THE DEVELOPER'S ART GALLERY: Beautification, Gentrification, and the Hijacking of Public Art in Vancouver

Ben Clark

City Centre Artist Lodge, 2023. Photograph by the Author.

In the wake of the 1986 World Exposition, the City of Vancouver introduced its Community Amenities Contribution (CAC) program. CACs were devised as a means of improving public infrastructure and livability as the city saw a development boom in Coal Harbour and False Creek North (City of Vancouver, 2019, p. 6). The implementation of this program meant that developers were required to provide cash or in-kind contributions to public facilities, such as affordable housing, parks, community centres, and public art (City of Vancouver). Particularly in regard to public art, the CAC program included a clause that required development projects over 100,000 square feet to allocate a portion of the project’s budget directly to public art initiatives in the city. A developer can either contribute to a municipal arts fund, or create an on-site public art installation (City of Vancouver). The CAC program has become a cornerstone in the globally-renowned “Vancouverism” urban planning style; public art projects are touted for “[enhancing] day-to-day experiences in [public] places” (Beasley, 2019, p.267) or making “neighbourhood housing and retail more marketable” (City of Vancouver, 2019, p. 6). Superficially, the City’s approach to public art is positive; Vancouver is indeed unique for its variety and quantity of public art installations which beautify the city and enhance its culture. Yet Vancouver has a serious public art problem. While the CAC program has enabled art to proliferate across the city, it has also inadvertently created a space where public art has been tied to real estate and development for over thirty years. Public art pieces in Vancouver have been hijacked as ornamental commodities which exist to add value to adjacent properties. By extension, public art has also been subtly weaponized to entrench a cultural hegemony that favours the financial interests of developers and landlords, and thus create a hostile environment for local independent artists in this city.

Not all public art within Vancouver works to serve a developer-centric hegemony, of course. However, given the politics and bureaucracy involved in creating installations, it is difficult to ignore a distinctive trend in the role art tends to play in Vancouver’s urban fabric. By the very nature of being largely funded via money raised by property taxes or CACs, public art— if not directly involved in the real estate and development industries in the city— almost always has some indirect relationship to real estate. This paper will analyze three public art pieces across Vancouver as case studies which exemplify the developer-based public art scene in the city, and the problematic effects that such art has on the life and culture of Vancouver as a whole.

Spinning Chandelier, 2022. Photograph by the Author

Spinning Chandelier: A Total Work of Advertising

On the underbelly of the north end of the Granville bridge, a 25-foot-tall chandelier dangles high above the street. Designed by local artist Rodney Graham, it was unveiled as the public art installation for Westbank’s Vancouver House development in 2019. Spinning Chandelier was met with heavy criticism upon its installation— particularly for its total cost of $4.8 million— being regarded as “gaudy” or “excessive” (Migdal, 2019). I remember discussing the arrival of the chandelier with my friends and coworkers, and the fuming disdain we directed at the sculpture with how tastelessly out-of-touch it was with the ongoing housing crisis in Vancouver. We were outraged by the $6-9 million price tags on apartments in Vancouver House, and felt that the chandelier added insult to injury for Vancouver residents struggling to make rent and survive in this city. I visited the chandelier semi-regularly in 2019 and 2020 out of morbid fascination to understand its place in the neighbourhood, and check in on the construction of Vancouver House as it neared completion. I knew the chandelier was built in direct relation to Vancouver House, yet I was not aware of the full extent to which the two were connected.

Westbank’s CEO, Ian Gillespie, flaunts Spinning Chandelier, Vancouver House and the University Canada West campus buildings as a Gesamtkunstwerk— a total work of art that “brings visual splendour to daily life and constantly inspires its occupants and visitors” (Speed, 2019). It is impossible to analyze the chandelier without also examining the broader context of Vancouver House— of which the chandelier is such a prominent feature— as well as the ideology of the individuals involved in the development’s design. Gillespie has a history of associating Westbank’s brand with art, having staged a lavish pop-up exhibition titled Fight for Beauty in 2018. This fight, which Westbank claims “builds cities and culture,” is “a way of expressing our evolution and sharing our journey, while describing the enormous, ongoing effort we continue to pour into the fight, to nurture, create, protect and celebrate beauty in all forms” (Westbank, 2018). Gillespie’s effort to blend art and architecture has been heavily criticized as an elaborate marketing campaign; reframing himself less as a visionary developer, and more a curator of pieces of fine art which populate city skylines as opportunities for investment (Pham, 2019).1

