Dreaming Up a New Phone App, Part 2: Annual General Meeting of the Vancouver Art Gallery

Shortly before I attended the recent Annual Meeting of the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), held on November 14th, I learned that, if the VAG were to move, there was a good possibility that the Museum of Vancouver, currently located in a very small facility near the beach in Kitsilano, would move to the Old Courthouse Building that now houses the VAG.  If that were to happen, it would be good for the Museum, and the grounds that now surround the VAG likely would be able to continue to serve the same important community functions that they now serve, as a park and meeting place in the centre of downtown Vancouver.  I therefore wasn’t as worried as I had been before about the proposed relocation and expansion of the gallery, which had been the main reason I had wanted to attend the Annual Meeting. Yet I went along all the same.  Unless I’d missed something in the various emails and brochures I’d been sent by the VAG over the past year, since I acquired a VAG annual membership for the first time as a Christmas present last Christmas, this was the only meeting of the VAG during the entire year to which general Members, like myself, were invited.  My membership was expiring soon, and this could have been my one and only chance to attend a Members’ meeting at the VAG.

Although I was now less worried about the ongoing use of the current building and grounds, after attending the Annual Meeting, I was more strongly opposed to the relocation and expansion of the VAG than I had ever been.  Even though the meeting was extremely short, only about twenty minutes–and, in part, because it was so very short, and perfunctory–I got a strong sense that the VAG has fallen behind comparable institutions in terms of its responsiveness to the full range of its stakeholders, and in terms of its awareness of, and use, of digital technology.  Even Canadian universities, of which I’ve been so critical (including elsewhere in this blog), generally seem to have been doing better in these areas than the VAG.  If the VAG erects a new facility now, designed according to an already outdated view of what a public art gallery could and should be, I fear that, in just a couple of years, the expensive new facility will be a complete anachronism.  Thinking again of universities, it would be much like now erecting an expensive new university, modelled after traditional universities, when we know that some major changes likely are in store for universities, although we don’t yet know exactly what these changes will be.

Only about 80 people were in attendance at the Annual General Meeting, a large number of whom were employees of the Gallery.  The small attendance (according to the VAG, it currently has approximately 30,000 members) could have been due in part to the early start time (5:30 p.m.), which would have made attendance virtually impossible for any Members with day-jobs who worked other than in downtown Vancouver.  (I currently work downtown, a couple of blocks from the VAG.)  But I think the main reason so few people attended was that any Member who had attended an Annual General Meeting in the past, at least in recent years, or who had just heard from someone who had, would have known that attendance was a great waste of time and, unless they absolutely had to attend this time, because they were a Gallery employee or whatever, wouldn’t have bothered.

The preliminaries went well enough.  After signing in, I was handed a “voting card,” a flimsy slip of institutional-green paper, but which nevertheless made me eligible to cast my vote on decisions that would be made at the meeting.  Entering the meeting room, I was handed a copy of the Annual Report, the cover of which I’ve reproduced above, and copies of two sets of Minutes.  The graphic on the cover of the report is a photograph of a portion of the installation, Hand Vote, by Kota Ezawa, that was exhibited at the VAG earlier this year.  Being presented this document upon entering the meeting room, with a cover-graphic depicting the democratic process,  I was further led to assume that I would be given the opportunity to make a real contribution to VAG policies by attending this meeting.  But this was not to be.

In the first ten minutes of the meeting, there were three opportunities for me to vote, but I felt completely unqualified to vote on the issues under consideration, and didn’t vote even once.  The two sets of Minutes were passed unanimously–‘unanimously’ among those who actually voted.  Once I did get to actually reading the Minutes, I found out that one was from the last Annual General Meeting, held in September of last year, and the other from the Extraordinary General Meeting held in December of last year (before I became a Member), which dealt mainly with the amendment of certain By-Laws.  (One of these amendments dealt with increasing the maximum term of certain Trustees from the normal 10 years to 12 years.  Even ten years seems too long, if the Trustees, and the Director, are the only ones making any real decisions for the Gallery.)  The third opportunity to vote came after the Financial Report was presented.  (The VAG does seem to be doing well financially now.  According to the Report, the VAG had an annual operating surplus for the past fiscal year of $336,954, which was a major turnaround from the previous fiscal year, when it was $886,080 in the red.)   Attendees were given the opportunity to vote on employing the same accounting firm next year that the VAG had employed this year to prepare its Annual Financial Statements. What?!  I would have thought that was more of an administrative decision than a decision to be made by general Members of an Arts organization.

