The Argument for a National Aboriginal Art Gallery

The Argument for a National Aboriginal Art Gallery

Apart from the need at the time to house a Bill Reid Gallery, the concept of a National Aboriginal Art Gallery stemmed from a number of other imperatives. The arguments for a National Aboriginal Art Gallery as a national institution with its location in Vancouver include:

  • There are no national institutions west of the Rockies and the west deserves a share of the wealth bestowed on Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.
  • It was a politically desirable idea which at the time was to form part of the package which made up the Kelowna accord.
  • There was a view that the Bill Reid Gallery had to be more inclusive and that celebrating the work of a single artist was not Canadian.
  • The centre for Aboriginal art in Canada is Vancouver and the aboriginal art market in Vancouver ranks equally with that of New York, and Santa Fe.
  • Although the National Gallery has the mandate to exhibit Aboriginal Art, it had to be forced to do so to reflect the new paradigm that Canada has 3 not 2 founding peoples, the English, the French and the Aboriginal Peoples. Accordingly the National Gallery revamped its exhibits to include aboriginal art, but it is not the prime focus of the gallery.
  • The National Gallery already has in its charter the right to have annexes across the country to serve the very purpose of having national institutions outside Ottawa, but have not applied for funding to realize annexes.
  • The idea of a National Aboriginal Art Gallery as an annex of the National Gallery would take the load off the National Gallery in having to exhibit aboriginal art in Ottawa and as a result the National Gallery was supportive of the idea.
  • There is a wealth of Canadian Aboriginal art that has not been seen, in the hands of the National Gallery, Canada Council, and Indian Affairs, not to mention other institutions, that is looking for a home.
  • Apart from its obvious political benefits the Province of BC and the City of Vancouver were supportive of the idea because a National Aboriginal Art Gallery would become a destination and generate tourist visits from around the world, in this case to see the content if not the form of the building.
  • A National Aboriginal Art Gallery could be international in content, as opposed to national in that aboriginal peoples have no borders. There is a wealth of aboriginal art around the world and there is no international aboriginal art gallery. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC and the new Quai Branly are both museums and not galleries of art and so hardly meet this challenge.

There is an argument that aboriginal art should not be ghettoized in a separate institution and should be exhibited in existing institutions like MoMA, and the national galleries in the US and Canada. This is a noble thought, but regrettably that is not happening and when it does, it is done poorly. One hopes that after the establishment of a National Aboriginal Art Gallery that the work of aboriginal artists will, over time, find their way into the mainstream. This would not have happened to African American artists if the Harlem Studio Museum which curates and exhibits the work of black artists did not exist.

At the time of the preparation of the Project Implementation Plan for the National Aboriginal Art Gallery, there was an appetite to support this project, notwithstanding its location in Vancouver, from major corporate donors in Toronto and Montreal. In addition there was support from the aboriginal communities across the country in favor of the project and its location.

Herb Auerbach
The Argument for a National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Vancouver

The Bill Reid Foundation

When the Bill Reid Foundation began looking for a home for a Bill Reid Museum, that is a place where we could tell the Bill Reid story and exhibit the Foundation’s Collection, now over 150 pieces and valued at more than 7 million dollars, it was told that building a museum dedicated to a single artist is not Canadian and the project would have to be more inclusive. That is what led the Bill Reid Foundation to pursue and promote the idea of a National Aboriginal Art Gallery to be created in Vancouver by 2010. This idea received support from governments, donors, artists and the Aboriginal community.
The National Aboriginal Art Gallery

The role requested of the Bill Reid Foundation was to raise the money, put together and manage a team, and negotiate the site as part of preparing a Project Implementation Plan for a National Aboriginal Art Gallery. The Foundation identified and secured an option from the City for a site, the old bus depot, and prepared a plan which incorporated on that site the Gallery, the two theatres of the Coal Harbour Theatre project, and a federal office building which Public Works has been trying to build on that site for some time. It is anticipated that a National Aboriginal Art Gallery will draw cultural tourists from across North America and around the world.

Also to be incorporated on the site was the Premier’s idea for an Asia Pacific Trade and Cultural Centre. Part of the strategy was that the incorporation of a National Aboriginal Art Gallery and, like the library project, a Federal Office Building would lever the level of Federal Government participation that a project of this magnitude would require. However, upon the submission of the Project Implementation Plan early in 2006, there was a change of government in Ottawa, and the current government has not exhibited, to date, any interest in culture in general or in this project in particular.

The National Aboriginal Art Gallery is viewed as an important project that, if realized, will serve the entire native community across Canada. Its realization would be a feather in the federal cap with respect to their Aboriginal Relations Program. At the same time, it augments the role the National Gallery in Ottawa in the exhibition of Aboriginal Art, which they currently do only on a limited basis.

One single project will preclude the Federal Government from having to field similar requests from many organizations. It makes it possible for the Federal Government to provide an equitable level of funding to Vancouver for infrastructure given the $100 million the federal government has awarded the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. Like the Human Rights Museum, a National Aboriginal Art Gallery fulfills the objective of creating federal institutions outside of Ottawa. A substantial Federal presence in the midst of this new Cultural Precinct would reinforce the government’s footprint and presence in Vancouver, with the federal office building at Library Square, the enhanced CBC studios, the new space to be created as part of the this project or on the old bus depot site.

Herb Auerbach
A Cultural Mecca – 2010.03.15

It is easy to build a theatre
It is not so easy to fill the seats
Herb Auerbach