Vancouver Art Gallery Behind the Scenes

Comments 7 by Rebecca Bollwitt

In May I wrote about how the Vancouver Art Gallery is looking to relocate to (preferably) a new building that can accommodate their growing collection.

Vancouver 2010
Photo credit: ko.ttur on Flickr

Public opinion has been somewhat mixed in terms of their sentiments for the current building and lack of knowledge about the reasons why the VAG would want to move. Last week I was given a private tour behind the scenes of the old Court House building where the Vancouver Art Gallery is pretty much bursting at the seams.

Quick facts:

  • The Vancouver Art Gallery has been in that location since 1983.
  • A third of the VAG’s collection sits in the vault since there is such limited exhibition space in the current building.
  • There is 9,000 square feet of storage space in the current location. They require at least 300,000 for their collection. As such, the gallery spends about $100,000 a year in off-site storage.
  • Behind the scenes at the Vancouver Art Gallery

    When we first started the tour I got a bit of an education about relative humidity and temperature control in the building thanks to Tom Meighan, Director of Operations & Exhibition Production. Apparently they have no chilled water source in the building itself so they needed to route it in from another source downtown in order to get their cooling systems in check. This technical yet crucial element is key in operating a world-class art gallery.

    Behind the scenes at the Vancouver Art Gallery

    We moved on to the loading bay which is located at the end of a spiraling tunnel that goes under Howe Street. Issues here include big trucks not being able to make it down the outdated ramp, which leads to road closures around the gallery while they try to cart in priceless pieces of art on a dolly. Another issue that concerns Dana Sullivant, Director of Markting & Communications is that fine art arrives through the same door that garbage exists. Trash from the gallery and cafe passes through the same doors as Dali or Monet works.

    Dark place where they store items for the gift shop The hose is draining a leak. Surprised there was no duct tape. Behind the scenes at the Vancouver Art Gallery Behind the scenes at the Vancouver Art Gallery

    Meandering our way through an underground hallway filled with empty crates, boxes, and display cases we stopped in to check out the only freight elevator in the entire building. With only one way to get pieces up to the top floor and down, it’s a vital part of gallery operations. They would be unable to expand and build another since the building’s heritage status limits their ability to edit the current structure.

    Behind the scenes at the Vancouver Art Gallery

    Entering the “vault” was like walking into a dark, overflowing storage room. Located directly beneath the fountain on the front lawn of the art gallery, the space is dangerously exposed in terms of potential leaks that could damage their collections.

    Behind the scenes at the Vancouver Art Gallery

    Meighan said that in an ideal situation they would have seperate cold storage for each type of art work. One for photography, another for metal objects, sculptures, paintings etc. We walked over to section that contained sliding metal racks upon which hundreds if not thousands of paintings were perched. Some of the works haven’t seen the exhibition space for at least 20 years including some of the Dutch Masters in the photo below.

    Dutch Masters in Storage

    With a rusted metal screech Meighan pulled out a rack filled with Emily Carr works. When the art gallery first opened Carr donated 145 paintings and the collection has grown ever-since. Unfortunately, most of it hangs below the surface and not in front of visitors.

    Emily Carr works in storage

    Once again the ideal situation here would be to have a permanent exhibit for Carr’s work along with other local artist such as Jeff Wall. These would be mainstays of the gallery for all (especially Vancouverites) to enjoy anytime.

    “We’re in a holding pattern,” says Sullivant. They have funds, they have the proposed location, and now they just need approval from the City of Vancouver in order to start drafting up plans for a new building. They also need to win over the public. The new location (150 Dunsmuir) would have open public space in order to continue to host community events and be a congregational point for Vancouverites.

    Behind the scenes at the Vancouver Art Gallery

    So what will happen to the current space? As a heritage building, the Court House will not be torn down in order to make room for condo developments or office towers. I’ve been told UBC and the Museum of Vancouver have already expressed interest and everyone would like to see it continue as a centre for the community, both inside and out.

    To learn more, ask questions, or show your support, visit You can read more about the history of the Court House in my previous post about the VAG’s relocation and follow @VanArtGallery on Twitter for updates and news regarding public consultations.

    7 Comments  —  Comments Are Closed

    1. BrianWednesday, August 4th, 2010 — 9:21am PDT

      I still think the VAG shouldnt move, but stay in their current location with an expansion renovation. Similar to that of the Royal Ontario Museum ( ) or the Art Gallery of Ontario ( )

      I think there is a great opportunity here for a combined expansion of the VAG as well as the re-imagining of a better Robson Square. The below grade space of Robson Square can be part of the expansion of the gallery, while a more vibrant public space can be designed on top (closing that section of Robson st to cars)

    2. GregWednesday, August 4th, 2010 — 10:45am PDT

      I love that Vancouver has a chance to build a new Art Gallery.

      We’re lucky to live in one of the youngest cities in the world. If this were Boston, Paris or London, we’d never have this chance. Everything there has already been built!

      The old courthouse isn’t going away. It’s this city’s most cherished heritage site. We’ll always have the front steps, the fountain and the Georgia Plaza, no matter who occupies the inside. Let’s not let nostalgia get in the way of a chance to do something great for Vancouver and create a new building purpose-built for the visual arts.

      I’m close to this cause, but I really can’t help but be excited about this opportunity!

    3. David AllisonThursday, August 5th, 2010 — 5:51am PDT

      Couldn’t agree more. Your blog brings up some of the finer details of why the current space is unworkable, even with major renovations. A new, purpose built gallery is the best, and most responsible, decision.

      Ironically, I’m writing this from an urban planning conference I’m at this week, where revitalization and rejuvenation of urban districts is the entire agenda. And while the revitalization of the Robson Square area is a noble and big idea, it doesn’t need to include handcuffing the VAG to the site it current occupies.

      Since VAG first opened it’s doors, it’s been in borrowed square-peg-round-hole buildings. It’s time for Vancouver to stand up and build an art gallery that is designed to be an art gallery, instead of cobbling together courthouses and other existing facilities in a MacGyver-like attempt to find a workable solution.

    4. jaxThursday, August 5th, 2010 — 3:03pm PDT

      why not keep the current gallery open for travelling exhibits and house Vancouver’s collection in the new space?

    5. EmmySunday, August 8th, 2010 — 4:54pm PDT

      Vancouver Art Gallery is hemmed in already by space limitations. UBC has a 30 year lease on the space near the ice rink, and I think it’s unfeasible to expand underneath the public plaza on Georgia Street.

      I think to build the Vancouver Art Gallery at 150 Dunsmuir is an acceptable solution if they want to build downtown. Otherwise, where else would they go? (If the powers that be will shut down the Guy Carleton School at Joyce Street and Kingsway, perhaps they can move the Vancouver Art Gallery there. A higher percentage of eastside residents support moving the Vancouver Art Gallery compared to westside residents as revealed in a poll done by the Vancouver Art Gallery anyway.)

      It’s high time that Vancouver built a purpose built art gallery with proper conservation and storage facilities, auditorium, restaurant, cafe, and bookstore.

    6. Robert DallMonday, August 9th, 2010 — 9:50pm PDT

      I think the Museum of Vancouver moving to the Art Gallery Location is one of the best idea’s I have heard for this building. I feel this would keep the area surrounding the building similar!

      I can’t believe I haven’t heard of this sooner! It is great and perfect move!

    7. GlacieWednesday, August 18th, 2010 — 3:35pm PDT

      I had no idea the Museum was in need of a new space. Thanks for the insight.

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