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Features / December 29, 2016

8 Ways that Vancouver Galleries are Coping with the Real-Estate Crunch

From nonprofit artist-run centres that are planning to borrow millions of dollars to commercial dealers that are relocating below ground, Vancouver galleries have engaged divergent strategies to deal with the city’s real-estate madness.
The inaugural show at Wil Aballe Art Projects' new "garden suite" space in Vancouver featured paint sculptures by local artist Ryan Quast. Photo: Dennis Ha via Facebook. The inaugural show at Wil Aballe Art Projects' new "garden suite" space in Vancouver featured paint sculptures by local artist Ryan Quast. Photo: Dennis Ha via Facebook.

Finding space for art is no easy task in Vancouver, a city known for a nearing 0 per cent vacancy rate on rental units.

There were many moves on the city’s art map in 2016, and, similarly, a variety of ways that Vancouver arts organizations continued to respond to the insecurity stimulated by the city’s mercurial real-estate market: some dissolve; some shift; some dig in their heels.

Though the city has been ranked third most livable by the Economist, and its art scene earned it the first Canadian foray for American art-media powerhouse Art21 this fall, Vancouver’s real-estate pressures are having a huge impact on its art-world ecology, begging three questions: Livable for whom? Creative for whom? How can galleries cope?

Here are eight approaches that some Vancouver galleries—artist-run, commercial and institutional—are pursuing right now.

Embracing Provisionality and Alternative Spaces: Nomadic Is The New Normal

Wil Aballe Art Projects has long described itself as a nomadic commercial gallery space.

The gallery has occupied a variety of sites since its inception in 2013, including the gallerist’s own apartment, an industrial warehouse, and a handful of obscure locations scattered across Vancouver for WAAP’s off-site exhibitions.

In 2016, for the third time in as many years, Aballe moved into another semi-permanent space. This time, it’s underground—a beautiful, bright, and well-renovated basement. Yes, basement—or, as savvy landlords call it in Vancouver, a garden suite.

“Since starting the gallery in my apartment, I’ve always had to artistically think through certain spatial limitations. I’ve learned to see challenges as opportunities,” says Aballe, “particularly with a background in engineering, I’m trained to create solutions within a set of constraints.”

As Aballe recalls, “The apartment was relatively small, which prevented the mounting of any large scale exhibitions. Eventually I had exhausted all possible permutations of the space. I became concerned that with only so many ways to hang the work, the shows would all start to look the same. A painting show would look like the following month’s photo show, and so on.

“The [next] location on Frances Street, which was a massive industrial space, was the antithesis of the apartment on Scotia. While we were there, the artists were enabled to present exhibitions in an institutionally scaled space, which was a wonderful though daunting challenge.”

The strain caused by the city’s overheated property market has endowed Aballe with a keen eye for unlikely venues. Even while he was renovating his raw basement space this summer, he found yet another unusual location—an old poured-concrete building by the Iron Workers Bridge, well east of downtown and any other art venues, to exhibit a 70-foot-long film and installation work by Scott Billings and Josh Hite.

“Pop-up shows are always going to be a part of what I do. It’s necessary to find a space that fits the art. You never want to want to prioritize the other way around.”

Social Enterprise: Using For-Profit Strategies to Non-Profit Art-Org Ends

It is fair to say that it is a rare occurrence for an artist-org AGM to include a vote on a resolution of whether the organization should be authorized “to borrow up to $10 million dollars for the purpose of acquiring and developing properties…”

But non-profit art centre 221a did just that in September 2016.

The mentality for many arts organizations in Vancouver is that the real-estate game is one played almost exclusively by the municipality, developers and foreign investors. But artist and 221a co-founder Brian McBay is helping to change that attitude.

Through unusual property strategies—unusual, that is, for arts nonprofits—McBay has helped to secure the survival of a centre known for its compelling programming.

How? By negotiating leases on multiple buildings, sub-dividing them, and renting units out to artists and arts organizations at below market value, McBay has established a way to generate funding that falls outside of traditional public-granting models.

It all started in 2008, when the design-focused organization moved into a former grocery store in Vancouver’s Chinatown, converting a portion of the space into 15 artist studios, which produced revenue that partly funded their lease on the building.

