists. Founder Tobin Gibson said Unit 17 favors artists whose “practices have been hidden away” in comparison to others who have already found attention. Among the artists who have shown with Unit 17 are Gabi Dao, Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, and geetha thurairajah, and Gibson said there are always more. “We feel very lucky to be able to work in a place that has so many kinds of artists working. Even though Vancouver is on the edge of the world, it is still able to engage with other centers.”

Sarah Macaulay, who owns and directs Macaulay & Co. Fine Art, said that many artists are “making work for their peers as opposed to a market, to a certain extent.” Macaulay represents artists including Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun Letslo:tseitun and Walter Scott, and she has developed two other projects: Ceremonial/Art, dedicated to exhibiting work by Indigenous artists; and Telephone Gallery, launched in 2020 to enable artists to stage a monthlong solo show and then select the next exhibitor. Macaulay said handing over the selection process allows for “getting to know a whole other kind of art scene in Vancouver that I may be disconnected from,” acknowledging how galleries can get too caught up in their program to spy talent on the rise.

Installation view of the 'Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures,' 2016, at Vancouver Art Gallery.

Installation view of the “Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures,” 2016, at Vancouver Art Gallery.

An Institution’s New Era

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 this past May, it opened the second edition of a survey-style exhibition known as the Vancouver Special, which continues into early 2022. A series focused on local artistic practices and intended to take place every three to five years, the show’s first iteration, in 2016, took the title “Ambivalent Pleasures,” and garnered good attention. A review in the Globe and Mail described it as “thick with discovery,” with “works as diverse as the artists who made them.” The current edition, titled “Disorientations and Echo,” showcases some 30 artists, including Simranpreet Anand, Lacie Burning, Odera Igbokwe, and Lam Wong. Diana Freundl, a curator and associate director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, said the exhibition serves as a “snapshot” of art practices that have come to light in recent years in a city that is “changing quickly.”

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An even bigger update is on the horizon for the museum: a capital campaign is underway for a new building designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Perkins + Will, with construction plans that could get underway as early as January 2022. The building was conceived to provide accessibility, inclusivity, and environmental sustainability, and planned features include classrooms for school programs and dedicated space for the Institute of Asian Art. Kiendl, the director, said he views the present moment as “a very promising opportunity to reinvent what an art museum is.”

A version of this article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “The Collaboration Station: Vancouver, Canada.”


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