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The Greater Vancouver Artist’s Gallery opens

Matthew Hyland

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In November 1972, the Greater Vancouver Artist’s Gallery opened its doors at 766 Homer Street. The gallery was initially established with a simple mandate: to employ artists to make art. 

Conceived by the City of Vancouver’s Social Planning department and funded by the Local Initiatives Program (LIP), a federal employment scheme developed to support grassroots job-creation efforts, The Artist’s Gallery, as it was known colloquially, began as an experiment in city-building, an effort to both harness the utopian spirit of the era and support the artistic activity that had been thriving in the city since the 1960s. 

During The Artist’s Gallery’s initial run, the gallery hired artists for periods of up to six months, during which they would be paid a weekly stipend of $100 (about $700 today). In exchange for their stipend, participating artists would provide the gallery with an equivalent amount of artwork, which would become part of the City of Vancouver’s art collection. Artists were selected through an open-call process, with applications adjudicated by a committee of City staff and arts leaders, including over the years architect Arthur Erickson, artist Jack Shadboldt and then-Vancouver Art Gallery director Tony Emery. 

This enterprising program would run through 1978, when LIP funding streams were wound down by the federal government. Along the way, it supported hundreds of local artists—including figures such as Liz Magor, Al McWilliams and Marian Penner Bancroft—and resulted in a civic collection of more than 3,000 artworks.

By the time the LIP scheme concluded, the gallery’s role in the civic landscape had become something much greater than its initial intent, and the space would go on to evolve accordingly. In 1983, it adopted the name we know the organization by today—the Contemporary Art Gallery—with a new mandate implemented the following year. For the next 12 years, the organization would operate as an artist-run centre, showcasing the work of local artists in dialogue with their national peers, before adopting in the mandate of a non-collecting public gallery in 1996 and, along with it, a focus on establishing connections between Vancouver artists and the world at large, a commitment that continues to shape its work today. Along the way, the organization would move twice—to 555 Hamilton Street in 1973 and 555 Nelson Street in 2001, where it still resides—and grow its reach considerably, supporting not just a community of creative actors, but a Greater Vancouver population that had swelled from one million in the early 1970s to 2.5 million in recent years. 

While these milestones are significant ones that we continue to be proud of, they tell only a portion of CAG’s story. As we began to consider CAG’s imprint on Vancouver over the last fifty years in greater depth, we became increasingly interested in understanding the city’s imprint on CAG, in exploring the organization’s development in an expanded context. 

As former CAG curator Reid Shier has written, the gallery—and the Local Initiatives Program that supported it—was established amidst a period of significant social change in the Canadian landscape:

In the early 1970s the baby boom generation began to graduate from universities and colleges across North America, and an overwhelming influx of new job seekers into the labour market sent the unemployment rate soaring. Compounded by worries about an idle labour force at a time of widespread social unrest, Pierre Trudeau’s Federal Liberal Government looked to Franklin Roosevelt’s depression-era New Deal programs for a way to respond. Like the WPA [Works Progress Administration], Trudeau’s Local Initiatives Program (LIP) was a short-lived, large-scale governmental job assistance program that sought to support social, cultural and humanitarian activities while channeling youthful energies toward productive ends. 

In Vancouver, the period immediately leading up to the founding of the gallery reflected this rapidly changing social landscape, both embodying the tensions between a conservative past and an increasingly progressive populace, and revealing the limits, omissions and exclusions embedded in the city’s visions for the future. 

The anti-freeway protests at the beginning of the decade, for example, helped to curb the “urban renewal” philosophies endemic to mid-century Canada, ushering the first progressive city council into power and with it a new focus on urban planning. The freeway set to connect downtown Vancouver to the east end of the city—razing parts of Chinatown, Gastown and Strathcona in the process—was successfully stopped by the mid-1970s. But not before Hogan’s Alley—the city’s only Black neighbourhood—was demolished to make way for the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts. 

At the same time, tensions between the city’s young people, local government and residents affronted by the increasing presence of hippies, war resisters and other radicals in their midst were reaching a breaking point. In October 1970, the Battle of Jericho saw police abruptly and forcefully clear more than 200 young people from the former military barracks at what is now Jericho Park—housed there by the federal government following the closure of a temporary youth hostel on Beatty Street—moving them not just out of the military base, but out of the Point Grey area altogether. Less than a year later, the Gastown Riots would take place following the violent police break-up of a smoke-in by young people protesting a series of recent drug raids in the city. On orders to clear the scene, police descended on attendees in full riot gear, beating protestors indiscriminately, charging crowds on horseback and inciting mayhem on the streets of Gastown as the youth fought back against the police. 

These events would ultimately lead to modest reforms in police conduct, drug enforcement and housing policy in the city, though their impacts were far from universal. Fifty years later, it’s become overwhelmingly clear that these policy advancements benefitted the city’s white and middle-class residents more readily than Indigenous, racialized and/or low-income ones, for whom experiences of police brutality, housing insecurity and criminalization remain persistent. 

The founding of the organization that would come to be CAG is inseparable from these larger conversations about Vancouver’s aspirations as a city, not just in the 1970s, but in the fifty years since. The optimisms, successes, omissions, and failures that have formed the city we know today are, in many ways, the story of CAG as well; to understand our trajectory is to understand the trajectories of the city at large. 

Following a year of reflection and research in 2022—the gallery’s 50th year of public operations—we invited more than fifty artists, cultural workers, activists, and other civic leaders to reflect on the social and cultural histories that have shaped both this city and the gallery’s work over the past five decades. Mapping some of the key moments, movements, art, and actors that have impacted the history, development and future of the city in ways large and small, this project considers how we arrived at the current moment, both as a gallery and as a city, while asking what the past fifty years might have to tell us about the fifty years to come. 

Matthew Hyland

Matthew Hyland is Executive Director at CAG.