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Vancouver Art Gallery opens up

Autobiographical exhibit about depth not greatest hits
From Warhol to Lawren Harris, VAG takes a historical journey through its permanent collection.

For its 80th anniversary, the Vancouver Art Gallery is sketching its story with a historical journey through its permanent collection.

An Autobiography of Our Collection kicks off Sept. 24 in advance of the gallery's birthday, Oct. 5.

Displayed works range from a selection of the 110 paintings and works on paper purchased in England for the gallery's opening at 1145 Georgia St. in 1931, to its relatively newer collection of photographs, lesser known works by Emily Carr, Mao screenprints by Andy Warhol, to a painting by Kent Monkman the Vancouver Art Gallery acquired Sept. 20.

"We didn't set out to show the 100 best things the Vancouver Art Gallery owns," said Ian Thom, a curator with the gallery since 1988. "We wanted to show the variety, the depth of the things within the collection, rather than the greatest hits sort of thing."

Vancouver citizens aimed to start an art school and an art gallery in Vancouver in the early 20th century. In 1925 they realized the Vancouver School of Art, which has since become Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

In 1929, founding members of the gallery collected donations from the public to purchase its first work: Thomas Sidney Cooper's Canterbury Meadows oil painting of cows.

In 1931, the founding members of the gallery dispatched Charles H. Scott, head of the Vancouver School of Art, and Henry A. Stone, businessman and philanthropist, to England to purchase a permanent collection for the gallery.

Only two Canadian works hung in the gallery when it opened.

"And they happened to be gifts from a local person," Thom said.

No Canadian works were purchased in the first year of the gallery's operation.

A static collection doesn't continue to draw visitors, so the exhibit highlights how private donors have helped grow the gallery's collection to more than 10,000 works, along with the campaigns that have raised money to buy and refurbish various creations. In 1981, the public helped raise $32,000 to acquire Robert Rauschenberg's Rush #10 from the Cloister Series. Donors purchase one square inch of the work for $5.

A regular acquisition fund for the gallery wasn't established until 1984 after the gallery sold its first property in 1983 and moved into its present location. Using partial proceeds from the sale, the Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund was established and invested with the Vancouver Foundation.

An Autobiography of Our Collection also touches on at least one point of controversy.

Paul Wong interviewed people about their attitudes and feelings about sex in 1984. But at the eleventh hour in 1985, the then director of the gallery decided the work, called Confused: Sexual Views, was pornographic and the show was cancelled. Wong has edited nearly four hours of videotape to 22 minutes for this exhibit.

Also from the mid 1980s is Roy Arden's series Rupture, which featured scenes of labour unrest in the city, including a photo of people camped out in one of the rooms of the old Vancouver Art Gallery. Rupture is included in a room of photographs that highlights the gallery's major collection of photo-conceptual work.

Sculptures include Brian Jungen's The Men of My Family, which features hides of animals he prepared and hunted stretched over a metal vehicle frame and Carole Itter's brilliantly assembled detritus, her Grand Piano Rattle: A Bosendorfer for Al Neil.

Packing crates, a display about how paintings are cleaned and videos of staff aim to give visitors an intimate glimpse into the workings of the gallery.

"It's going to be, I hope, an interesting view of this collection and a hint of some of the things that we hope to show more extensively should we be lucky enough to get ourselves a new home," said Thom.

Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi