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Kathleen Bartels: The Master Builder

There’s a buzz in downtown Vancouver. Thousands of people are out for the opening of the current Ken Lum survey at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). As the 5,000-strong crowd pours through the Hornby Street entrance, a bystander would be forgiven for mistaking the scene for some sort of civic rave. Streaming beneath a banner emblazoned with an image of Lum’s Mirror Maze With 12 Signs of Depression (2002), visitors find their city reflected back to them—and are challenged to re-imagine it.

VAG director Kathleen Bartels played no small part in this evening. Since she came on board in 2001, after 14 years at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the relationship between the VAG and the city has changed dramatically. “Just 10 years ago,” the art consultant Monica Reyes muses amid the throngs, “this place was a mausoleum. Now it’s the town square.”

Likewise, 10 years ago, Vancouver’s contemporary art scene—whose greatest practitioners have often had to leave town for recognition and sales—could only dream of its current stature. It is now a city frequented by international collectors and curators, who fly in from around the world to spend substantial sums on works by the likes of Geoffrey Farmer.

It’s fitting that the Lum show, which eloquently explores issues of identity and belonging through signage-influenced art, coincides with Bartels’ 10th anniversary at the VAG. There is an aesthetic homecoming at play, as Vancouver begins to recognize itself—quite literally in Lum’s work, with local faces and urban landscapes celebrated in their quotidian beauty—as a significant place to be from, and as an exciting place to make art.

Under Bartels’ directorship, plans for a new building on a nearby Georgia Street site are gathering steam. In a perfect building-as-metaphor moment, the VAG will be liberated from its neo-classical shell (a former courthouse designed by the British-born architect Francis Rattenbury in 1906 and revamped in the early 1980s by Arthur Erickson) and will be reborn as a modern, purpose-built gallery approximately twice its current size. It’s a great leap forward, one accompanied by some of the naysaying that dogged the VAG’s move into the courthouse in 1983—the sort that comes with most major changes to civic landscape.

While Bartels has her detractors (yes, she is an American—Chicago-born—and yes, she does have friends in high places), it’s hard to dispute her accomplishments. Since she arrived at the VAG, inheriting an institution marked by a recent feud between board and director and plagued by backbiting gossip (“bitching about the VAG used to be a local sport,” recalls one artist), she has not only calmed the waters; she has steered a whole new course.

Unlike some new directors, Bartels retained most of the existing curatorial staff—Daina Augaitis has been the chief curator and associate director since 1996—ensuring a certain stability. Along the way, she has also spearheaded an ambitious publications program that has born 49 smart, elegantly produced exhibition catalogues, and created Offsite, an outdoor public-art programming space a few blocks from the gallery. Over the past decade, membership at the gallery has increased from 5,000 to 44,000, with a marked upswing in younger members, many of them drawn in by FUSE, a new series of interdisciplinary cultural happenings. Private donations have also increased dramatically: a recent fundraising auction set a record, bringing in a million-dollar windfall for exhibitions and educational programs.

It’s not just administrative and business acumen that sets Bartels apart. She’s known for her keen aesthetic sensibility (she studied photography and has a great love for architecture) and an ability to engage with artists. As director, she has co-curated three shows with Jeff Wall (featuring the German multimedia artist and painter Kai Althoff in 2008, the LA–based photo artist Anthony Hernandez in 2009, and the African American painter Kerry James Marshall in 2010). She’s taken risks and pushed the boundaries of the traditional art museum by initiating design-heavy shows like “Massive Change,” a 2004 collaboration with Bruce Mau. She’s taken steps to redefine the VAG’s relationship with First Nations artists and communities, most notably with the 2006 showcase exhibition “Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art,” which bridged historical and contemporary Haida works. In the same year, the VAG also provocatively re-examined the broad impact of a local hero, collaborating with the National Gallery of Canada on “Emily Carr: New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon.”

Over lunch, Bartels confesses that she had never visited Canada before her first interview at the VAG. But she knew of Vancouver. She got her first gritty glimpse of the city via its photoconceptualists when she was the assistant director at MOCA. When she arrived in Vancouver, she was struck by “how real their work was—how well they represented this place.”

Her goals were clear from the beginning.

“Unfortunately, the gallery never lived up to the expectations and success of the artists that lived and worked here,” she says. “And so I needed to mend those relationships. I felt then and feel now that we need to be just as ambitious as the artists that are here—showing internationally, collaborating internationally, working with international artists.”

One of the first things she did was call the artist Roy Arden. While he was already internationally known, Arden was nonetheless surprised. “It was the first time in a long while,” he explains, “that a VAG director called me up and wanted to meet with me in person. I hadn’t been approached by anyone at the VAG since Alvin Balkind was the chief curator back in the late 1970s.”

Lum was also on Bartels’ list. He sees her as having “a very clear mandate: to record, theorize and commission contemporary art in Vancouver and BC—and that takes a certain vision and courage, to say the least.

