The Art District

Today, the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver, housed in a new purpose-built facility at Nelson and Richards streets, occupies a unique condition for its type: it is situated at the base of a condominium tower. Contemporary art galleries often inhabit a main street storefront space, but when newly constructed they invariably are designed as a stand-alone ‘temple to art’. This 6,000 square foot space is the result of the City of Vancouver’s bonus amenity program which negotiates higher allowable density for developers–in this case Bosa Ventures Inc.–in return for space and/or funding donated to local social and cultural organizations.

In a two block radius around Nelson and Richards new condominiums are growing like weeds. The Miro, The Gallery–these names are no coincidence, and nor is The Mondrian–the condo in which the CAG is located. They were chosen specifically to market their close proximity to the gallery. The Contemporary Art Gallery’s bonus has been felt by not only the cultural community and the public at large, but has also become a major selling point for development in the area.

This summer Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG) is celebrating its 30th birthday with LIP Service, an exhibit of work from the first decade of its collection. The show’s title refers to the Local Initiatives Program grants that provided funding for the Artist’s Gallery–a project conceived by the City of Vancouver’s Social Planning Department. From 1971 to 1978 local artists were hired for six-month periods to produce work that became the city’s collection. Then called the Artist’s Gallery, the CAG started in a space on Homer Street rented from the Federal Government before moving into a storefront at 555 Hamilton Street in 1973.

Concern for a larger space needed to accommodate the growing collection was voiced as early as 1978 and a year later the first plan to move the gallery was drawn up. Due to severe funding cuts to the arts, the project never materialized. Other failed proposals included a 1984 bonus scheme for a new office building, which deteriorated along with the downtown office rental market in the pre-Expo boom; a new free-standing building at the corner of Dunsmuir and Hamilton; and a 1994 letter from the CAG to the City of Vancouver expressing interest in the Woodwards building as a possible home.

After spending close to three decades in the small Hamilton Street location (now the Belkin Gallery’s downtown satellite), the CAG finally relocated to its present two-storey premises in 2001. Designed by nlm architect and Architectura Planning Architecture Interiors, for the City of Vancouver and CAG, the library and administration area are located upstairs while the reception desk, a reading room, prep space, and storage for the gallery’s collection of 3,000 works are tucked around two ground floor galleries–one is a double-height space and the other has storefront glazing on the south east corner connecting it to the street. A series of window vitrines display ever-changing sidewalk-oriented artwork to further cement this connection. The windows are a play on the renovated storefront of so many contemporary art galleries. The space has earned a Lieutenant-Governor’s medal and an AIBC Award.

Helena Grdadolnik, MArch, MRAIC is a sessional instructor at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. CAG’s 30th Anniversary: The Collection 1973-1983 runs to August 31 at the Contemporary Art Gallery, 555 Nelson Street, Vancouver.