Real Estate Developers as Curators?: Westbank’s Fight for Beauty8 February 2018
By Brit Bachmann
“This exhibition is an attempt to illicit your support. We want you to buy in, to sign up, and join us in what we see as nothing less than an essential endeavour to protect, nurture, create and value all that is beautiful.” (1)
Ian Gillespie, founder of Westbank Corporation conveniently summarizes the intention of Fight for Beauty in the opening track from the audio guide. The exhibition, located in a tent outside Vancouver’s Fairmont Pacific Rim, is a lavish attempt to masquerade real estate development as art, to posture condo sales as altruism, and to mislead the public into joining a movement that satirizes anti-gentrification and affordable housing initiatives across Canada.
“Welcome to Fight for Beauty.”
Everyone who enters Fight for Beauty is greeted by a Westbank employee with an iPad. All attendees are expected to register their names and email addresses before touring the exhibition, with the option of joining Westbank’s email list. This initial exchange sets an unfamiliar dynamic for those accustomed to conventional gallery spaces, as it establishes the gallery-goer as consumer, further epitomized in Gillespie’s opening audio narration that suggests the listener can be won over. While this aspect alone does not discredit Fight for Beauty as an art exhibition, the forced participation is performed more like a sales incentive than a measure of attendance.
Each piece on display has a number that corresponds to an audio description. One of the first audio stops is the neighbourhood of Coal Harbour, represented with a photograph by Fred Herzog titled, Coal Harbour from 1953. It is the neighbourhood in Downtown Vancouver that surrounds the Fight for Beauty exhibition tent, which includes several Westbank developments. In the first sentence of the description, Gillespie refers to the area as “repurposed land,” a term commonly associated with colonial intent on Indigenous land. Indeed, Gillespie goes on to say, “With Coal Harbour, we saw the opportunity to create something for the city, not unlike Stanley Park, English Bay, Kits Pool, False Creek, or the Seawall,” which are all significant sites of stolen land. The audio guide suggests that Westbank is one of many who produced the neighbourhood of Coal Harbour, that Coal Harbour is their “body of work.” It is ironic, of course, that while Herzog’s photograph is the item on display, Gillespie’s audio guide only mentions it in passing. This perhaps deliberately overlooks the focus of Herzog’s work—which largely documents the quotidian lives of the working class—acting as a pivotal moment in which Westbank’s true motives become clearer, that Fight for Beauty is not about art.
There are several building plans and well-crafted architectural models for current, completed and upcoming developments in Vancouver, Seattle, Toronto and Tokyo. One of the models is for Vancouver House, a development adjacent to the Granville Street Bridge that is slated for completion this year. However, as with almost every display, it becomes merely a symbol for Gillespie’s anecdotal restating of Westbank’s alleged philanthropy. Vancouver House is on what was once public land purchased from the City of Vancouver in 2014 without public consultation. (2) The project was originally conceived as two mirroring developments that would act as “curtains to unveil the downtown peninsula to the world” on either side of the Granville Street Bridge. Vancouver House 1 is the project currently under construction, but Vancouver House 2 was not approved. Gillespie refers to this project in its entirety as a fight that Westbank lost. Gillespie confesses, “When you lose, it sets you back, because it isn’t just the work or the time and resources you put into it. What you really feel you lose is a piece of yourself […] Losing this one was costly, but life goes on.” Of all the increasingly alarming concepts Gillespie’s narration brings up, the primary point of concern is that this statement completely fails to contextualize the project within Vancouver’s struggles for affordable housing and rapid density. Community organizers, artists and cultural workers staged an alternative tour at Fight for Beauty in December 2017, with close to a dozen speakers who presented on specific displays. Melody Ma, activist and creator of the parody website TheRealFightForBeauty.ca, prepared a speech about Vancouver House. She proclaimed that its marketing strategy based around “gesamtkunstwerk,” which included an exhibition by the same name in 2014, was an example of ‘artwashing.’ (3) Ma asked the question, “Who gets to determine how Vancouver should be revealed to the world?” for which Gillespie and his collaborating architect Bjarke Ingels seem to know the answer.
Easy to miss, displayed high above the exhibition is “Territory 56” by Vancouver-based artist, Tristesse Seeliger. The collage work is seen in the Fight for Beauty trailer film, which was a collaboration between the artist and Westbank. The audio guide stop is narrated by Seeliger herself, who attempts to describe parallels between the process of collage and the spirit of Westbank developments. “Territory 56” is a continuation of The Map is Not The Territory, a series from 2014 that showed at The Gam Gallery in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. At The Gam, this series had a playfulness, the careful combining of art and mathematics from recognizable cartography. In Fight for Beauty, Seeliger’s work is used as decorative prop, barely visible inside the exhibition. The inclusion of Seeliger’s piece is one of Westbank’s only instances of commissioning from within Vancouver’s emerging art scene, but it is a transparent tokenizing gesture.
Walking through Fight for Beauty, it is difficult to overlook the inconsistencies—monitors, text, photographs, among other items—are hung with disregard for overall appearance. The layout lacks curation and navigability. It could be argued that Fight for Beauty is a reimagined gallery space, but it seems more akin to a reimagined circus tent, supported by inconsiderate spot-lighting, the glorification of couture, and the constant piano music from the Butterfly Fazioli, which also serves at the centrepiece of Fight for Beauty’s promotional campaign. There is even a plaque that encourages photography and social media posts with the tag #FIGHTFORBEAUTY, as if an Instagram filter could give the exhibition credibility.
