The Vancouver International Airport, home to some of Canada’s greatest aboriginal art and a multi-million-dollar First Nations art collection, says it wants more controversial artists. It just doesn’t want their controversial work.
This is the view of Rita Beiks, the curator of the renowned collection and the person charged with selecting artists whose work will be on display when visitors flock to the 2010 Olympics.
“Because the airport is not an art gallery, people aren’t making the choice to come here to see art,” she said. “They are making the choice to travel and if they’re confronted—and I deliberately used the word confront—with work that could be offensive to them, I have to be sensitive to that.”
When travellers land at the airport, the many large and often dramatic pieces of Northwest Coast indigenous art establish the cultural and geographic location of Vancouver. Sculpture, print, weavings, and carvings have brought international acclaim to the airport and the city.
Beiks has worked with the airport authority and airport art foundation for 13 years and is now program manager for the entire collection, which includes more than 40 works as well as Bill Reid’s “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe,” which is on the Canadian $20 bill.
Beiks knows she must balance her personal preference with that of an international public. But this also means subversive or critical artists must mute any overt imagery or message if they are going to be part of the collection. For Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, this means his work may never be commissioned by the airport.
Yuxweluptun documents the harder edge of being First Nations and his art is praised as striking, graphic and powerful. He is of Coast Salish and Okanagan lineage and his father was a leader among the North American Indian Brotherhood.
He is renowned for his cynical, anti-colonial work and chooses titles for his large, technicolour canvases like “The Urban Rez,” “Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in Sky,” and “Portrait of a Residential School Child.”
In 2005, the airport commissioned Yuxweluptun through the BC Lions Society to create an “Orca in the City”. Once the piece was installed, two aboriginal women complained about his black-and-white, Native-themed design.
“These women were very upset and it was very clearly First Nations imagery that I wasn’t sensitive to,” said Beiks. “But when they pointed it out to me, I could see what they were talking about. They were really offended, and the airport never bought the piece at the end of the day.”
The orca remained on display until the end of the commission. It sold at auction for $8,000. Yuxweluptun said he would consider working with the airport again, adding that art is the source of his personal and political power. He isn’t sure if the airport could handle it.
“I can’t be contained,” he said. “They don’t know if I would embarrass them.”
“He’s correct,” said Beiks. “I do feel a sense of distrust about what he might actually do in the future. He’s very political and that would be one of the questions. He’d have to be very careful what he does.”
Although the airport is unlikely to commission Yuxweluptun to create an original piece of work, they may still opt for a finished painting.
Beiks said she had been advocating his work for years and nearly purchased “New Chiefs on the Land,” which shows five sombre, suited men with faces drawn from totems and carved masks. She said the large canvas was “seriously considered even though we didn’t have a budget or project to tie it to”.
The airport respects a mandate “to foster the development of Northwest Coast aboriginal art, to broaden its markets and to promote its display in public buildings.” The airport authority has the final say in choosing artists, commissioning work and funding new work, but all purchases are tied to construction projects and developments.
At least two major pieces are planned for the airport’s expansion, including a second Susan A Point installation at the airport’s Canada Line sky-train terminal. Point’s “Flight Spindle Whorl,” a majestic four-metre circle carving overlaying a wall of water, already watches over international visitors passing through customs.
Beiks said between one and 1.5 per cent of the overall budget for an expansion project was put towards artwork. For the $300 million budgeted for the airport terminal, $3 million will be invested toward the purchase, display and preservation of the commissioned work.
The Vancouver airport has become a model for others around the globe.
“We really try and show work that certainly can have a message,” said Beiks, “but we don’t want to offend people.”