Vancouver House has been steeped in this art-meets-architecture ideology since its conception. Gillespie had a close working relationship with Danish “starchitect” Bjarke Ingels to design what they call a “52-story-sculpture” (Young, 2014). Both Gillespie and Ingels approached the project with the idea of “energizing” the space under the Granville Bridge— transforming it from an empty, unused part of the city into a vibrant destination. They likened the bridge’s underside to the sistine chapel, and approached Rodney Graham to commission a sculpture that would help give the space the grandeur and energy that they wanted (Moure). When I revisited the chandelier in early spring of 2022 to capture the photograph above, I would describe the space as not just energetically lacking, but outright depressing. The chandelier hangs in a vast, desolate, cathedral of concrete, surrounded by parking lots and the nondescript glass-and–steel lower floors of Vancouver House and the UCW buildings. There was no other art or colour to provide additional visual interest, nor was there any infrastructure in place to allow a visitor to comfortably enjoy the space. When I reached the end of my roll of film, I looked around to find a bench I could sit on and load a new roll into my camera, and to my surprise, I could not find one anywhere. The reality on the street beneath the north side of the Granville bridge is a stark contrast to Gillespie and Ingels’s bragging about the area being “an urban spectacle” or feeling like “the coolest space in Vancouver” (Moure). The area feels unwelcoming, if not outright hostile to the person on the street; as if we are meant to pass through, glance up in admiration at the bridge’s $4.8 million ornament and move on without a second thought. So then, in failing to “energize” the space as per Gillespie, Ingles, and Graham’s ambitions, what exactly is the chandelier’s function as an art piece?

Spinning Chandelier is not an art piece that serves the local public interest. It is easy to attack the chandelier as merely a symbol of opulence and wealth inequality while forgetting that the chandelier is not a total work of art. Vancouver House itself is the artwork, and the chandelier is merely a component. Under the CAC program, developments over 100,000 square feet are required to contribute a minimum of $1.2 million to public art in Vancouver. Spinning Chandelier was initially budgeted that amount, yet the expense of the project ballooned and Westbank successfully applied to combine four CAC funds from other developments to cover the inflated cost (Tanner, 2019). The chandelier was built to fulfil a legal obligation. Would it even exist if the CAC program didn’t mandate it? Is Gillespie— over the years of associating Westbank with high art— simply incorporating and capitalizing on Vancouver’s public art mandate? The way Westbank marketed Vancouver House and its other properties certainly implies this to be true. Upon its completion, units in Vancouver House had been sold in over 16 countries and often included “asset management” plans to test faucets and lighting in the event of an extended vacancy (Cheung, 2019; Young, 2014). Advertising for Vancouver House made an appearance at a marketing show for a later Westbank development, the Butterfly, where real estate agents actively offered advice for purchasing apartments on speculation (Gold, 2018).

After taking the title photograph for this section, I continued walking along Beach Avenue, turning right on Howe Street to pass the front entrance of Vancouver House. Passing by, I noticed a narrow gap between Vancouver House and its neighbouring building— an abandoned, decaying gas station. The gap was perhaps no more than a meter wide, with a high concrete wall running along one side, presumably to hide Vancouver House’s unsightly neighbour. Along this wall— otherwise smooth and featureless— ran the word “GESAMTKUNSTWERK” in large neon letters, half of which were burnt out. The letters were almost entirely unreadable from the street with how sharply angled they were in their space relative to the sidewalk. After a few moments of puzzling over how best to position myself to view the letters, I realized that the sculpture had been placed to be exclusively visible through the window of one of the two luxury real estate offices operating in the foot of Vancouver House. It is here where any remaining pretense of Vancouver House being a total work of art absolutely collapses. To Gillespie, buyers are art collectors, “emotionally drawn” from all over the world to his sculpture (Young, 2014). The chandelier is not meant to be enjoyed by the public on the street. It is a commodified luxury amenity that exists to add value and allure to Vancouver House as a place to invest rather than live in.