On their website, Westbank is “Canada’s leading luxury residential and mixed-use real estate development company,” while on Fight for Beauty’s website it is described as “a culture company,” (4) they seem to believe one definition informs the other. With that in mind, Fight for Beauty is a crucial marketing campaign designed to strengthen their claims to promote art and beauty, while continually distancing themselves from the negative community response to their large-scale, luxury developments. Westbank’s marketing and sales director Michael Braun has said, “It would be nice to do more avant garde campaigns,” and Fight for Beauty is just that—an avant-garde campaign. (5) Almost every print publication in Vancouver has had Fight for Beauty advertisements splashed across their covers, which could account for the absence of critical reviews and published feedback from members of the local art community. Westbank has allegedly also been known to disappear unfavourable press. Joanne Lee-Young’s article “Westbank Corp. faces new scrutiny for pre-sale condo pricing at Joyce” from October 2017 was removed from Postmedia websites, apparently due to a result of inaccuracies. And yet, an updated version of the article has not been published. (6) A few weeks later, Postmedia’s Calgary Herald published an article celebrating Douglas Coupland’s commission for the exterior of Westbank’s recently completed TELUS Sky, which included a quote by Gillespie. (7)
Westbank’s somewhat unopposed attempt to insert themselves into discussions around contemporary art and cultural identity is indicative of the precarity facing established art institutions across Canada right now. Galleries in major Canadian cities are being criticized for underrepresenting Indigenous artists and people of colour, the latest being Andrew Hunter’s resignation from the Art Gallery of Ontario with a statement that disavows the AGO for perpetuating colonialism. (8) With galleries and museums reevaluating their reliance on the Western canon to attract an audience, and having to determine for themselves how to convey diversity without tokenization, the broader concept of Canadian art is perhaps at its most malleable. The timing of Westbank’s Fight for Beauty is almost too calculated, as it comes at a critical moment for public art institutions, many of which are underfunded and rely on the donations of large corporations like real estate developers. This dependence on corporate sponsorships and donations fuels distrust between institutions and the artists they seek to attract.
Just as Westbank has naively maneuvered themselves into critical art discourse, they have also naively antagonized affordable housing initiatives. In response to Fight for Beauty, Vancouver artists and cultural workers wrote the Westbank/Fight For Beauty Open Letter to reject Westbank’s use of resistance rhetoric, and show solidarity with culturally-relevant neighbourhoods that are prone to developer-funded artwashing and displacement. (9) The signees—individuals and organizations from across Canada—refuse to work with Westbank in any capacity. This solidarity is especially timely, considering the slow-burning backlash surrounding Westbank’s redevelopment of Honest Ed’s and the area known as Mirvish Village in Toronto. Similarly to Vancouver House, Mirvish Village is marketed around the concept of “gesamtkunstwerk.” The development is designed by Gregory Henriquez, the same architect that worked on the highly contentious Woodward’s redevelopment in Vancouver, which some have speculated had ripple effects that accelerated the housing crisis in the Downtown Eastside. Across the continent, there is a growing response to the recurring interconnectedness of developers, artists and gentrification. An example is the protest that happened at Laura Owens’ opening at the Whitney Museum last November. A coalition of anti-gentrification groups from Los Angeles and New York protested against Owens and her dealer, Gavin Brown, who they accuse of being responsible for the influx of galleries that gentrified the Boyle Heights neighbourhood in LA. Artists and cultural workers are becoming aware of the privilege they possess in the neighbourhoods they occupy, and the potential for their practices to become pawns for developer interests. It is crucial for artists and anti-gentrification movements to stand united.
Fight for Beauty might be considered a “successful” instance of artwashing a presentation centre, but as an exhibition, it only displays Westbank’s harmful ignorance.
- Ian Gillespie, Stop 1, Fight for Beauty Audio Guide, accessed December 2017.
- Vancouver City Council, “Notice of Meeting, Regular Council Meeting, Agenda,” last modified June 10, 2014, http://council.vancouver.ca/20140610/regu20140610ag.htm
- Melody Ma, “Westbank’s Vancouver House is not ‘A Total Work of Art’…but a piece of work,” Medium (blog), accessed January 2018, https://medium.com/@melodyma/westbanks-vancouver-house-is-not-a-total-work-of-art-b2edd279dcb9
- Westbank, accessed January 2018, http://westbankcorp.com / http://fightforbeauty.westbankcorp.com/
- “Dialogue: Michael Braun,” Westbank, accessed January 2018, http://westbankcorp.com/michael-braun
- Joanne Lee-Young, “Westbank Corp. faces new scrutiny for pre-sale condo pricing at Joyce,” Postmedia, accessed December 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20171020172657/http://www.canada.com/business/local+business/westbank+corp+faces+scrutiny+sale+condo+pricing+joyce/15253648/story.html
- “Douglas Coupland to create Canada’s largest art installation,” Calgary Herald, November 29, 2017, http://calgaryherald.com/entertainment/celebrity/douglas-coupland-to-create-canadas-largest-art-installation
- Andrew Hunter, “Why I quit the Art Gallery of Ontario,” Toronto Star, October 3, 2017, https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/visualarts/2017/10/03/andrew-hunter-why-i-quit-the-art-gallery-of-ontario.html
- “Westbank/Fight for Beauty Open Letter,” accessed January 2018, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1j9zjnytulKIZJ1tevI207uvTHmXThhBNrAEvYJ_YIfM
Fight for Beauty ran from October 14, 2017 to February 4, 2018. Current Westbank developments across Canada include The Butterfly, 1550 Alberni, Vancouver House and Joyce in Vancouver; Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver; and the Honest Ed’s/Mirvish Village properties in Toronto.
Feature image by Ema Peter Photography, courtesy of Westbank.