The Vancouver Art Gallery in a Globalized World

Image from Wikipedia

The role and function of visual art museums in the second decade of the 21st century is now a controversial one. Museums, which were once fairly staid institutions presenting a fairly traditional roster of artists, are now expected to respond to the immediate social and political concerns of their prospective audiences. Furthermore, the pressures of the pandemic have cut back drastically on international travel, compelling museums to work with a hyper-local population from which to draw their patrons. Yet globalization has resulted in a change in local demographics. Increasingly, immigrant populations in large urban centres are drawn not from any specific region, but from around the globe. Hyperlocal populations are now also hyperglobal.

That is certainly true about the city in which I have ended up living — Vancouver, British Columbia. The popular image of Vancouver is of a primarily white Anglo-Saxon and East Asian Chinese culture living in a small but densely populated urban village with a friendly, outdoors-oriented vibe. Like all generalizations this one holds a lot of truth — pot shops outnumber purse stores here by a significant margin; Lululemon yoga pants are almost acceptable office wear. Culture in Vancouver according to a recent, perhaps semi-satirical piece in The New York Times, is people taking selfies in front of washed up barges along Vancouver’s downtown shoreline. Again, there’s some truth to that, and hence the power of the satire.

The other fact of Vancouver culture and one which my local visual art museum, the Vancouver Art Gallery, must contend with, is our location on the homelands of indigenous peoples who were here for thousands of years before anything called Vancouver even existed. While indigenous people are fairly few in overt number, their influence on the culture of Vancouver is overwhelming.

A cursory view of Vancouver culture would then reveal a simple mosaic — white Anglo-Saxon, East Asian Chinese, and First Nations people ethnically who like to smoke pot, ski, and get naked on our famous clothing optional beach. But Vancouver, which is in many ways a city of surfaces without depth, is demographically far more complex than this first picture suggests.

One way to see this is to send your kids to school during a pandemic. Each school day, at drop off and pick up of my daughter and son at school and daycare respectively I see the dance of parents waiting in clusters to drop off and pick up their children. The clusters are revealing. There’s the Russian-speaking cluster, many of them tall and elegant women with faraway looks in their eyes. But the language label alone is misleading — their countries of origin are often Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan; there’s the Spanish-speaking cluster, many shorter and rounder than those in the Russian group, but I know from discussions that some are from Spain, others from Brazil and speak Portuguese, but can converse in Spanish. There are a few lonely Black families, a sad commentary on the loss of Hogan’s Alley as the single Black neighbourhood in Vancouver. And there’s a raft of East and South Asians, some born here in Canada and wholly integrated, others recent arrivals.

Vancouver is also home to a fairly large and growing Iranian diaspora, and there are small numbers of Israelis and other Semites. While they are not numerous in my neighbourhood, South Asians, particularly from the Punjab, are among the largest groups in the region.

Vancouver’s Nouveau Riche

Vancouver is a very new city — the city itself only begins in 1886. As a practical matter there are no buildings over a hundred years old. The people too are new — most of people’s money is recently made and the people who made it recently arrived. The term “nouveau riche,” with its elitist disdain for the vulgarity and materialism of new money, is perhaps truer of Vancouver’s people than any other major city on earth.

Our new money values infect many aspects of culture here, but there are few areas where that is truer than it is of the curatorial emphasis of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Nearly all major exhibitions are of living or recently deceased artists. Historical art, like the city itself, generally limits itself to the past century. Many featured artists are local, and the emphasis falls on women, people of colour, and Indigenous art.

Art at the VAG is politically correct, but it is also often boring; it usually has nothing to teach us. Inevitably the exhibition description states that the art will aim to “undermine traditional narratives (of white male supremacy),” but it presumes, falsely, that audiences know what these traditional narratives actually are. One cannot undermine what one does not understand. Without a connection to a deep, long history — without continuous and consistent exposure to what curators might call entirely erroneously and without a hint of irony, white supremacist art, what remains is merely a kind of cultural onanism, a form of psychedelic navel gazing that imagines it peers outward, when in fact it peers only at itself.

One cannot undermine what one does not understand. Without a connection to a deep, long history — without continuous and consistent exposure to what visual art curators might call, entirely erroneously and without a hint of irony, white supremacist art, what remains is merely a kind of cultural onanism, a form of psychedelic navel gazing that imagines it peers outward, when in fact it peers only at itself.

Embracing the Global

To avoid its growing cultural myopia, the Vancouver Art Gallery should embrace the global; it should note that its local audiences come from all over the world and present its exhibitions accordingly. Art from 8th century Iran? Check. Indo/Pakistani Gandaran sculpture? Check. African masks? Check. Shunga (erotic art from Japan)? Check. There is an audience for all of these exhibitions right here in Vancouver; our demographics support it.

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Hazlit

Hazlit

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Writing at the intersection of left-wing economics, conservative culture, and libertarian social structures.