Creative City: Arts + Flourishing

June 27, 2017

A vibrant Arts City is part of an ecology and requires diverse elements to exist. The flourishing of the arts is dependant on place; it shapes and acts on arts production. In cultivating Vancouver’s visual arts to flourish, a number of strategies will be examined to enable production spaces; encourage philanthropic funding; and create collaborative, exhibition opportunities for artists to thrive.

The City of Vancouver has a sharp duality in its spatial distribution of cultural activities, the Eastside, which is culturally active but relatively low income; and the Westside, that is economically affluent but culturally limited. The conditions attracting the creative class, a socially relevant demographic to create new meaningful forms and creative content to Vancouver serves to create a cultural hierarchy, and  produces disparities in economic status among its residents.

The reality facing emerging and established artists is a myriad of barriers ranging from escalating rents; higher taxes; and zoning uses affecting the affordability and availability of production spaces. The City’s Welcome to Your Flats s a redevelopment plan to create a Cultural Precinct, an amenity node in the Industrial Flats focusing on revitalization without displacing numerous studio spaces at 1000 Parker Street. The health of Vancouver’s arts and cultural sector relies heavily on the Flats with 40 percent of artists studios located in this neighbourhood.

Arts and culture organizations are set up according to disciplines, which detracts from sustaining the health and vibrancy of a broader ecology. Many organizations view their needs in isolation of the broader creative sector or within the context of broader community interests. Collaboration plays a central and increasingly important role in supporting and developing creative practice. The Creative City is about lateral and integrative thinking in all aspects of city planning and urban development, placing artists, not infrastructure, at the centre of the planning processes.

Encouraging philanthropic efforts to support the visual arts as private initiatives for the public good is not a new idea. There is a responsibility with great wealth and the importance of social justice to do good. Audain’s love of place and supporting BC artists and culture are larger contributions to society. Westbank’s ability to change how public art and the function of a patron transforms into cultural expression through a built form to create beauty in the City.

An economic disparity continues to be seen in community programming relative to the Eastside and Westside of Vancouver. The challenges the Arts continues to reflect is to be more truly multi-cultural as the role and make up of the modern city evolves. An opportunity exists for the cultural sector to establish or more accurately reclaim a role that places art firmly at the centre of public debate. It leaves us to revere our artists and to invest in the necessary production spaces, encourage philanthropic funding, and create public exhibition spaces for a healthy, vibrant society.

 

Statement of Intent: A Socratic Dialogue on Art, Criticism, and the City

After spending six weeks engaged in stimulating conversations with my classmates and industry professionals on Vancouver’s art scene, I have chosen to write a Socratic-style dialogue to explore some of the course’s major themes surrounding the arts: the cultural value, the local scene, and the role of criticism. The Socratic dialogue is a genre of literary prose where a dramatic or narrative dialogue occurs between two or more characters[1]. This form of prose has preserved the works of ancient Greek philosophers Plato, Xenophon, and Socrates[2]. In addition to my desire of trying to write a new form of prose, I selected the dialogue format because I was motivated by what Max Wyman[3], art activist and critic, had said in one of our guest lectures, “the purpose of art criticism is to provide the reader with a different perspective in order to start a conversation.” I thought the dialogue was the best format to showcase what I learned in this course because it mirrors some of the wonderful conversations that I have had with other classmates which further contributed to the enrichment of my learning of the arts.

Using Dorothy Dittrich’s[4], The Piano Teacher, I will begin the dialogue with a critique of the play masquerading the voices of writer and professor, Susan Sontag[5], and art historian, Linda Nochlin[6]. I selected this powerful and emotional play because of the way in which it explores the themes of personal tragedy and grief while using love, friendship, and music as catalysts for healing and recovery. Sontag and Nochlin, known for their contributions to the art world, will approach the theatrical piece from two different perspectives. Sontag, celebrated for arguing against the emphasis of intellectually constructed notions on analyzing the aesthetics[7], will explore the transcendental power of music and friendship and its impact on self-healing. On the other hand, Nochlin, a pioneer in feminist art history and theory, will approach the piece through a feminist lens, focussing on the play’s romantic and platonic relationships and its effect on the character’s recovery.

