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Vancouver's Presentation House keeps its edge in Polygon Gallery

After showing significant artwork in a ramshackle space for decades, the B.C. institution has new digs in a glass-and-steel oceanfront beauty

People walk past the new Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver, B.C. on Oct. 16, 2017.

It's a bleak, rainy day in North Vancouver but it's bright in here, this new gallery space on the waterfront. It's the skylights, the gallery lighting and the white walls, for sure. But it's also the art that's being hung – and everything it represents.

This is a premier gallery space at the soon-to-open Polygon Gallery, formerly Presentation House. On Saturday, nearly a month before its inaugural exhibition, the Polygon will fling open its glass doors for the first time, installed with works to be auctioned to raise money for the gallery.

The works were donated by artists from around the world, at the request of auction chair Stan Douglas. The Vancouver-based, internationally renowned artist secured some impressive works, sending out about 100 letters to artists who have exhibited it at Presentation House, and others he knows.

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"People were very generous," Douglas says. "The gallery has a good amount of respect internationally, people know it. Even though it didn't have a great facility to start with, they always did really high-quality exhibitions."

It's hard to imagine a more drastic change in circumstances for a cultural facility. Before this 2,300-square-metre oceanfront glass-and-steel beauty was erected as the Polygon, its former home a few blocks up the hill, Presentation House, could be a shock to first-time visitors.

"When I went to my first exhibition there … I found it hard to believe that a gallery with such a stellar reputation was operating in very small and shabby quarters," Michael Audain, the visual art-collecting philanthropist, told The Globe and Mail when his lead gift was announced.

Nomi Stricker, left, Simon Bermeo-Ehmann and gallery manager Diane Evans hang a print of a Thomas Struth photograph taken at Moscow Station in St. Petersburg, in preparation for an auction of major photographic works.


A former school house, city hall, police station and justice building (the boardroom was a former jail cell, complete with inmate-carved graffiti) – before it became a gallery, museum and theatre, the Presentation House Cultural Society building was opened in 1976 by prime minister Pierre Trudeau. (Polygon director and curator Reid Shier is hoping Justin Trudeau will do the same honours for the new building when it opens in November.)

The community art space was later reimagined as a photo-based institution. There was a Richard Avedon show in 1983. The gallery continued to show important work, but in that ramshackle space, for decades.

The new Polygon seems to have come together quickly, especially in a place where the Vancouver Art Gallery has been trying to move for well over a decade (it's been more than two years since the VAG revealed its design for a new gallery with a promised groundbreaking in 2017).

But the discussions go back more than 25 years. When Shier was hired from Toronto's Power Plant in 2006, it was with a mandate to move the gallery.

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Real momentum began to build in about 2010, with the gallery considering different locations. In 2011, a feasibility study was conducted to test fundraising capacity. That proved successful, and the City of North Vancouver made a $2.6-million commitment, including a $500,000 advance to begin the design process. It also coughed up the prime land.

"It is an extraordinary act of civic imagination and trust, in my view. It just wouldn't have happened without them," Shier says.

The design firm Patkau Architects was hired and, in 2014, Audain made the lead gift – $2-million from his foundation and $2-million from the company he founded, Polygon Homes. The federal and provincial governments each gave $2.5-million.

The first feasibility study imagined a cost of $12-million. When the design process began, that increased to $15-million. By groundbreaking, the goal was increased to $20-million – $18-million for the building and a $2-million endowment.

Heading into this weekend's fundraising event – they're calling it First Night – they've raised just over $18.1-million.

"We're close enough that certainly the proceeds from the auction would help push us over the finish line," Shier says.

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The auction features work by renowned local and international artists including large-scale lightboxes by B.C.-based photographers Rodney Graham and Dana Claxton, as well as U.S. conceptual artist Christopher Williams and German photographer Thomas Struth.

The first lot is Douglas's 2015 work, Lazy Bay, a large-scale masterpiece of darkness and light representing a historic area in North Vancouver once populated with fishing shacks – including, most famously, one occupied by Under the Volcano author Malcolm Lowry. Douglas's work has photographic elements but was pieced together based on research and constructed using sophisticated software.

Different photographic practices are represented in the auction, including collage and photograms. "The whole range of what can be done with the photographic medium is on display," Douglas says.

Shier says the calibre of work in the auction allows the new building to shine.

"The dream was something like this," he says, standing in the gallery this week. "The level of artistry, and the professionalism, the quality that's in here right now speaks to the history of the institution."


First Night at the Polygon Gallery is Oct. 21. The gallery opens Nov. 18 with the show N. Vancouver.

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