Bring on the Strippers: A Not So Grand “Grand Hotel” at the Vancouver Art Gallery

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Surely someone associated with the show that opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery last week, Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life, was sufficiently familiar with the Greater Vancouver area to know that we have our own famous Flamingo Hotel in these parts.  “World famous”, which is how the hotel is described in the banner from the hotel’s website (that I’ve copied and pasted above), may be stretching the truth; but it’s definitely well-known throughout Greater Vancouver.  Its striking pink neon sign on the busy King George Highway in Whalley has been an iconic Surrey landmark for many decades–since at least when I was a kid, and our family would drive by the Flamingo Hotel when we were making a trip into Vancouver from White Rock or Crescent Beach.  The hotel’s pub and lounge have long been popular Surrey drinking spots.  Following the introduction of strippers in the pub, the hotel on the whole has become strongly associated with adult entertainment–and I don’t mean art shows.

It’s very unfortunate that the Vancouver Art Gallery chose to feature another Flamingo Hotel (the one in Las Vegas), with not only the identical name but also similar signage, in its advertising for its current show, since this advertising is likely to give many people from our region an entirely erroneous idea about the show.  No, it’s not a stripper show, or even a show about the ‘art’ of stripping.  Too bad, because either would probably have been more interesting and entertaining than the show I saw at the VAG a few days ago.

Besides the various failings of this show that already have been enumerated in various newspaper reviews–including the well-written and insightful review by Robin Laurence in the Georgia Straight, with which I generally agreeI was very troubled by the apparent lack of awareness of, or even interest in, the local scene by the curators of this show.  Even in Los Angeles and New York, whose hotels and cultural products are apparently of greatest interest to the curators, a mediocre Master’s thesis plastered all over the walls, with scant illustration, is unlikely to go over well in an art gallery–or in any other setting.  But when such a show is run at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and Vancouver hotels, and their relationship to artistic production in this region, are virtually omitted from the show, and when the advertising for the show treats our own Flamingo Hotel as if it didn’t exist, I feel that people from this area who attend shows at the VAG, and who otherwise support the Gallery, are being exploited.

The show was not entirely without local content.  I saw the Waldorf Hotel, on Hastings Street, listed among various hotels from around the world in a text block concerning how some hotels accommodate performance art.  There was only the name of the hotel, with no particulars (not even that it was in Vancouver).  I also saw a video loop, shown on a very small screen, probably no more than a foot wide, and dwarfed by text, of the ballroom of the Vancouver Hotel going through many transformations over the course of what seemed to be a couple of days, speeded up to a couple of minutes.  (One of my earliest jobs was working as a banquet waitress at the Vancouver Hotel, a job that sometimes involved helping to set up and take down tables.  In days of yore, I was one of those little worker ants scurrying about on the screen.)  Also, in the ‘chapter’ of the show about the relationship of hotels and transportation (going through this show really was like reading a thesis), I saw a small illustrated map on the wall showing what were formerly the Canadian National Railway hotels, including the Vancouver Hotel.  Other other than these token local references, I didn’t see anything, or read anything, in the show itself about Vancouver hotels, or about the relationship of Vancouver hotels and artistic, or cultural, production.  (Granted, I may have missed some other token references in all that text.)

In the show itself, I didn’t see, or read, any reference whatsoever to English Bay’s Sylvia Hotel, which is famous in arts circles throughout Canada–and is also likely to be familiar to many artists and writers in other countries.  In one of the blog posts about the evolution of this show, this important Vancouver landmark is mentioned; but, not even in the blog post, is the significant function of this hotel’s lounge as a hangout and meeting place for Vancouver, and other Canadian, artists and writers mentioned.  In local terms, this establishment is almost, if not just as, significant as New York’s Algonquin Hotel is to New York culture and, in a show of this nature at the VAG, should have received at least as much attention as the Algonquin–even if this meant giving less attention to the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles.  (How many visitors to the VAG who reside in Greater Vancouver give a hoot that Lindsay Lohen frequents the Chateau Marmont when she is in Los Angeles?)

And what about the beautiful, recently renovated, Georgia Hotel, right across Georgia Street from the Vancouver Art Gallery, where, in the past, I’d gone for drinks several times with Vancouver theatre friends?  Coming upon the Georgia Hotel immediately after leaving the show at the art gallery, it seemed so unfair that this lovely old neighbour of the VAG had been entirely left out of the show–including the blog.

I’ve wondered since seeing Grand Hotel last week if the curators may have put so much emphasis on hotels outside of our area, and given such short shrift to local hotels, for some well-considered, well-intentioned, reasons that weren’t immediately apparent to me.  Last week, the VAG received approval from Vancouver’s Mayor for a new and expanded gallery on the old bus terminal site, at Georgia and Cambie–provided that the Gallery can raised $350 million in the next two years.  That’s a whole lot of money, especially during tight economic times.  (Readers of this post may wish to read an article by Marsha Lederman published last week in the Globe and Mail about the VAG’s current fundraising challenges.)

Perhaps the show was designed to possibly be exported to other galleries, to generate additional revenue for the VAG.  (I’m no expert in such matters, but I imagine some money changes hands when a show that is put together at one art gallery is shown at another.)  If this were the case, more of a focus on Vancouver hotels may have been seen as making the show less attractive to ‘buyers’ in other cities.  (Due to its strong emphasis on American hotels in general, and the Chateau Marmont in particular, the show would seem to be an especially good fit for Los Angeles–disregarding, for now, the other problems with the show.)  It also may have been thought that certain well-heeled, globe-trotting, potential donors to the VAG’s relocation and expansion fund, from Vancouver and elsewhere, would be more inclined to donate if they saw (and read about) their own globe-trotting lifestyles in this show.  (There was a story in last Sunday’s Province newspaper about a swanky fundraising dinner for the VAG held  in conjunction with the opening of Grand Hotel that raised $350,000.  At least a few people with money liked this show–or at least didn’t hate it so much that they were deterred from donating.)

It is possible that the curators, and the Gallery Director, were allowing the VAG to be exploited to some extent for what they saw as the greater good.  But if that is the case, I’m not sure it’s worth it: even though they might have been OK with allowing themselves to be exploited (I’ve heard that some strippers feel that way about what they do for a living), they also stand to alienate a lot of local people.

Or, maybe they are all from elsewhere, and just didn’t know any better, plain and simple.  If they’d known better, surely they would have avoided using the Flamingo Hotel in the advertising for this show.

Or, maybe it was some combination of the two.

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