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Centre A moves to the Downtown Eastside

Makiko Hara

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2 West Hastings Street

From October 2005 to December 2012, the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art—Centre A—was located at the corner of Hastings and Carroll Streets, in the former Interurban Railway terminal station in the BC Electric Railway building, once the vibrant hub of a new city. The space was over 5,000 square feet, with 18-foot-high ceilings and a wall of windows facing Hastings Street; it operated under the precarity of a perpetual three-month lease renewal cycle, never knowing when eviction might come. Under the visionary directorship of Hank Bull, the gallery engaged and supported over 50 exhibitions, featuring some 350 local, national and international artists, in collaboration with the art community, Downtown Eastside (DTES) organizations, activists, academics, and students, with a great support team and volunteer base. Public programs included performances, symposia, public talks, workshops, and community gatherings.

I emigrated from Japan in 2007 to become the curator of Center A and spent five years working in this space until the gallery moved to Chinatown at the end of 2012. Coming to the DTES from Tokyo was a huge culture shock at first, running an art gallery in a place where poverty, homelessness, prostitution, mental illness, drug addiction, and inequality revealed the darkest realities of Canada’s colonial present and history. Complex social issues were all part of the daily challenge. It was a rewarding experience to learn about and participate in this stigmatized place in the most human ways. The 2010 Winter Olympics became a trigger for the already-heated topics of gentrification and soaring real estate prices. We responded with exhibitions and public programs that addressed and examined the ongoing gentrification and its effect on the city.

Typically, exhibition installations were realized on the fly with a DIY approach, with little resources or equipment. Perhaps because of this, we were able stay experimental: a performance involving a live horse in David Khang’s How to Feed A Piano (2008); the exhibition Showroom (2008), co-curated by Kristina Lee Podesva and Inge Roecker, for which the gallery was transformed into a fictitious condo-showroom as a platform to discuss the pressing issue of ongoing gentrification; Overflow (2007) by Germaine Koh, curated by Alice Ming Wai Jim, which involved filling the entire floor with hundreds of discarded bottles; and TO|FROM BC Electric Railway 100 Years, co-curated by myself with Annabel Vaughan, which commemorated the historic BC Electric Railway’s centennial, with historical archives of immigrant contributions to the development of the Downtown Eastside throughout the 20th century presented alongside artworks by Raymond Boisjoly, Stan Douglas, Ali Kazimi, Vanessa Kwan, Evan Lee, and Cindy Mochizuki. This was, ironically, the last exhibition in that space.

There were quite a few regular visitors, not only from the art world but also the DTES community. On my very first day, I encountered a woman with a colourful wig and very eccentric costume, lying on the street in front of the door blocking my way in. She looked up at me and proclaimed, “This is my place.” Her name was Brenda Boutillier, a senior who lived in the social housing next to Centre A. She came to the gallery literally every day, always sporting some new, artistic get up, begging for a toonie, a cigarette, a cup of coffee with lots of sugar, and telling us her new dream adventure. One day, she took me to her room, and showed me her favourite old poster of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, so the next day I showed her a big Yoko Ono catalogue from our library. She was fascinated to learn that Yoko is still active, but said, “Please tell Yoko that you look much prettier in long hair, so keep the hair long.” Brenda passed away in the summer of 2009. We all attended her memorial and met with so many of our neighbours, community people who loved and missed her presence.

I think we created an inclusive experimental space for the artists to try new ideas to share with a diverse public. In retrospect, Centre A’s artistic direction and identity were shaped by this unique space and the cultural reality of the particular place and time. 

Makiko Hara

Makiko Hara is an independent curator, lecturer, writer, and art consultant based in Vancouver. Since the late ’90s Hara has curated numerous notable contemporary art exhibitions and projects throughout the Asia Pacific Rim. From 2007 to 2013, she was Chief Curator/Deputy Director of Centre A: Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Hara has worked with local and international visual artists on a variety of large-scale projects as an independent curator, including Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, Toronto (2009); AIR YONAGO, Tottori Geijyu Art Festival, Yonago, Japan (2014–15); Fictive Communities Asia–Koganecho Bazaar, Yokohama, Japan (2014); Rock Paper Scissors: Cindy Mochizuki, Yonago City Museum of Art, Tottori, Japan (2018); Whose Stories?, Kamloops Art Gallery, Canada (2021); and No Pain Like This Body, Offsite: Lani Maestro (2022–23) and PACE IN SPACE, Offsite: Pedro Reyes (2023), Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada. Between 2017 and 2022, Hara served the advisory committee at the International Exchange Center, Akita University of Art, Japan, and organized numerous international exchange programs. Hara co-founded Pacific Crossings, a British Columbia-based curatorial platform, in 2018. Pacific Crossings has initiated and organized numerous conversations, residencies and both online and offline cultural exchanges across the Pacific. Hara received the Alvin Balkind Curator’s Prize in 2020.