The Vancouver Problem: A Response to Keep the Conversation Going
The winner of the prestigious new Brink art award—and the $12,500 and solo show at the Henry that goes with it—has been announced. The first Brink award will go to Vancouver artist Isabelle Pauwels, a conceptual artist who once staged a manual labor performance where she reproduced a tripartite artist book on three progressively arcane typing machines on demand.
Pauwels was one of two Canadian artists shortlisted for the award, and beat out several qualified local contenders. This week in The Stranger, Jen Graves discusses the current Vancouver art scene as it is presented in How Soon is Now, an exhibition of work by contemporary BC artists currently installed at the VAG. I haven’t seen the show, but it sounds incredible. In fact, for Jen the exhibition is so good it begs the question “Why is Vancouver art so much better than art in Seattle?”
The two cities are close… They’re comparable in size. But Vancouver art is better. “Better” in this case means (a) Vancouver art is connected to the larger world, and therefore to universes of issues, peculiarities, styles, and ideas that serve the artists as well as the audiences, and (b) Vancouver art is connected to its own art history.
This is a big statement, with many built in assumptions and implications. Graves does her best to unpack her bold words, and points to some compelling reasons why this is the case. The most successful Vancouver artists have international careers and reputations. Vancouver museums are generally more supportive of their local artists. Like the rest of Canada, Vancouver has better funding for visual arts than we do. As the only major city on Canada’s West Coast, Vancouver “is Canada’s Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and L.A. all in one.” (An innkeeper at a Vancouver B&B once told me that exact thing.) Finally, while Seattle may have had a more or less vibrant art scene at various points in its history, this history is not integrated in arts curriculum here in such a way that fosters a meaningful dialogue between the past and present.
So far, most of the article’s commenters make one of two points: (1) I live in Vancouver and the art isn’t as good as you think it is, or (2) I live in Seattle, you’re right, and here’s why it’s Seattle’s fault. As of yet, not a single commenter has made an eloquent case against Jen’s claim. I don’t intend to either. What I will say is that I find significant reason in the aforementioned differences between Vancouver and Seattle to identify them as apples and oranges, and this precludes me from attempting a direct comparison.
Granted, there are concrete, real-world reasons why the deck would be stacked in Vancouver’s favor if we were to attempt a comparison. The arts funding and museum discrepancies are lamentable. As others have discussed, many of the artists that would be Seattle’s international art stars are driven out of town for lack of options and support. We deserve better, and we should demand more.
But I don’t know that comparing Seattle to Vancouver is ever going to give us the answer we want. Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re my boyfriend. What if I asked you, “Why do you think Barbara is prettier than me?” If you weren’t particularly worried about getting laid tonight, you might respond with something like, “Because Barbara didn’t just ask me that question about you.”
I don’t know of any person, any place, or any thing that ever got any better by coveting its neighbor’s whathaveyou. Jen cites the example of Seattle’s historically strong music scene; I would contend that one of the main reasons Seattle music got as good as it did was its relative isolation from mainstream trends. Like the artistic flowering of Edo period Japan or the dense and powerful mythology of Himalayan Tibet, it would seem that the world’s most idiosyncratic and profound cultures are the ones that have spent adequate time simmering in their own juices. On a smaller scale, the same observation may be made of cities. How interesting would New Orleans be, for instance, if it were on the I-95 corridor?
So yes, let’s see what else is out there, but let us spend at least as much time learning what is under our own noses. And forgetting both! Perhaps this suggestion is anathema to the notion of an internationally cosmopolitan art world. I’m the first to admit I’m biased: I’d rather look at really ecstatic outsider art than the coolest conceptual work any day. What’s amazing to me, though, is when the visceral and intellectual fuse. Solve et coagula.
Jen Graves parenthetically titled her article “a rant to get the conversation started.” I don’t necessarily take issue with her assertion, but now that it’s been said I’d rather talk about how we can make Seattle the best possible version of itself than how to make it something it probably won’t ever be. This might very well mean taking some cues from what Vancouver is doing right. But mostly I think it means learning to identify and foster what is good that is already inside us.