In addition to Sontag and Nochlin, I will include a third voice, a mediator who will not only facilitate the dialogue but also, question the role of the critic and its importance within the arts. This third voice is also a reflection of myself, representing questions and thoughts that emerged throughout the course of the term. At the same time, all three voices will share some of the revelations I had while our class explored the arts in further detail through the course readings, lectures, field trips, and classroom discussions. Although this Socratic dialogue may not be as philosophical as the dialogues Socrates had with his students, Plato and Xenophon, it does offer a setting conducive to exhibiting my personal journey of learning about art, criticism, and the city.

[1] Wikipedia. Socratic dialogue. Accessed June 13, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_dialogue

[2] Ibid.

[3] For more on Max Wyman, see The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Max Wyman.” Accessed June 13, 2017. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/max-wyman-emc/

[4] For more on Dorothy Dittrich, see Dorothy Dittrich’s website. Accessed June 13, 2017. http://www.dorothydittrich.com/index.html

[5] Wikipedia. Susan Sontag. Accessed June 13, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Sontag

[6] Wikipedia. Linda Nochlin. Accessed June 13, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linda_Nochlin

[7] Wikipedia. Susan Sontag. Accessed June 13, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Sontag

 

Blog-post response: Art and Accessibility

In her piece on the Audain Art Museum, Casey wrote of the privilege she experienced in seeing the art there with a private tour by their chief curator, and the comment gave me pause because I’ve felt this twinge of privilege closely as well, both then and in my personal life: I’m currently writing this sitting in a little garret in Paris, having seen both Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre in recent days.  Last summer I used all my family’s travel money to fly to Madrid on a whim with my sister to see a temporary art exhibit there, and I’ve even flown to Los Angeles and Boston for weekends just to see art. What an absurdly advantageous position I’m in that I’ve had the budget, the supportive family, and the time to do those things! I wish everyone could experience this same accessibility to art. When Casey asked “why does the value of art seem to be intrinsically tied to this inaccessibility, rarity, and exotic nature?”, I thought of museums I’ve seen in recent years and how readily many museums offer discounted or free days for those of less means to make art more accessible, not less.

The Prada museum in Madrid, considered one of the top ten museums in the world, is open to visitors for free four hours each day.   The Reina Sofia and Thyssen museums, also in Madrid, give free access to kids under eighteen years old, students, teachers, and people who are out of work– and have evenings or certain days of the week free.  The Louvre and Musee d’Orsay here in Paris are not as deeply discounted but still offer free access to kids under eighteen and one free day a week or month.  London’s big museums are almost all free, all the time, so anyone can walk in during their lunch break and see a favourite painting for ten minutes a day if they live or work nearby. Lest you think only European cities care about public space and culture, the Met in New York City also offers many opportunities to take advantage of price reductions for special circumstances too. Perhaps the Audain Art Museum, at eighteen dollars per entry (on par with or more expensive than many of the museums mentioned here) would garner some gratitude if they offered parts of each day free or at a reduced cost? Or allow First Nations student visitors free access?  Even the Audain changing their age limit on free access for kids to eighteen from sixteen (it’s current policy) would seem appropriate if it wants to be grouped with the world class museums I’ve mentioned here (despite its smaller size).

Museums always point out the need to maintain their beautiful buildings and that restoration and security cost money, which is why there is a cost. Like the Audain collection, many art museums around the world began as collections within one wealthy family (the Borghese and Pamphili galleries in Rome are examples that come to mind). In my experience these kinds of smaller family collections are often the kind that do not offer discounted rates or times, and although I may sometimes struggle with the reasoning behind those choices I’m still glad to have the option to pay a fee to see their art rather than have it locked away and completely inaccessible to the public.

