Aboriginal Art Gallery

The Argument for a National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Vancouver

In response to discussions circulating regarding expanding and relocating the Vancouver Art Gallery and in seeking federal funds to do so and assure its operations, some have proposed that the Vancouver Art Gallery be morphed into a national institution that is a National Gallery of Contemporary Art.

This raises the questions as to; what is the need for national institutions outside Ottawa? Which ones would be appropriate for Vancouver? Is a National Gallery of Contemporary Art a viable idea? The author makes the following observations in response:

Galleries vs. Museums

Although this not important to the argument, but since the idea of a National Gallery of Contemporary Art has surfaced, it should be noted that in the rest of the civilized world public art galleries are called Museums of Art such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Art, or the Seattle Art Museum and so on unless they have brand names such as the Tate Modern, or DIA Beacon.

Here in Canada, except in Quebec, they are called Art Galleries, as in Vancouver Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario. This is confusing to the public by confusing them with commercial Art Galleries and in Vancouver for example the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Bill Reid Gallery are listed in publications along with Beau Xi and Equinox etc and not alongside the Museum of Anthropology or the Vancouver Museum. In fact when asked if he had been to the Bill Reid Gallery a recent visitor responded, “There is no point I can’t afford to buy anything.”

National Institutions

I share the view, that one way to spread the wealth and tie the country together and plant the federal flag would be to have National Institutions located across the country and not necessarily in Ottawa, although some would say that that defeats the purpose of a capitol. At present the only National institutions outside of Ottawa, apart from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull (really Ottawa) are the CBC in Toronto, the National Theatre School and National Film Board in Montreal, the Confederation Center in Charlottetown, the Military Academy in Kingston, and the new Museum of Human Rights to open in Winnipeg and the aborted attempt to locate a National Portrait Gallery in Calgary.

The question is what National Institutions are required and if there is logic to locating such an institution outside of Ottawa, where should it be? For example I believe there is a need for a National Portrait Gallery, but I think it belongs in Ottawa not in Calgary, which was a political decision made in Ottawa at one time and not a cultural one by the community. I also think there is a need for National Maritime Museum, but should that be located in Halifax, Kingston or Vancouver?

The idea of National Institutions outside Ottawa has been promoted usually from the grass roots up and not from Ottawa down. The impetus has come from cities and from movers and shakers in cities who see the benefit in having a local initiative, such as the Human Rights Museum, declared National in order to assure capital and operating funds, not to mention what that label does to enhancing its status as a tourist draw and economic generator.

National Gallery of Contemporary Art

I think one would be hard put to develop an argument supporting the need for a National Gallery of Contemporary Art in Vancouver. There would be little to no political taste for it in Ottawa, there would be no champions for it here in Vancouver, and if there was such an institution the art world, and the corporate world, who would have to support it, would not consider Vancouver an appropriate location for such an institution.

Here in Vancouver the Vancouver Art Gallery already considers itself a contemporary art gallery and that certainly is the direction its director and board seem to be taking it. There is nothing unique about the Vancouver Art Gallery as there was with the Human Rights Museum that would justify converting it to a national institution. Also in Vancouver there is as well the Contemporary Art Gallery, the Belkin, and Bob Rennie’s private/public Gallery all of them contemporary art galleries. Besides the National Gallery considers itself a national contemporary art gallery and the Musee d’art Contemporain in Montreal, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, to name a few, consider themselves national in scope.

National Aboriginal Art Gallery

Apart from the need at the time to house a Bill Reid Gallery, the concept of a National Aboriginal Art Gallery stemmed from a number of other imperatives. The arguments for a National Aboriginal Art Gallery as a national institution with its location in Vancouver include:

  • There are no national institutions west of the Rockies and the west deserves a share of the wealth bestowed on Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.
  • It was a politically desirable idea which at the time was to form part of the package which made up the Kelowna accord.
  • There was a view that the Bill Reid Gallery had to be more inclusive and that celebrating the work of a single artist was not Canadian.
  • The centre for Aboriginal art in Canada is Vancouver and the aboriginal art market in Vancouver ranks equally with that of New York, and Santa Fe.
  • Although the National Gallery has the mandate to exhibit Aboriginal Art, it had to be forced to do so to reflect the new paradigm that Canada has 3 not 2 founding peoples, the English, the French and the Aboriginal Peoples. Accordingly the National Gallery revamped its exhibits to include aboriginal art, but it is not the prime focus of the gallery.
  • The National Gallery already has in its charter the right to have annexes across the country to serve the very purpose of having national institutions outside Ottawa, but have not applied for funding to realize annexes.
  • The idea of a National Aboriginal Art Gallery as an annex of the National Gallery would take the load off the National Gallery in having to exhibit aboriginal art in Ottawa and as a result the National Gallery was supportive of the idea.
  • There is a wealth of Canadian Aboriginal art that has not been seen, in the hands of the National Gallery, Canada Council, and Indian Affairs, not to mention other institutions, that is looking for a home.
  • Apart from its obvious political benefits the Province of BC and the City of Vancouver were supportive of the idea because a National Aboriginal Art Gallery would become a destination and generate tourist visits from around the world, in this case to see the content if not the form of the building.
  • A National Aboriginal Art Gallery could be international in content, as opposed to national in that aboriginal peoples have no borders. There is a wealth of aboriginal art around the world and there is no international aboriginal art gallery. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC and the new Quai Branly are both museums and not galleries of art and so hardly meet this challenge.

There is an argument that aboriginal art should not be ghettoized in a separate institution and should be exhibited in existing institutions like MoMA, and the national galleries in the US and Canada. This is a noble thought, but regrettably that is not happening and when it does, it is done poorly. One hopes that after the establishment of a National Aboriginal Art Gallery that the work of aboriginal artists will, over time, find their way into the mainstream. This would not have happened to African American artists if the Harlem Studio Museum which curates and exhibits the work of black artists did not exist.

At the time of the preparation of the Project Implementation Plan for the National Aboriginal Art Gallery, there was an appetite to support this project, notwithstanding its location in Vancouver, from major corporate donors in Toronto and Montreal. In addition there was support from the aboriginal communities across the country in favor of the project and its location.

Herb Auerbach