The Present is a Gift, 2021. Photograph by the Author

The Present is a Gift: No Longer Our Space, Our Home

In 2016, the Belvedere court was bestowed with a unique honour: a vibrant, 30-foot-high mural which became the centrepiece of the first annual Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF). The Present is a Gift has since put Mount Pleasant at the epicentre of an explosively colourful transformation as the mural festival courses through Vancouver, turning the city into a canvas for all manner of eclectic designs. I’ve lived in Mount Pleasant my entire life, and I’ve enjoyed watching the neighbourhood grow and change alongside me for a little over twenty-five years. My memories of old Mount Pleasant are fuzzy; I can vaguely remember when the Duke apartments were once a used car dealership, or what the Fox Cabaret used to be, or when the Olympic Village was a rundown industrial district. The neighbourhood has changed a lot since my childhood; businesses have gotten more eclectic, buildings have gotten taller. The mural festival has worked well to highlight those changes. I felt the murals were making Mount Pleasant more fun, charming, and genuinely beautiful, and I took a lot of joy in walking through the neighbourhood, admiring new art I had never seen before. They made me all the more proud to call this neighbourhood home.

The Vancouver Mural Festival describes itself as a community-centred nonprofit multimedia art consultancy and production agency on a mission to “transform the way art is experienced in Vancouver.” They have overseen the creation of hundreds of murals around Vancouver, more than 90% of which were painted by local artists of various backgrounds to reflect “the rich diversity of voices living and working here.” The VMF has been praised as a “force for neighbourhood renewal,” (Derdeyn, 2021) and for its community art collaborations, such as the Black Strathcona Resurgence Project (Wilson, 2021) and the Punjabi Market (Smith, 2021). For all the positive work the VMF has done in showcasing local artists and communities, The Present is a Gift remains a piece that challenges the festival’s mission and haunts its continued work throughout the city.

The Belvedere Court, upon which The Present is a Gift is painted, has housed a close-knit community of artists for over thirty years. Artists were drawn to the building in the 1980s as the building’s age led to a decline in its value, thus making it one of the most affordable spaces in the neighbourhood to rent (MacPherson, 2017). Sean MacPherson is a longtime resident of the Belvedere and member of the Mount Pleasant Heritage Group (MPHG). He offers a detailed insider account of the creation of The Present is a Gift in his essay, “Our Place, Our Home: Belvedere Tenants Fight to Remain in Mount Pleasant.” In early 2016, the VMF began consulting with residents of the Belvedere and members of the MPHG to design a mural that reflected the neighbourhood and community. MacPherson recalls interacting with VMF representatives directly, suggesting that the festival commission an artist from the Belvedere to paint a mural of two of the building’s most revered, well-established tenants. The VMF ultimately rejected MacPherson’s proposal of hiring one of the building’s artists— preferring one of their own.2 The VMF also grappled with the community-recommended slogan “Our Space, Our Home” as a title for the piece, versus their own slogan “The Present is a Gift.” The Belvedere’s landlord ultimately vetoed the proposal to paint two of his tenants on the walls of the building, and the mural festival opted to render two other members of the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood while maintaining their slogan as the title. Shortly after the mural’s design was finalized, the landlord began an aggressive campaign of “renovictions” that devastated the building’s community (2017).

The Present is a Gift’s problematic creation is compounded by the VMF’s origins and continued operations. From the beginning, the Mural Festival has had a unique funding partnership with the City of Vancouver, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the City’s Engineering budget in a quota-based scheme to cover a target number of buildings per year (McKee and Nugent, 2017). The festival also receives generous funding from Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) and developers — including, but not limited to, Westbank (McKee and Nugent, 2017; Westbank).3 The VMF’s actions regarding The Present is a Gift closely match a trend observed by Szőke and Parizeau, wherein low-income, community-based artists are sidestepped in the creation of public art. Such art is created by established, professional artists backed by funding from developers, BIAs and city enhancement funds, and does not authentically reflect the context of its location (2019, p. 16).

Both Westbank and the Vancouver Mural Festival are guilty of “artwashing,” as exemplified by Spinning Chandelier and The Present is a Gift, respectively. Oli Mould describes artwashing as “a process that uses artistic practices […] to make a place more amenable to private capital and the aesthetics it currently desires” (Pritchard, 2020, p. 179). Stephen Pritchard elaborates on Mould’s definition, explaining that public and socially engaged art are deployed as symbolic capital to rebrand place-identities as “creative,” “improved,” or “revitalized” in order to attract a creative middle class (2020, p. 184). His commentary is echoed by Westbank and the VMF alike. Recall Ian Gillespie’s sentiment that Spinning Chandelier “energizes” the formerly “empty,” “unused” space under the Granville bridge. Similarly, VMF Director David Vertesi stated that The Present is a Gift “livens up a dead space” (McKee and Nugent, 2017). As Spinning Chandelier is part of a means to attract wealthy investors to the Gesamtkunstwerk of Vancouver House, The Present is a Gift is part of a means to rebrand Mount Pleasant and Strathcona as “creative” districts.4 Concurrently, David Ley notes a strong correlation between the presence of artist communities and gentrification, stating that the aestheticization of artist spaces attracts other professionals of increasing cultural and economic capital. As income and property values increase, so too does the interest of development and real estate industries in these spaces (2003, p.2540).