It would seem many large museums are trying to keep art valuable and exotic– they host large scale exhibitions with paintings from around the world and bring in experts for special lectures, while maintaining social media accounts in an effort to reach out to the public to remain relevant. Their reduced entry fees appear to be part of that same effort. After all, if enjoying art is to be so expensive that it ceases to be an enjoyable experience for many, surely the value of it will diminish?

– Cathy Collis (typed with one finger on my tiny iPhone in Paris)

 

Burrard Inlet Trail Shrine

The Burrard Inlet Trail Shrine is an art installation that represents the intersection of a number of ideas and concepts from this course, through it is centered on 2 major conceptual themes; play and animism.

The inspiration for play comes from the work of Michael Nicoll Yagulanaas. I am also using formal studies of play to inform the work such as Ludology the study of game playing, and play psychology. The second major theme guiding this work, Animism, is inspired by Walter Benjamin’s ideas in Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction where he suggests that both natural and art objects have an aura that radiates from their beauty and authenticity. Benjamin’s ideas that art has ritual, magical, and religious functions combined with an aura stemming from authenticity have some distinct resonance with Animistic spiritual beliefs, rituals, and practice.

In the Burrard Inlet Trail Shrine am using play in a number of contexts: play as in an attitude of whimsy and fun, playing across media, playing outside of what is considered traditional art showing spaces (like a gallery) and how that space interacts with art, playing with the interactivity of audience, playing with collecting, the theatricality of play, playing with preconceived ideas of what art is, and playing outside of my comfort zone by trying new things. I am attempting to create a space that distances itself slightly from reality that evokes fantasy, myth, and ritual that celebrates the aura within both natural and art objects. I have set up the installation on the Burrard Inlet Trail (hence the name.) As a location it appeals to me as the Trail is in both a residential area of the city of Burnaby and in a natural area at the same time. This Trail is also in the vicinity that I call home so it has a certain feel and familiarity to me. In Burrard Inlet Trail Shrine I worked relatively intuitively allowing the process to guide the form of the installation that was anchored in research and inspired by visual images of Japanese Shinto shrines and other animistic nature shrines, the work of Andy Goldsworthy and some imagery from the video game Skyrim. To create the shrine I used a combination of found objects and things that I sculpted. I recreated some small Skyrim inspired objects by sculpting them with clay and painting them. I also displayed some of the items in bowls and glasses that I purchased from a thrift store. In addition I went to the site beforehand, collected some rocks, brought them home and painted them, then re-incorporated them back into the shrine. I am attempting to engage the audience (anyone who happens to walk this trail) into an interactive Seeing or deep observation as inspired by Anne Dillard. I will revisit the shrine every few days for a week or so to see if any interaction or participation happened with the piece. I’m not sure if or when I will take it down or not, I will decide once I see how people have reacted to it and how it reacts to the elements.

 

Blog-post response: Why I loved ‘Goodfellas and Marty’s Marvelous Movie Magic’

This is a mushy response to Melissa, Melanie and Marty’s Marvelous Movie Magic from someone in the oh, five percent of the Western world who had never seen Martin Scorsese’s Mafia epic before two little words popped on the “Arts, Criticism and the City” class schedule: “See: Goodfellas.”

Perhaps another work of art will explain why I have lived 66 years without seeing this movie. When I was growing up in rural Alberta, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was published. The non-fiction book told of two convicts invading an isolated prairie farmhouse at night and killing four people. Living as I did in an isolated farmhouse with no lock on the door, the idea was so horrifying that I have not read it to this day. As an adult, I never got over that aversion to depictions of violence and blood. So, Goodfellas: Suspense, revenge, gruesome deaths, twisted remorseless people. In spite of the accolades, I avoided it.

But this GLS course, for me, was about exposure to unfamiliar territory, so I “watched” Goodfellas, skipping about 30 of its 145 minutes to avoid the worst of the bloody bits.

Even still, I loved it. The speed, the brashness, the exhilaration of swooping non-stop through a world that was deeply familiar and yet utterly foreign. Set in the late 1960s and into the ‘80s, this was the world of my young adulthood– the music, the fashions, the cars, the sexism, and everybody smoking everywhere. For me, placing that familiarity side by side with the vicious violence of the gangster world gave the movie a split-personality feel. I reveled in one side of it; I was appalled by the other.

Melissa, who obviously knows the movie well, helped me understand what got to me about it. Look behind Scorsese’s sleight of hand, she said, and notice the way the camerawork, shot composition and soundtrack help tell the story. The fact that the camera shifts viewpoint just before Ray Liotta opens the thumping trunk shows his unease just as much as his expression does, she noted. “Every shot, every sequence contributes to the overall narrative and taking us on the journey through it.” We’re enticed – certainly I was – by the excitement and energy, even as it was clear horrible things were on the way. Melissa analyzed how Scorsese makes us care about clearly awful people: Was it the way Henry was beaten by his father? The way Paulie sliced garlic? I cared because the people seemed real. I remember the glow on young Henry’s face as he showed his mother his first flashy suit, and his mother’s horror: “You look like a gangster!” she said. A small moment, but it revealed the irreparable split between mother and son. He was utterly committed to a criminal life and she was powerless.

To me, Scorsese has always just been a name, but Melanie Friesen’s first-hand description of working with him turned him into a real person. Now when I think of Scorsese and Goodfellas, I will think of a sickly kid at his window, watching gangsters across the street and absorbing every detail. One of Scorsese’s most powerful films came from real-life observation, his former head of development said in her talk, titled “Art: Do what you know.”

Between Friesen, Melissa, and the movie itself, I now have something new in my life: I will never be able to listen to a hovering helicopter in quite the same way again.

— Carol Volkart

 

Final Project Statement of Intent: The paradoxical world of theatre in Vancouver

In our first “Arts, Criticism and the City” class, playwright/professor Peter Dickinson got my Spidey-senses tingling when he warned that the arts scene “will disappear in this city if we don’t solve the affordability problem” (ex-reporters never stop thinking in terms of front-page headlines). But a week later, actor/ historian/professor Jerry Wasserman said the arts scene is thriving and “Vancouver theatre today is in the best shape it has ever been in.”  Two professors, two views of a theatre world both know intimately.

In my final essay for this course, “Theatre in Vancouver Today: A Paradox,” I explore this apparent chasm, beginning with a few historical glimpses. James Hoffman and Robert Todd’s articles on the history of Vancouver theatre show how it has always been shaped by external forces – booms, busts and changing tastes in entertainment — but ultimately always seems to spring back.

Much of my essay deals with the Pacific Theatre, which fits into the affordability-crisis theme because it is losing its space in the basement of a church at 12th and Hemlock that is being redeveloped for — what else?—condos. The theatre has an interesting history because it was founded in 1984 by artistic director Ron Reed, who wanted to explore themes of interest to him as a Christian (but he’s adamant he does not do “Christian plays.”) The theatre got no government grants or theatre reviews for its first 10 years – the suspicion, never proven, was that its Christian roots were to blame – but that changed when it got its own theatre in 1994. With grants, reviews and even Jessie awards, it soon became a regular part of the theatre community. Its move next year means a riskier, pricier future, but I argue that it will likely survive due to a number of factors, including the tools it developed during its first difficult decade.

As for the broader question of the life or death of the theatre community, I found a more nuanced situation than Wasserman and Dickinson’s earlier comments seemed to imply. In interviews with them and Pacific Theatre marketing director Andrea Loewen, I learned that all three agree Vancouver’s costliness is making life difficult for those in the notoriously poorly paid theatre world. But Wasserman said it’s always been tough to survive in theatre, and people do so through a combination of talent, resourcefulness, hard work and good luck. Dickinson and Loewen were less upbeat about how that’s working out for many people these days, but all agreed the thriving TV and movie industry is helping at least some workers stay in the city. My essay deals with a number of Dickinson and Loewen’s concerns about the impact of the affordability crisis, including the possible exodus of an entire cohort of mid-career theatre workers. There’s Emelia Symington Fedy, for example, who wrote a passionate article in the May 17 Georgia Straight about her plans to leave Vancouver. She was willing to put up with anything to pursue her dreams when she started out, she wrote, but now that she has kids, those sacrifices are just too much. Dickinson and Loewen agreed that losing people like her – well-trained contributors to the arts community and mentors for newcomers – could have a serious impact on Vancouver’s theatres in the future.

