The Vancouver Art Gallery Looks Across the Pacific

For a time in 2017, the best museum to see Hong Kong art was in Vancouver. That year, Tsang Kin-wah, the artist known for his so-called “wallpaper art,” wrapped the Vancouver Art Gallery in creeping vines of text pulled from local newspaper editorials in the 1980s and 90s, when an influx of Hong Kong migrants sparked tensions in the Canadian city. The installation, EITHER / OR, continued down the street at the VAG’s outdoor exhibition site on West Georgia Street, where the text curled into blooming flowers of thinly veiled bigotry.

“Where is the money coming from?”

“Take your houses, take your lands.”

“They are all rich, they are all Chinese.”

Vancouver Art Gallery

Tsang Kin-wah, EITHER / OR, 2017.

Tsang was just one in a series of Hong Kong artists that had been exhibited at the gallery that year. In March, an exhibition called Pacific Crossings looked at the artists that had made their way from Hong Kong to Canada in the years before the 1997 Handover, including David Lam, Carrie Koo, Paul Chiu and Josh Hon. At the same time, Howie Tsui’s Retainers of Anarchy wowed audiences with its intricate animations inspired by the Kowloon Walled City.

None of this came as a surprise to those who followed the gallery’s evolution. For years, the Vancouver Art Gallery had been one of the rare North American institutions to exhibit contemporary art from China and other parts of Asia, and in 2014 it formalised its commitment by establishing the Institute of Asian Art.

Now there is an even bigger sign of the gallery’s ambition. Thanks to a C$40 million (HK$233 million) donation from the Chan family, the founders of Hong Kong’s Crocodile brand of clothing, the VAG is one step closer to moving into a new C$350 million facility designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architects responsible for Tai Kwun and M+ in Hong Kong.

When that new structure finally opens—the latest plans call for it to be completed by 2022—it will be a major step-up for an institution with ambitions to become a major player not only in Canada but across the Pacific as well. “I don’t think there’s any institution I’m aware of in North America, particularly in Canada, that is doing the work we’re doing with contemporary Asian artists,” says VAG director Kathleen Bartels. “I can’t think of anyone with a consistent ongoing commitment. The new gallery will give us more space to do that.”

Vancouver Art Gallery

Rendering of the new Herzog & de Meuron building.

The VAG dates back to 1931, and in 1983 it moved into its current home, a copper-domed former courthouse with an imposing greystone façade. Over the years, the gallery has amassed a permanent collection of 12,000 works, including a large collection of works by pioneering British Columbia modernist Emily Carr, along with significant Vancouver artists like Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas, whose photography-based work helped put the city on the world’s contemporary art map.

It also has a long history of exhibiting and collecting works by Asian artists. In a sense, it’s a mandate that comes with the territory. Although the history of Vancouver’s relationship with Asia is contentious—early immigrants from Europe were welcomed by British settlers, while those from Asia were greeted by virulent racism—it is now a city that is undeniably oriented towards the Pacific, with some of the largest ethnic Chinese, Southeast Asian and South Asian populations outside of Asia.

That has made Vancouver feel closer than ever to Asia, something that isn’t as apparent in other parts of Canada. When Howie Tsui visited the VAG’s 2007 show by Chinese-born French artist Huang Yong Ping, he realised something was missing in the eastern province of Ontario, where he grew up after his family left Hong Kong.

Vancouver Art Gallery

Tsang Kin-wah, EITHER / OR, 2017.

“That was one of the first times I saw Chinese contemporary art in person,” he recalls. “The places I was living in—Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal—didn’t have much programming of Chinese art. Seeing that exhibition was very encouraging to me because I understood the visual language that artist was working in and I felt an affinity for that language. It encouraged me to move to Vancouver, in a way to find an audience for my work, and also to position my work in this Pacific sphere.”

In a sense, the Institute of Asian Art simply formalises what the gallery had already been doing for many years. “We have a history of exhibitions from Asia and also with the Asian diasporic community within Vancouver,” says Diana Freundl, the VAG’s associate curator of Asian art. The institute’s mandate is to boost the presence of artists from China, Korea, Japan and India in the gallery’s exhibitions and collection, and it has also pushed the gallery to reach out to communities with roots in those countries. “We do touring in Mandarin and Cantonese, which is a part of the programme that has become very successful,” says Freundl. “Until you hear or see yourself [in the gallery] you don’t have that connection.”

Vancouver Art Gallery

Rendering of the new Herzog & de Meuron building.

Since the institute was established in 2014, the VAG has hosted installations by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and Chinese collective PFSO, a survey of work by Korean artist Lee Bul, a high-profile exhibition by Takashi Murakami and most recently, an exhibition of Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei. Some within Vancouver’s arts community have criticised the institute for overlooking Southeast Asia, but Freundl says this simply reflects the expertise of the gallery’s curatorial team. “We do want to develop and expand our scholarship in other regions of Asia,” she says.

Tsui says he is “glad there is a major Canadian institution that is formally establishing a commitment to showing art from Asia.” That works both ways, too. After Tsui’s show at the VAG in 2017, Freundl and the VAG helped him take his work to China, where he exhibited at OCAT Xi’an last year. “Canadian artists have a tough time taking part in any sort of international discourse,” he says. “We don’t have much name capital as a country, we don’t have much spice capital. The gallery’s trying to help promote Canadian artists internationally.”  

Vancouver Art Gallery

Rendering of the new Herzog & de Meuron building.

The new building will help. Herzog & de Meuron’s design calls for a distinctive stacked shape that will allow for large galleries that can be partitioned into smaller spaces if necessary. A covered courtyard that can be used for film screenings, performances and other events all year. There will also be space for a public reading room—“We have an amazing library, but no one knows about it,” says Bartels—and a theatre that will form the heart of the new building.

One of the most significant things is that it is a flexible, open building,” says Bartels. “We’re in a provincial courthouse which is very different—it’s closed. It speaks to the past. And this very much speaks to the future.”

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