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A Sense of Place: Art at Vancouver International Airport

By Robin Laurence

Review By Maria Tippett

April 18, 2016

BC Studies no. 191 Autumn 2016  | p. 156-157

In 1958, during the post-war building boom, the federal government decided to devote one per cent of airport construction costs to artwork. Within a few years the facades and foyers of airports from Gander, Newfoundland, to Vancouver were enlivened with bas-reliefs and freestanding sculptures; with paintings and murals. Vancouver-born sculptor Robert Murray and painter Jack Shadbolt were among the artists who received commissions. But there was a problem: their largely abstract work had a mixed reception. In fact Robert’s Murray’s sculpture Cumbria (1966-1967) caused such public dissent that it had to be removed from Vancouver’s airport; it is now on display at UBC.

In the early 1990s Canada’s airports experienced another building boom and airport management structure changed. Private airport authorities rather than the Department of Transport were now responsible for running the country’s airports — and commissioning works of art. And this is where Robin Laurence begins her story in A Sense of Place: Art at Vancouver International Airport.

In 1992 the newly established Vancouver Airport Authority (VAA) announced that it had a mission: to celebrate the natural beauty and the cultural heritage of the province through the work of largely First Nations artists. The decision to acquire Native, rather than non-Native modernist works, averted public criticism; it also allowed the VAA to acquire an outstanding collection that will always be on public view rather than hidden in the vaults of an art gallery.

The VAA built their collection of Native art in various ways. Most of it was commissioned directly from artists who produced their work for specific locations in the airport. Other pieces like Nuu-chah-nulth artist Joe David’s two Welcome Figures, which had greeted visitors to British Columbia’s pavilion at EXPO 86, were taken out of storage at the Museum of Vancouver and installed in the International Terminal Building. The VAA’s most famous piece, Bill Reid’s six ton The Spirit of Haida Gwaii — also known as The Black Canoe (1996) — was originally commissioned for the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Four years after the casting of this work, Reid oversaw the casting of a second version for the Vancouver International Airport. Re-named The Jade Canoe, the VAA paid Reid a handsome three million dollars for the sculpture.

Robin Laurence is not interested in the intricacies of how works were commissioned or even how the artists made them. What she does do — and does splendidly — is celebrate a small number of works in the collection. I came away from A Sense of Place in full admiration of the range of work that has been commissioned: from paddles, to spindle whorls, to canoes, to masks, to the silver coloured fish that make up the three giant herring balls. I was fascinated to see how Haida-Metis artist Don Yeomans interwove European — the Celtic Knot — and Asian-Chinese characters-motifs into his red cedar totem pole Celebrating Flight (2007). And how five Coast Salish women – Krista Point, Robyn Sparrow, Debra Sparrow, Gina Grant and Helen Callbreath – designed, and then wove, sheep’s wool into four meter-long hangings.

I also left what is essentially a coffee table book wanting to know so much more. Had working on such a large scale been difficult and what impact has it had on the artists’ subsequent work? What were the challenges of putting Indigenous works of art into a sterile airport terminal? And can we really appreciate these works out of context? I think that Robin Laurence has convinced us that the answer to this question is a resounding yes!

A Sense of Place: Art at Vancouver International Airport
Robin Laurence
Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishers 2015. 128 pp. $24.95 paper