My conclusion is that nobody can predict how today’s economic climate will play out in the theatre world. But I note that the gap between the average rent for a one-bedroom Vancouver apartment ($1,950) and the monthly pay ($2,400) for an actor in a Pacific Theatre play seems like a metaphor for the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in Vancouver. As has so often happened in Vancouver’s theatre history, the outer world is once again making its presence known on the stages of the city.

— Carol Volkart

References:

Brown, S. (2017, June 16). Average Vancouver rental price for 1-bedroom  apartment is $1,950, according to PadMapper. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://vancouversun.com

Dickinson, P. (2016, Summer). Vancouverism and its cultural amenities: The view from here. Canadian Cultural Review, 167, 40-47.

Hoffman, J. (2003, Spring). Shedding the colonial past: Rethinking British Columbia theatre. BC Studies, 137, 5-45.

Hoffman, J. (1987-88, Winter). Sydney Risk and the Everyman Theatre. BC Studies 76: 33-57.

Reed, R. (2015, Oct. 6).  Ron Reed: I’m a Christian, but I don’t do Christian theater/Interviewer: J. Byassee. Faith & Leadership online publication for Duke University. Retrieved from https://www.faithandleadership.com

Symington Fedy, E. (2017, May 18-25). A goodbye to Vancouver. The Georgia Straight. p. 21

Todd, D., (2013, May 8). B.C. breaks records when it comes to religion and the lack thereof. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://vancouversun.com

Todd, R.  (1979, December). The Organization of Professional Theatre in Vancouver, 1886-1914. BC Studies, 44, 3-20.

Wasserman, J. (2017, Feb. 20). Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre ‘heart’ Bill Millerd to step down as artistic managing director. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://vancouversun.com

Wyman, M. (2004). The defiant imagination: Why culture matters. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.

The Artist and the Critic: a Culinary Love Story (Abstract)

Cuisine is expressive, performative and sometimes divisive. Not all diners and chefs agree on the aesthetic/gustatory/nutritional merits of a dish. Often, in the culinary arts, the critic is also an artist. Food critics have the added vulnerability of experiencing the experimentation directly (by ingesting the artistic work) thereby hazarding their own health. Despite these risks, effective critics give feedback delicately, sensitively and diplomatically. Navigating the complex needs and desires of the artist and the critic in the culinary arts is akin to navigating the complexities of a romantic relationship. 

“The Artist and the Critic: A Culinary Love Story” layers personal narrative (describing my husband and I’s conflict and growth as chefs and critics) with ideas from artistic thinkers like Pater, Arnold, Morris, Benjamin and Sontag. It also involves culinary/performing arts commentaries from Despain, Finkelstein, Gratza, Pruiett and Robertson. The essay parallels the vulnerability of a chef and diner with lovers presenting their true selves. It explores the role of the critic who, according to Sontag and Pater, needs to be the gentle and passionate. The paper explores how the culinary arts meet William Morris’ ideal of being romantic and pragmatic (Harvey and Press). Through my interview with Jian Hui Cheng (a local chef in an award winning Vancouver restaurant), the paper explores the challenges of receiving critique in Vancouver’s culinary scene. Cuisines carry great emotional, social and political weight. “The Artist and the Critic: A Culinary Love Story” describes the paradox that food, like love, is divisive and unifying.