With gentrification comes displacement, and Mount Pleasant has seen its share of displacement over the years. Alongside losing many of his artistic neighbours at the Belvedere, Sean MacPherson mourns the loss of local businesses he felt contributed heavily to Mount Pleasant’s culture and character:

What we are left with now is a landscape of empty husks: vacant buildings that once housed bustling restaurants are now empty, diners that served as meeting places gone forever, buildings emptied of the people that lived there for decades. Meanwhile, their exteriors are plastered with vibrant contemporary art (2017.)

The Belvedere is not the only artist enclave that has been threatened by Mount Pleasant’s transformation. Rising property taxes in the neighbourhood put the Beaumont Studios at risk of closure, which put studio management in a difficult position of trying to balance their tenants’ rent and grant funding to cover costs (Kurucz, 2019).

The Present is a Gift is loaded with a wicked irony that betrays the Vancouver Mural Festival’s goals to promote “social sustainability, cultural diversity and artistic excellence.” Artists, who often earn less than $12,000 a year in their profession, are paid an average of $2,000 per mural to adorn spaces where landlords and developers ultimately have the final say in how the art appears on their buildings (McKee and Nugent, 2017). As with the Belvedere, artists are finding their own work turned against them as a means of pricing them out of the spaces they occupy. The mural festival, therefore, is a gentrification tool which makes neighbourhoods hostile both to pre-existing cultural presences and the very artists that the VMF claims to represent.

Leeside Skatepark, 2021. Photograph by the Author.

Leeside Skatepark: Underground, in Every Sense

At the southeasternmost corner of Hastings Park, beneath the intersection of east Hastings and Cassiar, is a cavernous, graffiti-clad tunnel that shelters a thriving and dedicated community of skateboarders. I discovered Leeside skatepark by chance one night in the summer of 2021, and had the pleasure of befriending and talking with a couple of the park’s regular visitors. Little has been written about Leeside’s background and cultural presence in Vancouver; indeed, much of its history seems to be oral— shared as veteran skateboarders tell stories about the park’s founder and namesake, Lee Matasi. Neither of the skateboarders I met during my visit to Leeside knew Matasi personally, however they spoke fondly of the friends and community they’d found in the park, and the whisperings they’d heard of its legendary creator.

Besides the graffiti drawn on the park’s walls, Matthew Robinson provides one of the only detailed written histories of the park in his article Leeside Skate Park, Lee’s Domain. The first incarnation of Leeside was hand-built in the mid-1990s by a teenage Lee Matasi when the tunnel was an abandoned bus loop. His work attracted other skateboarders, and they collectively built ramps, rails, and other skate features. In the early 2000s, the City of Vancouver’s engineering department removed the skate features and buried the site under compacted gravel.5 Matasi never saw the tunnel as a skate park again before he was murdered in 2005. In 2006, a group of determined skateboarders decided to dig the site out by hand and rebuild the park in Matasi’s memory, and have been carefully maintaining the space ever since (2011). Leeside has since been formally recognized by Vancouver’s parks and recreation department, (City of Vancouver) and has since gone undisturbed. To this day, Leeside remains one of the only covered skateparks in Vancouver, and one of a tiny few designated graffiti walls in the city (Robinson, 2011).6 For these features, Leeside exists in stark contrast—opposition, even— to the cultural discourse perpetuated by public art projects such as Spinning Chandelier or the mural festival