The second half of the meeting, which is to say the last ten minutes, consisted of the Gallery Director, Kathleen Bartels, providing a summary of Gallery activities during the past year.  Bartels incorporated in her presentation slides of some of the art that had been shown at the Gallery in the past year, and I was reminded of what a mixed bag the shows at the Gallery had been this year.  If I didn’t have the Annual Membership, there were probably only two shows I would have attended through the year: Beat Nation (the contemporary Aboriginal arts show I wrote about in my earlier blog) and Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore (nearly 50 works from one of the world’s great holdings of early European Modernism).

Bartels also showed a slide with the rankings in certain categories of the VAG in the most recent Association of Art Museum Directors Survey of 149 art museums across North America.  According to the rankings included in the slide, the VAG seemed to have been doing extremely well recently relative to other North American art museums in some key areas.  But I had many questions about that slide, beginning with the obvious question of whether there were categories in which the VAG didn’t rank well that were omitted from the slide.  I also had to wonder whether the relatively high attendance by school groups at the VAG may have been due to the fact that school groups in other jurisdictions were now making much greater use of on-line galleries and on-line arts education opportunities than those in the Greater Vancouver area, in which case the relatively high ranking of the VAG in this area might actually be an indication how backward our schools’ arts education programs are here as opposed to the VAG’s superiority in attracting school groups.  I wondered, too, if the relatively high general attendance at the VAG might be due, at least in part,to the VAG not having its permanent collection on-line, whereas the galleries in these other jurisdictions, or at least some of them, do have their permanent collections on-line.  Of course, there was no opportunity to ask such questions at this meeting.

Another supposed indicator of the VAG’s success in the past year mentioned by Bartels was that the VAG has acquired a large number of new art works during the past year for its permanent collection, through both purchase and donation. The enthusiasm Bartel expressed at the meeting for new acquisitions made me nervous. The retrospective of Ian Wallace’s photographic work I’d seen the previous week had got me thinking about how many photographic works produced in recent decades, of which the VAG has a large collection (including works by Wallace), have become passé in the past couple of years because of recent developments in digital photography, and digital graphics in general–and that, although some of these works may still have some historical interest for the current generation, they are likely to be of little or no interest to future generations.

In her ten-minute presentation, Bartels did manage to squeeze in a reference to the status of the VAG’s possible relocation and expansion.  Several months ago, the City of Vancouver had agreed in principle to allow the VAG to move to the proposed new site, on land owned by the City, and the VAG now has until February to meet certain conditions, when the City will make its final decision.  Bartels mentioned at the Annual General Meeting that the VAG has been making good progress in meeting these conditions (presumably, the major one is raising sufficient money).  But she never did get around to asking us, we the General Members, if we thought a new Gallery was actually a good idea.  I concede it’s very late in the proceedings to expect her to be asking such a question of us, but my impression is that General Members were never asked.  Possibly they were, and I just wasn’t around then; but, based on my experience of this Meeting, I very strongly doubt it.

The next morning, I woke up with the sense of delight and disorientation, all rolled into one, that one might experience waking up after a listless sleep on an overnight train in a sunny new clime, not knowing quite how one had got there.  I had dreamed up an idea for a new phone app that could provide roughly the same kind of experience as going to a major art gallery in a city such as Vancouver without even entering a gallery–and I’m not referring to a simple on-line art gallery, of which there are now many.  I’ll be discussing this app idea in my next blog post.

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