Final Project Statement of Intent: My Dinner with Sontag

My Dinner with Sontag, my final assignment for our Shadbolt Seminar, is a short play mimicking the style and form of the 1981 Louis Malle film My Dinner with Andre.  In the film, Wallace ‘Wally’ Shawn (a playwright and actor), and Andre Gregory (a theatrical director) play themselves in conversation at a Manhattan restaurant where they discuss their opinions and their wide ranging experiences with theatre and life.  Andre has much more dialogue than Wally, and as the film progresses, Wally notices their philosophical differences—that Andre is very experimental whereas he is more drawn to comfort and ease. Very little action takes place; a server visits periodically to take orders and bring food, but otherwise the two simply remain seated and talking—and yet the film is very engrossing to watch.  In 1999, film critic Roger Ebert wrote after seeing it a second time, that he was “impressed once more by how wonderfully odd this movie is, how there is nothing else like it. It should be unwatchable, and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted.”

As taken as one may be with the film and its surprising success despite its unusual style, the format does suffer somewhat from weaknesses; Andre talks too often and for too long without any conversational banter interjected by Wally.  It could benefit from giving more equal weight to each character’s dialogue, the inclusion of women, or to have a third character moderate the discussion somewhat instead of having Wally’s character talk internally to himself in a voiceover. I have attempted to amend these imperfections in my play by having the conversation take place between two female GLS graduate students who are dining in a restaurant discussing art and theatre who are periodically interrupted by their server, who, unbeknownst to them at first, is Susan Sontag.

In My Dinner with Sontag, the amount of dialogue is more evenly weighted between the two student characters Andrea (named after Andre) and Wallace (Wally). There are less long monologues and more banter between the two characters to help the audience maintain interest. As they dine, the students debate criticism and interpretation in art and theatre, considering a Jeff Wall light box we saw at the Audain Art Museum, Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, and a work by 17th century painter Caravaggio. They refer to comments that have been made in our Shadbolt Seminar by Uno Langmann and Max Wyman and also quote Walter Pater in the process. When Sontag comes by to take orders or deliver food (or eventually when she just brazenly sits and eats with the students), she quotes from her essay “Against Interpretation” and attempts to guide Andrea and Wallace into a different kind of dialogue that seeks luminousness and celebrates form rather than symbolic interpretation. At this urging from her, the students’ conversation branches out to refer to work by artists playing with form: Broadway theatre director Sam Gold and New York Magazine’s senior art critic Jerry Saltz, while the stage directions begin to simultaneously mirror the experimental form being discussed (although like in the film, the character of Wallace in the play ultimately does tend towards preferring comfort instead of artistic risk- taking). Sontag’s insertion in the play as a third character and a guiding voice is an attempt to shape it into an artistic Socratic dialogue as well as an act of interpretation and creative critique in itself as a play.

-Cathy Collis

Theatrics of Dance: Discoveries in Dialogue

Wen Wai Dance presents “Dialogue”, a contemporary work at the Scotia Dance Centre, a part of the Global Dance Connection series. In collaboration with male dancers from varying backgrounds, skin colour, and language, the work examines language as artificial structures of culture and affect in a multi-cultural society.

Language in a cultural setting has many layers built up with different ways of knowing. It draws on a line to “play or be played”. In the opening scene, dancers are arranged in a semi-circle, flanked on the outskirts by men of colour and focused on a single white male’s back, which excludes a whole view. It brings home an awareness of structures.

The universality of dance opens up dialogue across diverse groups through each dancer’s embodied expression. In repetitive gestures, the double-fisting pattern similar to the game of rock, paper, scissors highlights a need to communicate, to make a connection.

Variations in movement adds to a rich, sensory quality aroused by the physicality of the dancers. The dancers’ movements walking across the stage has a rhythmic feel to the pacing of a fashion runway show. An encounter designed by an experimental dance structure plays to each dancer’s lively persona, and everyday objects to capture the essence of the individual. A language for each dancer emerges as styles, gaits and signature sounds of stilettos develops an aura or presence unique to each dancer. I see into a space where structures are reframed and connections can flourish outside the barriers of creed, colour or language.