Any close inspection of the spaces around the chandelier or The Present is a Gift reveals graffiti. Every concrete pillar around the chandelier has multiple coats of paint, which hide evidence of graffiti. In the alleyways neighbouring the Belvedere, most surfaces that are not occupied by a mural are covered in graffiti. Graffiti plays an important role in the story of displacement and gentrification written on the walls near the chandelier or the Belvedere. It challenges and re-defines the purpose imposed on the space it occupies, and troubles the boundary between public and private (Halsey and Pederick, 2010, p. 96). Both Spinning Chandelier and The Present is a Gift fundamentally represent an appropriation of public space for the benefit of private property. They are technically “public” spaces, yet they are exclusive in their purpose of adding value to property. Thus, they impose a system of functional separation which reflects wider trends of centralized urban design (Ross, 2021, p. 4). Not only do murals function as a gentrification or re-branding tool, they also function as an effective deterrent for graffiti7 (Craw et al, 2006, p. 427). Graffiti-writers and skateboarders alike are heavily limited in their activities under most centralized urban design schemes, in that they are societally viewed as inappropriate or undesirable users of public space (Ross, 2021, p. 8). Graffiti, then, acts as a means of reclaiming public space, and a demand of public recognition of those excluded from said space (Craw et al, 2006, p. 424; Ferrell and Weide, 2010, p. 51).

Halsey and Pedrick observe that “the capacity to provide a space for unsanctioned activity, for a freedom of expression that impacts the surfaces of public property, seems outside the logic of post-industrial cities” (2010, p. 97). Indeed, the cultural risk and play at the heart of graffiti and skate culture acts in defiance of Vancouver’s curated, developer-focused public image (Ross, 2021, p. 12). Leeside is a unique space where this sort of “unsanctioned activity” can thrive. Its DIY nature makes it a microcosm outside of any system of urban design or intervention. It is independently built, maintained and altered by two of the most excluded and marginalized communities in urban society— united by their desire to claim a space as their own.

Having access to public art is integral to the spirit of Vancouver’s urban design, yet we are losing space in this city for organic cultural discourses to emerge from the ground up. Communities are being displaced as housing, studio, and venue costs steadily climb out of reach. Residents are being misrepresented and marginalized by an overwhelming trend of art being used as an institutionally-sanctioned means of building economic value for developers and property owners, rather than nurturing social identities. Spinning Chandelier and The Present is a Gift exemplify this trend; not only are they directly commodified as assets, they reorder their neighbourhoods and impose new place-identities under the guise of “culture.” And for all the talk of “energizing” and “revitalizing” that accompanies these sorts of installations, there is often little, if any, acknowledgement of all the living urban ecosystems which preceded the art— now annihilated and swept away to make room for more lucrative spaces. If Vancouver wishes to authentically present itself as a culturally diverse, vibrant city, it must do more than paint its walls and bejewel its bridges. The city must take a more active role in preserving and cultivating self-sanctioned artist spaces that are not at risk of redevelopment or rent hikes. Change and growth in Vancouver is inevitable, but the benefit of that growth cannot be exclusively assigned to those who see the superficial beauty of this city as something to own. We must fight for more than just beauty— we must fight for a city that we can all truly call our space, our community, our home.

This academic essay is licensed under Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC 4.0.


[1] Shortly after Gillespie’s Fight For Beauty exhibition started, a satirical website emerged, emulating Westbank’s corporate aesthetic and criticizing its cultural practices. See: The Real Fight for Beauty – Not by Westbank.

[2] The mural was designed and painted by VMF lead curator and co-founder, Drew Young. See:, and

[3] The VMF partnered with Westbank in 2017 to create Andy Dixon’s “Vancouver Studio (After Matisse)” on the site of Westbank’s future Main Alley tech campus, four blocks north of the Belvedere. See: Westbank, 2023. Vancouver Studio was also presented as the flagship mural for 2017’s mural festival, and has since been blocked from public view by the Main Alley development.

[4] “Creative” in this context refers to creative industries, such as media or tech firms. Both Mount Pleasant and Strathcona are seeing a trend of industrial buildings being refurbished for tech offices, see: McKee and Nugent, 2017.

[5] Skateboarding was illegal in Vancouver until the Vancouver Skateboarding Coalition successfully lobbied the City to legalize it in 2003, see:

[6] The ABC council pushed an aggressive graffiti-removal campaign when it was elected in 2021. Since then, artist organizations have been pressuring the City to expand designated graffiti spaces around the city, resulting in the unveiling of a new graffiti wall in an alleyway at 133 Pender street, see: Koselj, 2022.

[7] Graffiti artists have been observed to abide by a code of ethics, in that they generally will not tag houses, private vehicles, small businesses or other murals out of respect. See: Farrel and Weide, 2010, p.53


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Vol. 4 (2023)