In 2011, 221a took on the lease for a building across the street, reconfiguring the space into rental studios, which generated enough revenue to convert their original space into a dedicated gallery.

Since then, 221a has leased over 30,000 square feet of property (including an empty lot upon which Ken Lum’s Vancouver Especially has been on display this year, itself reflecting on ballooning property values in Chinatown and elsewhere in the city).

So now, spread across three buildings, 221a’s rental spaces are the site of concentrated arts activity, functioning as offices, commercial spaces, workshops, and galleries both private and public, housing more than 10 arts organizations and approximately 70 artist studios.

McBay’s property strategies fall within the wider economic category of social enterprise, wherein a business applies commercial tactics with the primary objective of achieving community, charitable, and/or environmental good. Under this model, all revenue surpluses are reinvested in the cause—in this case, the sustaining of an artist-focused space and the securing of affordable working facilities for artists and cultural workers.

Though McBay has declined to comment on 221a’s precise plans for that projected $10 million in borrowing, and where that might lead the organization, he has been able to be self-reflexive about the strategies he is using, and the ways they could intersect with gentrification.

“We are interested in developing a community and at the same time considering ways to create our own economy,” McBay said at a Canadian Art panel in 2015. “We remain very critical of ourselves. Where do we start exacerbating privatization, and where do we draw the line in terms of what we are willing to take on?”

Working Together: Collaborating with Other Galleries

To enter the new Wil Aballe Art Projects, visitors must first go through Fazakas Gallery, its upstairs neighbour (which has been on East Hastings since June of this year) and descend down a set of wooden stairs at the rear of the building.

Though the traverse may seem awkward, there are advantages here: thanks to an agreement with Fazakas, WAAP has a five-year lease—a measure of stability—and can still afford to pursue off-site pop-up projects.

“I think the most valuable resource that we share is our creativity,” LaTiesha Fazakas says of the arrangement. “We’re able to bounce ideas off each other and ask each other to help weigh out pros and cons. I think sharing resources also gives us an opportunity to effectively utilize all our space. We are a working gallery, and most space is used for the display of works. Because we showcase diversely different works, it makes it a really interesting visit for collectors. The variety of artworks creates an allure for collectors to make the trip. Additionally, visitors are always able to see two shows, at all times.”

Aballe agrees that, so far, the partnership has proven mutually rewarding.

“LaTiesha and I have a great peer mentorship relationship; I’ve been learning in depth about Northwest Coast art traditions, which is itself incredibly diverse—there are many communities up and down the coast, and, in turn she has been learning about emerging contemporary work that is non-native,” Aballe notes. “The most obvious benefit is that we have cultivated quite different communities separately and by banding together, we theoretically have each doubled our audience. Then there are the banal, quotidian benefits, for example, we can split the cost of Internet.”

Staying Put, Against the Odds: When Art Spaces Stand Their Ground

For some galleries, however, relocation is not a feasible option, regardless of the cost or the level of ingenuity and collaboration at play.

Gallery Gachet’s programming, for example, is intrinsically tied to the Downtown Eastside community where it has been located for the last 20 years.

Built on a mandate that cultivates the intersections of art and healing, the gallery’s 88 East Cordova address is situated in proximity to the artists who rely on the space for production, exhibition, and community. Moving out of the neighborhood would erode the meaningful connections and sense of security Gallery Gachet has helped foster.

“Venue mobility is not ideal for our long-term relations and community,” explains Cecily Nicholson, finance director at Gallery Gachet, “For many, access includes stable relationships and environments. We are particularly concerned with being an accessible space socially and physically. This has taken us many years of social and infrastructure development, in consultation with the community, to build that.”

When, in September 2015, it was announced that Vancouver Coastal Health was cutting the gallery’s funding after 21 years in order to dedicate monies to other mental-health and addiction services in the neighborhood, pressing questions were raised about the sustainability of art spaces for which relocation is not a viable alternative. (See articles from the Vancouver Sun and CBC Vancouver for more coverage on the gallery’s situation.)

For now, Gallery Gachet shall remain in its current home, and will continue to bear witness to a process of gentrification that threatens to displace the community members it services.

