Kathleen Bartels vs. Bob Rennie: Both right.
By Robert Labossiere
It is further evidence of the increased public awareness and popularity of the visual arts that the Globe and Mail should publish a cover feature story this past weekend about the effort to get a new building for the Vancouver Art Gallery (The Collector’s Gamble, G & M, August 11, 2012).
There has been talk of a new building for years, with updates periodically about possible locations. It doesn’t appear to be a question whether it is possible to raise the $300 million estimated to be needed given ever more gloomy economic forecasts. Rather, journalist Marsha Lederman sees the hold up in a struggle between gallery director Kathleen Bartels and Vancouver real estate mogul and art collector Bob Rennie, who are not merely vying to determine the best location for a new gallery building but debating matters much more fundamental, cutting to the very role of the museum.
According to Lederman, art collector Bob Rennie, who is now running his own art museum, thinks the $300 million would be better spent building eight or ten smaller venues dispersed throughout the city. Bartels disagrees, citing concerns about fractioning the visitor experience, stealing audiences away from local galleries, as well as increased operating costs and program challenges.
They’re both right.
Having recently visited the de Young Museum in San Francisco, a stunning building by Herzog and de Meuron, on a Friday night when the foyer was packed with people dancing to a live jazz band, one would be hard pressed not to favour Bartels viewpoint: without doubt Vancouver could use a piece of international celebrity architecture, even if there’s only a drop of “Bilbao effect” still to be wrung from the global cultural tourism market. People like to know where the action is and to get to it easily, and inner cities need constant reinforcement, all of which support a centralized approach.
Bartels is also indisputably right about the management issues associated with operating multiple venues and running distinct programs in each. According to the recent New Yorker profile of Tate director Nicholas Serota, he is an excellent delegator, charging his captains to run the four separate wings of the Tate. Bartels too has a reputation for letting her experienced and expert staff shape the program but running multiple venues on the scale Rennie suggests calls for a different type of management altogether, something more like a franchise.
On the other hand, Rennie’s vision is timely as condo building in Vancouver continues unabated. Each jewel in his ‘museum necklace’ would create a hub for investment, multiplying development opportunities. Rennie knows how museums make great anchors, attracting business and promoting gentrification. They can be icons around which city and regional marketing campaigns gather momentum.
More fundamentally, the idea of bringing culture to where people are is an important one, hardly new but potentially game changing; Rennie proposes to make real a concept to which many people have been giving lip service for decades.
Many observers have noted that the role of the museum is changing, and conveyed with some urgency that museums need to be proactively reinventing themselves if they hope to stay relevant. This would seem to justify sustained public and private investment, and yet the shape and program of the museum of the future is as yet ill defined.
Of course the art museum will always be an archive of culture, a trove of irreplaceable treasures that embody our history, thought and sensibilities. But the art museum is also, increasingly an active supporter of cultural production and arbiter of contemporary taste.
Bartels and Rennie are vying over whether one spectacular jewel is better than a string of smaller gems. In effect, they are both questioning how aggressively to move toward the inevitable future of more democratized, accessible, participatory culture. In my opinion, this future must be acknowledged to be full of unanticipated consequences for both art museum directors and art collectors.