Vancouver’s Bau-Xi Gallery is celebrating its 50th year. Bau-Xi is something of an anomaly among art galleries, not least for its healthy lifespan. The gallery has been successful enough to expand to Toronto as well as the United States (in Seattle), the manifestations of a young immigrant’s dreams.
Gallery founder Paul Bau-Xi Huang moved to Vancouver from China at 22 and began working in a shingle mill, taking the highest paying job they offered, which was also the toughest, in hopes of saving enough to bring his family over from Hong Kong. Meanwhile, he attended night classes at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University). Once his family had safely arrived, he saved $600 and used it to rent a space beneath the Del Mar Hotel on Hamilton Street. That covered the first month’s rent, plus the costs of the opening party and the first exhibition, held April 22, 1965, showcasing works by ceramicist Wayne Ngan. The show went well—maybe too well. “His boss saw the notice in the paper and fired him,” says Xisa Huang, Paul’s former wife and co-owner of the gallery for 47 years. “It probably saved his life.”
With his day job gone, he adopted a blistering pace: a new show every two weeks. Xisa joined him three years later, and they held that speed for another 20. “There were so many artists who needed to be shown,” Xisa says. At that point the only other venue for emerging artists in Vancouver was the New Design Gallery. It was rewarding, but far from easy. “Oh, I had a couple of tearful sessions,” she recalls of their shaky start. But their strong work ethic pulled the couple through.
Exhibiting, Xisa says, isn’t the finish line for an emerging artist but an integral part of the creative process. It’s both an affirmation and a test. “When they put it on the wall and everybody else gets to see it, they have to stand back, see it with a fresh look, a self-conscious look,” Xisa explains. “That is a learning experience always.” An artist who works and works with no recognition will lose hope and quit. Ideally a show will bolster their confidence and temper their ego.
Paul himself is an accomplished artist. He studied calligraphy in China and adopted a western style of painting once in Canada.His work was highlighted in 1963 during a show at the Seattle Art Museum when he was one of only five artists, and the sole Canadian. Today he’s breaking ground using porcelain as a medium for paint: not painting pre-shaped vases and the like, but using panels of ceramic in lieu of canvas.
As a curator, Paul brought an artist’s sensibility to Bau-Xi. “You give the artists the opportunity,” Xisa says, “then they make the gallery.” They build relationships on trust and mutual respect, for both the artists and the clients. That just about sums up the secret of their success, Xisa says. “The quality of the art and the enthusiasm of the staff.”
If they treat their artists like family (there’s been about 150 over the years, Xisa estimates) then it’s no surprise that the gallery has always been a family affair. Paul and Xisa’s three children, Tien, Phen, and Lieng, grew up in the space. “The customers were wonderful about it,” Xisa remembers. “I had clients who’d come in and the first thing they’d do is go and pick up the baby, then they’d walk around and look at the show.” All three of those babies now work in the art world.
For the past 16 years Riko Nakasone (our “adoptive daughter,” Xisa calls her) has run the Vancouver gallery. Selecting artists, the women say, is somewhere between a science and an art. Technical skill is important, of course, but it’s not enough on its own. While you can learn technique, true vision can’t be faked. “If a painting is dead, no amount of craft or skill is going to make it a living, breathing painting,” says Riko.
“There is something ineffable,” Xisa adds. “If it interests you … it’s just exciting.”
That excitement has never left the gallery, not through the scrappy early years, and certainly not five decades later. “You get a lot of energy from the art,” Xisa says. “It’s never, ever boring.”
“If you’re not learning and changing, you’re moving backwards.” Riko adds.
Bau-Xi is a transliteration of Paul’s first name, Boo-Shi. In Mandarin it means “great gift.” And for Vancouver and its artists, that’s exactly what the gallery has been, and hopefully will be for another 50 years.
Photos by Grady Mitchell.