“You have to remember,” explains Lum, whose 2000 work Four Boats Stranded: Red and Yellow, Black and White is a permanent installation on the parapet of the VAG, “that when she first arrived here, there were all kinds of demands placed on her. She could have taken the safer route—by focusing more exclusively on the big international shows, like the Leonardo drawings that were exhibited during the Olympics—but she’s been consistent with her mandate and vision.”

Lum considers Bartels’ approach almost scientific. “I think she sees me as another chapter in her ongoing investigation into the theorization of Vancouver art.” He is pleasantly surprised that she is still here after a decade. “We seem to expect that people will leave after a few years and move on.” But for Bartels, Vancouver appears to have become a lifelong aesthetic project.

The last decade has seen notable programming highlights. Bartels’s list of favourites starts with the 2002 exhibition of the Turner Prize–winning artist Douglas Gordon, which she arranged to have brought in from MOCA because “it was so relevant to the art-making here.” Early on, she wanted to establish the importance of building relationships with international contemporary art museums and artists, and of contextualizing local art-making within a global framework.

Another highlight was the 2009 Andreas Gursky exhibition, which was co-organized with Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and the Kunstmuseen Krefeld in Germany. “It was not something we took from someone else—it was something we had an active role in shaping,” she notes. For the VAG, 2009 was a banner year, perhaps riding on a wave of—but not consumed by—Olympic hoopla. Bartels remembers it proudly, as the year in which she got the historical/contemporary and local/international equations right.

“In that year, we had the Vermeer and Rembrandt show (co-organized with Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum) on the first floor, the BC–based artist Reece Terris in the rotunda, a Stan Douglas installation on the second floor, Andreas Gursky on the third floor and the Anthony Hernandez show on the top floor.”

None of it would have been possible without Bartels’ fundraising savvy. “There was so much doom and gloom when I arrived here,” she remembers. “People saying, ‘We’ll never increase private patronage in Vancouver.’” Part of Bartels’ strategy has been to marry programming focused on high-profile Asian artists (like the Offsite large-scale photo installation of New York–based O Zhang in 2009) with appeals to corporations who view Vancouver as a gateway to the Pacific Rim.

There is method to her success and very little madness. In a city with a reputation for both flakiness and a certain laissez-faire Calvinism, Bartels is a studious list-maker. She listens, learns and writes things down. She tells me about an upcoming exhibition on the hotel, and I ask her if she will show Leonard Cohen’s 1983 film I Am a Hotel. She hasn’t heard of it, but out comes the pad and the pen.

Bartels’ role as director involves an encyclopedic collage of duties. She is consulted on every step of every show, and in turn offers collaborative solutions (it’s not surprising to learn that her first job at MOCA was in human resources). On a tour of the gallery space set to house a major exhibition on surrealism that will explore the influence of northwest First Nations coastal art on European surrealists, a young staff member asks her opinion on the font to be used in signage at the entrance. Later, it’s a choice between wall colours: “magenta” or an imperceptibly lighter shade of “dawn sky.” In the end, Bartels opts for the latter, but not before making all those involved feel as if the best choice is really their choice as well. One senses that Bartels does not suffer fools gladly, but also that she doesn’t make fools suffer. She leads by example, setting the bar high so that you can’t help but want to jump higher—if only to please her.

Even architectural wunderkind Bjarke Ingels aims to please. Visiting Bartels’ office on a trip to Vancouver, he shows off his latest gorgeous global designs—from an art museum in Mexico to a mosque in Copenhagen. He seems nervous, but Bartels, in her spacious office (the door still reads “Chief Justice Chambers”), remains calm and collected. As one stunning rendering is shown, she looks at him with a level gaze and asks, “How much experience have you had with public consultation?”

Yet it’s on a tour of recent acquisitions that Bartels seems most herself. She is in love with Vancouver and its rich, varied and ever-changing art making. Her mission is to raise the bar institutionally—to make us viewers better appreciate what we have, if nothing else.

The tour unfolds like a true visual archive. In one first-floor room, Brian Jungen’s The Men of My Family (2010), a modern sculpture of rawhide and metal, converses with Liz Magor’s Mouthful (2008), an installation that plays with the idea of the real and the unreal and looks good enough to eat, despite being made of polymerized gypsum, paint, metal and found objects. Behind these works are four classic mid-century works by Jack Shadbolt and, in a far-off corner, an early 1970s Ian Wallace, which gazes coolly at a Rodney Graham lightbox recently gifted to the VAG by the Bank of Montreal.

In a basement vault area, a B.C. Binning mobile hangs a few feet from the gallery’s collection of Dutch Masters. All the works are packed tight, awaiting a future gallery that can properly house and exhibit them. One small room holds a lush Gathie Falk painting from 1983 titled Cement With Poppies #5. In its raw beauty, the image somehow manages to remind me of Roy Arden’s 2005 photo Hydrangea, which juxtaposes pavement and flowers. It is a mild epiphany about the visual heritage of Vancouver—this place, my place, our place.

Bartels looks on, smiling. “There’s so much more I want to do here,” she says. “After 10 years I feel like I’m only scratching the surface.”

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