On FUSE nights or most Tuesday evenings when admission is by donation, the scene outside the Vancouver Art Gallery can look like the down-the-block line-up for a pop star concert. But these crowds are waiting to get into the gallery. To look at art.
The VAG’s popularity is partly due to the leadership of Kathleen Bartels. As director of the gallery since 2001, Bartels has gained a reputation for presiding over some of the world’s top touring blockbusters as well as the in-house organization of risky and innovative exhibitions that have also gone on tour.
A few days before the opening of the much anticipated exhibition, Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg (on its way from Chicago, where it broke attendance records), Bartels took time out of a busy schedule to answer questions about the show, the broader world of art, her life — and yes, why the gallery needs a new space.
What most appeals to you about the work you do? Supporting artists and the work they do, and engaging the community with art and ideas.
What’s the best asset you bring to your role as director of the Vancouver Art Gallery? I have a broad range of leadership experience – informed by creative thinking, dedication, passion and ambition.
Interesting that many would describe Vancouver as a nature-lovers place yet the Vancouver Art Gallery has seen unprecedented growth under your tenure. To what do you attribute this awesome feat? Over the years we have dramatically broadened the focus of our exhibition program. By mounting a combination of significant historical exhibitions like last year’s Claude Monet’s Secret Garden, and both local and international contemporary shows such as Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture, MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture, and now Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, we are able to reflect the diverse backgrounds and interests of Vancouver residents and our international visitors, and engage the community to a much higher degree than we have in the past.
It makes us proud that the Vancouver Art Gallery has organized exhibitions that have heightened its international reputation—shows like MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture, and Picasso: the Artists and His Muses. These shows take years to pull off. Can you divulge any groundbreaking exhibitions that are in the works? I’m really looking forward to the projects we have coming up. Many of them cross into design, architecture and fashion. A big one in our spring/summer season is Cabin Fever, a vast group show that looks at the broad cultural influence of cabins as an architecture and design phenomenon. This fall, we’re planning a major contemporary fashion exhibition from Asia. And further forward, there’s Vancouver Special II, a triennial exhibition featuring the work of artists from Vancouver and British Columbia, which will be organized by the Gallery’s new Chief Curator.
Takashi Murakami was an exceptional painter at the start of his career but he told the Washington Post that in order to become a sensation, he needed to “create a new art movement” with a “catchphrase like ‘abstract expressionism’ or ‘pop art.’” He came up with Superflat. Do you agree that this invention is the way contemporary artists become influential international art stars? No, not necessarily. Artists do not have to create a movement to become internationally recognized. I think artists are recognized because of the extraordinary work they do, whether it is labelled something or not.
Murakami says that upon seeing the Gallery’s space, he determined he needed to build new works to accommodate it, including a five-metre-tall sculpture and three multi-panel paintings. Can you tell us more about these works and about the deal that made them happen? The Gallery is so excited about the new artworks that Murakami has created specifically for our space. The real knockout is the monumental public art project that has transformed the Georgia Street façade into an enormous octopus whose tentacles surround a brilliantly coloured skull. This rare use of the Gallery’s façade connects the exterior of the building to the exhibition inside, and dramatically marks the Georgia Street plaza as a place to engage with art and ideas. Murakami also designed a major installation in response to our rotunda space. It includes the newly completed sculpture, Chakras Open and I Drown Under the Waterfall of Life, and it’s just extraordinary! We work with many artists who use the Gallery’s architecture to create projects that are unique to our particular space. Murakami has done that as well but in his usual audacious style.
One more question pertaining to Murakami’s Superflat movement—which saw him include a fully operational Louis Vuitton shop in past exhibitions—can anything be viewed as art? Not everything can be viewed as art. That’s why we have art museums! Of course it’s more complicated than that – it’s up to artists to experiment and push boundaries, and there is dialogue between genres. But the boundaries that define art only become clear with time.
Are you an avid art collector? Why or why not? I wouldn’t call myself an avid collector, but I have collected work throughout the years. Beginning from my time living in the Pacific, I have collected Indigenous art from Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. I’ve also collected the work of a several Indigenous artists from the Northwest Coast, and I have an educational background in the history of photography, so throughout my life I have collected photographs.
How would you describe the Vancouver art scene? It’s vital, energetic and always changing, with new generations of fascinating artists coming up from Emily Carr or UBC or SFU. It’s very intelligent, and locally and internationally engaged. The art scene has grown significantly during the time I’ve been here, with many new commercial galleries, institutions and buildings, such as the Polygon Gallery and the Audain Art Museum. There is a real collaborative spirit here in the Province.
We like the VAG’s guided tour apps. How will the gallery further use technology to enhance audience experience? We look forward to having a new art museum where we are capable of wiring the whole building in order to provide access to media anywhere in the facility. We don’t have that ability right now at the Vancouver Art Gallery because of the nature of the heritage building we occupy. We aren’t capable of being leaders in technology in the museum profession because our current structure holds us back. This is vital to more actively engage our current and future visitors and members.
What do you think are the three key attributes of strong board of directors? Trustees need to be passionately engaged as advocates and leaders. Their networks should extend not only throughout Vancouver but across the province, Canada and internationally. And they must have a bold vision for the institution’s place in the community and its contribution to civic life.
Most intriguing work of art you’ve seen recently? (Or is there a work of art right now that you keep thinking about?) I can’t stop thinking about Takashi Murakami’s Nuclear Power Picture, an early painting from 1988 depicting the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident – it’s the most haunting image and so richly painted. Also, I recently saw Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and it made a huge impression as her work always does. She was a pioneer in her field.
Most important issue facing the arts and culture community today? From the vantage point of an arts museum, I think continued audience engagement is our biggest challenge and opportunity. This goes back to your earlier question about Vancouver being such an active, outdoor place, because it’s about really being attentive to the distinctive value of a museum. Museums are unique places where people can come together and be contemplative. They are places of inclusivity. Ensuring that museums stay this way is critically important to their sustainability.
The UK government is conducting a study on the social impact of sports and culture and one question it asks is which has more positive social impact. Your answer? For me personally, there is no question about how I choose to dedicate my life. It’s to culture. Because it enriches the soul, it enriches our lives, makes us more aware of our differences but also our similarities. It brings people together in a very unique and engaging way. That being said, I don’t think we have to choose. I’m also a huge sports fan. I follow American football and baseball, and I’m a dedicated swimmer!
Favourite place in Vancouver? My home.
Best advice you’ve been given? Don’t be afraid to be competitive or ambitious. As a woman leading a large institution, you have to continue to be bold, inventive and courageous.
You have three words to describe yourself. What are they? Empathetic, energetic and passionate.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be? Racism – social injustice.
What are you most looking forward to? The opening of Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg! I love openings because I get to experience the public’s joy in seeing new work.
What does a perfect day look like? Swimming in the Kits pool, working at the Gallery, having dinner with my husband and son, followed by a long walk with my dog.