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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Of Rauschenberg, policy and representation at the Vancouver Art Gallery : a partial history 1966-1983 Harris, John Steven


My thesis examines the policy of the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) as it affected the representation of art in its community in the 1960s and '70s. It was begun in order to understand what determined the changes in policy as they were experienced during this period, which saw an enormous expansion in the activities of the Gallery. To some extent the expansion was realized by means of increased cultural expenditure by the federal government, but this only made programmes possible, it did not carry them out. During the 1960s the Vancouver Art Gallery gained a measure of international recognition for its innovative programming, which depended to a degree on the redefinition of its relationship to the local, whether that signified its traditional patronage, Vancouver artists or the "man in the street". VAG's new outreach programme was not unique, but it was contemporary with developments in other locations. Given the popular and critical success of his policy, VAG director Tony Emery pushed it to the relative exclusion of the more traditional type of gallery programme, in this manner angering VAG's "more conservative" audience. With the first indications of a fiscal crisis in the 1970s, the government began reining in public expenditure, including that on the arts. There was first a freeze on funding to the larger arts institutions, which by now included the Gallery, and then the slow withering of government support. VAG's experiments in programming, which had been made possible through this support, became expendable, and there was soon a re-orientation towards more traditional programmes, accompanied by another redefinition of the Gallery's audience. The Gallery's structure, policy and programme were gradually transformed to fit an increasingly corporate model or paradigm in order to secure the extra funds it needed to remain solvent. A crucial aspect of this change was the plan to move the Gallery into larger quarters, which would be more attractive to donors and collectors, and which would allow prestigious exhibitions to be brought into the city. The thesis undertakes to examine the vagaries of Gallery policy with the aid of the current literature on museums and government cultural policy, and with government and Gallery documents. The other major section examines the formation of the reputation of Robert Rauschenberg, as it bears on the reception of a group of his works exhibited at VAG in 1978. Rauschenberg was an artist in frequent contact with Vancouver through exhibitions of his work at a private gallery, and the consolidation of his reputation following the 1976 retrospective of his work by the Smithsonian made his work apt for the promotion of VAG. Rauschenberg's use-value for VAG depends on a particular reading of his work which had become generalized after 1963, and reinforced in 1976, which was appropriate to the new Gallery role promoted by VAG's paladins. This interpretation, which was developed by Alan Solomon in 1963, fixed Rauschenberg's works as celebrations of a way of looking at one's environment and of what was looked at. Solomon's reading became the accepted one, but by an examination of the reception of Rauschenberg's art prior to 1963, and by an analysis of two of his works, I argue that it is neither the only possibility nor even the most accurate one. In the 1970s, critics conflated Rauschenberg's earlier and later work within the context of Solomon's interpretation, which has hardly been expanded upon. They have usually tried to establish an identity of the earlier and later work, based upon Solomon's reading, where I am trying to establish their difference. An analysis of two of the works which appeared in the 1978 Works from Captiva exhibition at VAG indicates the differences with the earlier work and the susceptibility of their iconography to the new role the Gallery was attempting to promote.

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