A blank canvas for Vancouver

The Flats, the Canadian city’s newest art district, is luring visitors and locals with some of the city’s most exciting galleries and exhibition spaces.

There is a grubby patch of no-man’s-land in East Vancouver that has long been studded with anonymous industrial units. Just off Main Street, these low-rise, concrete block buildings – mostly on East 1st Avenue and Great Northern Way – have for decades been a hive of small-scale manufacturing.

Unsurprisingly, most locals have routinely ignored the area. Until now, that is.

On 27 July, a block party marked the launch of The Flats, Vancouver’s newest art district, named after the low-lying marshland that once existed here. Colonising a clutch of old workshops, 15 free-entry galleries and exhibition spaces now call the area home.

“Many of us used to be on South Granville [a high-profile storefront district on the city’s West Side], but we each realised we could make the move here and have much larger galleries,” said Jennifer Winsor, owner of the Winsor Gallery. “We’re all quite collegiate and the idea from day one was to work together to create a new destination art district.”

Having some of Vancouver’s most prominent galleries onboard helped. Alongside the Winsor, which moved here in December 2012, other Flats heavy hitters include Equinox Gallery, Monte Clark Gallery and Catriona Jeffries Gallery. Each specialises in contemporary Canadian art, ranging from photoconceptualism to sculpture, abstract painting to First Nations artworks.

It was the blank canvas opportunity that lured many to set up shop.

“Building on the neighbourhood’s gritty industrial feel and starting gallery spaces from scratch was a big attraction,” Winsor said. “Our new space is much more functional – we have two large rooms, high ceilings and far fewer limitations on what we can exhibit.”

It is not just gallery owners who are excited about the district’s potential, though. Local artists are also keen to see the fledgling area take off.

“I think it’s great to have all your galleries in one spot,” said Angela Grossmann, whose paintings and collages have been exhibited around the world. “I hate visiting cities where the galleries are all spread out and you have to trawl around – especially in a place like Vancouver where it rains a lot.”

Abstract painter Bradley Harms, whose studio is located in the neighbourhood, agreed. “South Granville was too spread out,” he said. “But here visitors can give themselves over to an afternoon of art.”

Bigger canvas
Contributing to the district’s growth spurt, the Emily Carr University of Art and Design is scheduled to open a Great Northern Way campus in 2016. Currently located across town on Granville Island, it is one of Canada’s most prestigious art schools. Its purpose-built new facility will bring hundreds of young artists into the neighbourhood, joining the Centre for Digital Media, a partnership by four local universities for graduate students, which opened in 2012.

But while these new educational institutions will offer plenty of arty action – the new Emily Carr campus is expected to echo the current site’s public gallery and roster of art shows – another type of creative production will also give visitors a reason to explore the area: especially if they are thirsty. 

Red Truck Beer, a popular local brewery, is building a new 1st Avenue production facility and retro diner in the heart of the gallery district. Expected to open before the end of 2013, it will join close-to-opening craft beer producer Main Street Brewing and the just-opened Brassneck Brewery in quenching area thirsts.

Transforming perceptions
But while a critical mass of galleries and attendant businesses is necessary, a shift in local perceptions may also be required to ensure the district’s success. Vancouver has a reputation for being an outdoorsy city, where residents are more interested in hiking and biking than musing over paintings and installations.

“There’s an enormous amount of art being created here, but local audiences are sometimes afraid to engage or support it,” said Chris Bentzen, the multi-tattooed owner of Hot Art Wet City. “I’m hoping the new district will bring in people who don’t usually go to galleries.” His small gallery, located on the edge of The Flats, stages some of Vancouver’s most entertaining art shows. The gallery’s eclectic themes have included painted bike saddles, art made by adults when they were teenagers and a Star Wars- and Star Trek-inspired show that included a large AT-AT model that doubled as a steampunk drinks cabinet.

Bentzen also spearheaded First Thursday, a monthly self-directed art walk around the area’s galleries. “I’ve been to these in cities like Seattle and Portland and I was struck by how many people were going from gallery to gallery. I’d like to think we can create that kind of excitement here.”

For now, though, the city’s new art district is working hard to put itself on the map, enticing locals and visitors to explore an unfamiliar area of Vancouver.

Expected to open before the end of 2013, it will join close-to-opening craft beer producers Main Street Brewing and the just-opened Brassneck Brewery in quenching area thirsts.