Sometimes, however, a gallery might stand its ground in a different way—that is, by signing a mortgage rather than renting. This strategy has worked for the artist-run centre Artspeak, which decided to buy its Gastown space for $178,000 in 1996—and then refused to sell as property values rose.

Kim Nguyen, Artspeak’s director/curator, told the Vancouver Sun earlier this year that that decision to stay wasn’t made lightly.

“We’re very slow and steady,” Nguyen told the Sun. “We’re incredibly thoughtful and painstakingly slow. It took us a long time to decide to stay.”

While slow and steady characterized much of Artspeak’s strategy, the last $20,000 of their mortgage was paid off a bit by surprise—or more specifically, by former Artspeak president Geoffrey Farmer, in collaboration with his dealer, Catriona Jeffries.

“It makes sense for an artist to contribute to an artist-run space,” Farmer, who is to represent Canada at the 2017 Venice Biennale, told the Sun.

Finding Space in Condo Buildings Through Municipal Incentive Programs: If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em

Corporate subsidies have emerged as a complex, and much politicized, option for arts organizations, forming a system that compliments current public funding models.

In a groundbreaking, though controversial, policy move of the 1980s, the Vancouver City Council introduced Community Amenity Contributions (CACs)—a model which seeks to offset population density increases brought upon by condo builds. CACs are cash or in-kind contributions made by developers that enable the establishment of cultural facilities (among other types of neighbourhood resources like parks, or childcare).

The facility that currently houses Contemporary Art Gallery is exemplary of this CAC initiative in action. In 2001, CAG moved into a purpose-built facility located at 555 Nelson Street, at the foot of a condo tower owned by Bosa Ventures Inc.

“The space CAG currently occupies was granted to the city by the developer on a 1,000-year lease, the condition being that during this period it is always used by a cultural organization,” says Jill Henderson, CAG head of marketing and communications. “CAG has a sub-lease with the City of Vancouver who hold the lease from Bosa Ventures. CAG’s sub-lease is initially for a 20-year period, due to end in April 2021”.

As part of this arrangement, in 2018, the CAG must submit a report to the City which will mark the beginning of a renegotiation period on the agreement, and the next stage for the gallery’s future.

Many arts institutions have benefited from this model since its introduction 25 years ago, including the Vancouver International Film Centre and the VSO School of Music.

Making Condo Developers Pay for Existing Gallery Buildings: Trading Space for Space

In June 2015, it was announced that a Community Amenity Contribution of $4.5 million was to be apportioned to select community organizations in Vancouver’s Mt. Pleasant neighbourhood, which is home to two of the city’s oldest artist-run centres—Western Front and grunt gallery. (It is also the former home of VIVO Media Arts Centre, where I work—more on its situation in a moment.)

Rize Alliance Properties provided the $4.5 million in an effort to offset the community impacts of a sold-out high-rise tower, the Independent, currently being built in the district.

Unlike at the CAG, then, the Independent condo tower wasn’t to house organizations per se, but help them purchase the spaces they have already been in for some time. Following an application process, Western Front and grunt gallery were awarded funds amounting to $1.5 million and $400,000 respectively, enabling both organizations to secure their existing properties permanently and to fend off the ferocious development around them.

This financial windfall from a major developer has not come without criticality, however, whether from community members, other arts organizations, or the recipients themselves.

In the fall of 2015, Western Front held a conference and multi-site art installation collectively titled Urgent Imagination: Art and Urban Development, which addressed, head on, the community impacts of the “developer-driven architecture and urban planning” tactics that have come to characterize Vancouver and many other cities around the world.

“As one of Canada’s oldest artist-run centres—an institutional structure with a longstanding tradition of questioning its role in the bureaucratic machinations of official culture—the time is now to question our own complicity in a system that allows capital to drive policy,” Western Front executive director Caitlin Jones wrote in a related essay found here.

These questions of complicity are made all the more potent by the fact that artist studios once stood at the very site the Independent is currently being built.

Moving Into a City-Owned Space: Civic Supports

The Community Amenity Contribution model has not benefited all arts organizations in Mt. Pleasant.

VIVO Media Arts Centre, where I work, was tentatively awarded a portion of the $4.5 million in Rize money (to be shared with a theatre collective, C-Space). VIVO and C-Space intended the funds for the purchase of a building in the neighborhood.

However, due to a number of factors, including lack of affordability, change of ownership, changes to contracts under new owners, fear of possible eviction, and limited space availability in Mt. Pleasant, VIVO eventually moved out of the neighbourhood—after some 20 years there—and resettled into a city-owned warehouse on Vancouver’s eastern border. This has left its share of the $2.3-million dispersal in limbo.

At present, “VIVO has not found a viable way to move forward with the Rize money, given the conditions that dictate its use,” states Karen Knights, the VIVO’s development coordinator.

Going National: Bringing on More Fundraising Power for Expansions

Space availability is affecting arts organizations across the board, no matter their size.

In 2013, the Vancouver Art Gallery, currently located in a retrofitted neo-classical courthouse, announced plans to relocate to a city-owned parcel of land, which currently functions partially as a parking lot.

Why? Here’s the reason: Ten years ago, the VAG started to discuss the prospect of finding a new location, after identifying that their current facility required major renovations which would entail an expansion to double its existing square footage. In this scenario, building a new facility proved more attractive than expanding a heritage site so dramatically.

So, with a $50 million endowment from the Province of BC—an amount which currently sits in a high-interest bank account accruing dividends—an additional $23 million pledged by the gallery’s trustees, and a free plot of land from the city which comes with a 99-year lease, the VAG is forging ahead with a project it calls Art Makes Us. It already named star architects Herzog and De Meuron, revealed a conceptual design for the building, and slated a groundbreaking for 2017.

However, the Vancouver Art Gallery isn’t in the clear just yet. While the city can provide it with free land—an incredible boon—the Globe and Mail has reported that money must be raised from both public and private sources to reach the required $350 million estimated to realize the project.

One major challenge to raising that money is the fact that while you may need to be wealthy to purchase property in Vancouver, this tends to make many potential building-campaign donors house-poor on the one hand, or foreign owners on the other.

And remember—as the Globe points out in the previously mentioned article—this is a city where one of its largest art collectors and condo developers, Bob Rennie, has very publicly declared his lack of interest in supporting the gallery’s plans.

In this context, it is little surprise that the VAG this year hired collector and arts leader Ann Webb, formerly based in Toronto, as a director of strategic initiatives. If the gallery has tapped out its existing local supporters, it will need to be looking further afield now, to existing arts supporters in the East, or emerging ones in the West, outside of the Vancouver area, in order to make its vision happen.

Presentations that the Vancouver Art Gallery has made about its expansion to audiences in Kelowna and Nanaimo this year further support such a strategy of trying to reach new-building supporters outside of Vancouver proper.

Presentation House Gallery, the public gallery focused on photography and media art in nearby North Vancouver, also received national monies—$2.5 million from the federal government—matching funds from the province and the city in order to build its new, nearly-triple-the-size Polygon Gallery on the North Vancouver waterfront. The building site broke ground this year and is due to open in 2017.

Presentation House/Polygon is due to be renamed the latter in honour of its $2-million private donor, Polygon Homes Ltd., which is led by well-known BC art collector and philanthropist Michael Audain, whose own foundation also donated an additional $2 million to the project.

Presentation House has also added more fundraising and development positions to its staff since announcing the expansion a few years ago. In late 2015, it posted a notice for a newly created marketing and communications specialist position specifically responsible to “development and execution of marketing campaigns in association with the capital campaign,” among other duties.

Shauna Jean Doherty is the manager of Video Out, the video-art distribution department at VIVO Media Arts Centre in Vancouver. Her primary critical and curatorial interests are video art and the social history of technology.

This article was corrected on January 1 and 4, 2016. LaTiesha Fazakas’s name was misspelled in part of the original article. The original article also referred to VIVO’s departure from 1965 Main as an “eviction,” a term corroborated by media reports and city memos of the time. Further research has indicated that a combination of factors, including fear of a possible eviction under new owners, prompted the departure. And though VIVO was founded in 1973, it had been in the space for some 20 years before moving, not some 40 years as originally indicated.
Canadian Art regrets the error.