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The woman who brought Vermeer to Vancouver

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Vancouver — Kathleen Bartels is not a woman to mince words. “In my opinion,” she says with a matter-of-fact shrug, “money follows vision. And if you don't have the vision – and someone leading that vision – the money is not going to come.”

The director of the Vancouver Art Gallery is talking just days before a major fundraiser – a gala dinner to celebrate the opening of its big summer exhibition: Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art. Members of the Dutch royal family arrived earlier this month to celebrate the arrival of the exhibition's star attraction – The Love Letter – the first painting by Johannes Vermeer to ever grace the city. (It's been 50 years since a Vermeer was on display in Canada.) If the current show is something of a coup, looking at the list of exhibitions that have graced the gallery's walls since Bartels arrived – Brian Jungen, Massive Change, Wack!, Zhang Huan. The list stands as part of her continued mandate to raise the bar at the VAG.

She's smart and a risk-taker, prepared to match 17th-century Dutch masterpieces with a raft of contemporary shows: Andreas Gursky, Anthony Hernandez, Stan Douglas and emerging Vancouver artist Reece Terris all share VAG space this summer. It's good business, combining cutting-edge modern art with the kind of broad-interest classical show that keeps the turnstiles ticking over. Some art insiders go so far to argue that the VAG now stands as the best-run gallery in Canada.

It's all a far cry from the day, eight years ago, when Bartels (then assistant director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles) arrived at the VAG to interview for the top job. “There was an exhibition on impressionism, but there were only 10 works,” she recalls, wincing at the memory. “And they had tried to make it seem like a full exhibition by spreading it out with a bunch of didactics and quotes and I thought, ‘Hmm, this is really interesting – and certainly something that would need to change should I become director.'“ Change it did: Bartels, originally from Chicago, took over the gallery in 2001, reinvigorating and redirecting what had become a moribund institution. For years it was an institution marked by a revolving door of directors and a meddlesome board intent on calling the shots at the gallery. (A situation that came to a head over a proposed exhibition of photographs by Bryan Adams.) In person, Bartels appears much younger than her 51 years. She's trim and stylishly turned out, pairing a tailored black leather jacket with a designer shirt that boasts a flourish of ruffle. We meet for lunch in an elegant restaurant, where she is regular enough to have “her” table and be on first name terms with the wait staff.

She orders carefully – oils and dressings are requested on the side, steamed vegetables are substituted for starch. If she gives off an air of intense self-control (she arrives for lunch with her own notes on what she'd like to talk about), she's also surprisingly warm and chatty.

It's a powerful combination that endears her to artists, donors and corporate sponsors alike. As internationally known Vancouver artist Ken Lum put it: “She is amazingly tough – but in a way that is somehow beguiling.”

Local philanthropist and contemporary-art collector Michael Audain has been involved with the VAG's board on and off for 20 years. “Kathleen has elevated the VAG to a museum of international stature,” he remarks by phone. “She really is outstanding – a most remarkable director. And I've known more than a few in my time.”

It's hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about Bartels. Her track record is simply too impressive – whichever way you look at it. The organization has never been so buoyant financially nor boasted such great community support. Contributed income (from donations) has risen from just over $500,000 in 2001, to a projected $4.8-million this year; earned income in the same period has jumped from $1.4-million to a projection of $5-million; and membership has grown from 9,000 in 2001, to 50,000 this year – with an annual operating budget of just $13.3-million. “The membership figures are one of my proudest achievements at the gallery,” she says, beaming. “Fifty thousand is a huge amount for a community our size.”

New digs for the VAG remain high on Bartels's agenda. With completed feasibility studies for two sites – the old bus depot downtown and a waterfront site at the Plaza of Nations – the decision on where the gallery will next call home is due in the fall.

Preternaturally diplomatic, Bartels won't be drawn out on her own site preference, prepared only to say that both have potential and both have drawbacks. Programming for the new building, estimated to open in 2015, will launch with a major exhibition of lauded Vancouver photographer Jeff Wall (an artist with whom she has forged a close working relationship and co-curated shows).

In the meantime, she's juggling any number of projects, including bringing Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings from the Queen's collection in Windsor Castle to tie in with the Olympics, and a major surrealism show that will tour internationally.

The Dutch show has been in the works for more than three years. The idea was born when Bartels noticed Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum was embarking on renovations, and she had been looking for a good reason to haul the VAG's own small collection of 17th-century Dutch art out of the vaults.

“We have a responsibility to bring masters to this part of the world and we feel this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, because these won't be touring once the renovation is done,” she said.

While many museum directors find themselves so burdened with the business of fundraising they delegate curatorial decision-making to their staff, Bartels keeps her feet planted resolutely in both camps.

“I don't think I can be out there fundraising and advocating unless I'm developing the program with a real commitment and understanding – it's critically important. You can't separate the two.”

Not all the gallery's staff took to her approach immediately, suggesting she should stick to the way things had always been done. “That was a little challenging,” she admits. “But I'm just very direct and had to say, ‘No, we are doing it this way. Move on.'“ Similarly, she brushes off complaints from some sectors of the local arts community that she isn't inclusive enough. “We've had to really forge ahead with setting a standard,” she explains, frowning slightly. “If it's not critical enough, if it doesn't add to scholarship in that area – then we won't do an exhibition. That's it. There has to be criteria.”

Such directness is not always received well in Vancouver, a city that can be resistant to outsiders. “Professionally, I have been settled almost from the day I arrived,” she counters. “You just have to. Right? Take the bull by the horns and get going.

“But on a personal level it's taken more time,” she concedes. “There are still moments when I feel I don't quite belong here – and maybe you never do.”

Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Sept. 13.

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