Dialogue continues in a scene with two dancers. One dancer of asian descent in a headstand defying gravity, remains strong in form. In contrast, a white dancer in an upright vertical line is dancing alone, entranced in his own world. A visible shift occurs as the white cushion unfolds into a shirt and once donned the asian dancer’s arm spasms  into a self-beating with his left hand slapping repeatedly over his shoulder. Once the shirt is removed and worn by the caucasian dancer there is no conflict or struggle. I realize in this moment the power of dance to communicate.

This work, as a theatrical art form, is communicating a broad idea of dialogue from particular cultures. Dance mirrors an ebb and flow in contemporary society. As individuals, and part of a larger collective, navigating the boundaries of understanding and being understood through multiple ways of representation is aptly explored through embodied expression.

The choreography driving the creative process of discovery, experimenting and developing movement and sequences is impactful. Dance has the ability to transcend structures as the immediacy, visual understanding is clearer and at its heart lies human connection. “Dialogue” opens our visual field in the commentary across multi-cultural backgrounds, colours, and language.

 

The Value of Art: A Visit to the Audain Art Museum

There is a posture to fine art that implies that it is only art if it is elevated to a place where few will see it, and even fewer will understand it. Art’s aura, as described by twentieth century cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, is the cult value and relative distance that make it unattainable. How does the fact that it seems just out of reach for most of us make it more valuable? And why does the value of art seem to be intrinsically tied to this inaccessibility, rarity and exotic nature?

The Audain Art Museum opened in March 2016 in Whistler’s Upper Village. This is a not-for-profit institution founded on major donations from Michael Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa. The building, designed by Patkau Architects of Vancouver, takes delicious advantage of its forested location and mountainous “nest” with gorgeous views from its walkways. It boasts “one of the world’s most important collections of Northwest Coast masks”, two dozen Emily Carr works and a collection of impressive works by E.J. Hughes on loan from Jacques and Margaret Barbeau. I was able (I will avoid saying “privileged”, even though privilege was exactly what it was) to view the museum with a group under the guidance of Chief Curator, Darrin Martens on a recent Saturday. It is a relatively small, but impressive collection of about 200 works.

James Hart, The Dance Screen (The Scream, Too), detail. Photograph by Casey Hrynkow.

I came away with a feeling of discomfort that I am having trouble resolving. I have less of a problem with this new collection than I do with how it came to be collected and how and where it is being displayed. The works in the Audain Museum cover British Columbia art, from time immemorial to present day, within a narrow window of one collector’s tastes. Everything from Nuu-chah-nulth masks of well in excess of 100 years old, to works barely one year old, made by Rodney Graham. The majority of this collection most recently belonged to one family. They had the wealth and the knowledge to accumulate the works that are now the backbone of the Audain Museum. These pieces were kept in the the private homes and offices of a small group of people until the Audains decided to make this collection a legacy to the public. It is a noble gesture. And if I posit that one of the implied roles of the wealthy is sprinkling bits and pieces of their good fortune down to the common folk, then this is indeed a grand gesture. The ecology of art in western society runs on this top-down feeding of the system, and it also makes it less available to the rank and file. This particular museum is located an hour and a half by car from Vancouver, in Whistler, to be “found” by those who have a level of education that arouses them to seek it out, in a destination known for its expensive accommodations, restaurants and sporting pursuits. And, of course, there is an $18 admission fee to pay. This art is elevated by its inaccessibility, its rarity and its exotic nature. Some of it had been purchased directly from the artists, some (in the case of First Nations art) from other collectors who may originally have acquired it nefariously and then moved it up the value chain through barter and sale.

When we view this art we see it, consciously or unconsciously, through a lens coloured by perceptions of exoticism, rarity and wealth — perhaps even envy. This isn’t unique to the Audain Museum, but the choices that were made in this modern setting do nothing to turn the tide of elitism in art circles in our culture. The true accessibility of art in our society is a discussion worth having.