From Al Quoz, Dubai, to Bushwick, Brooklyn, warehouse districts seduce art galleries with lower rent and the ultimate urban luxury: space. Vancouver, though short on industrial legacy, is no different. Equinox Gallery is one of more than 12 contemporary art galleries to select the Flats, a gritty yet up-and-coming patch of stubby concrete buildings, dusty auto shops, and railroad tracks clustered around East 1st Avenue between Main and Clark. Equinox made the move in 2012 after growing weary of its location on South Granville, Vancouver’s gallery row of yore. “I was looking for my perfect building for years when I saw this 13,000-square-foot space with 25-foot-tall ceilings and parking. It was raw, but immediately I leased it,” says Equinox owner Andy Sylvester.
An Etienne Zack oil painting portraying a labyrinth of redacted documents hangs on a stark wall in the Equinox gallery, née Finning Tractor & Equipment Company. The philosophical commentary on memory continues as far as the eye can see; the space is larger than the main floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery and is divided into two big galleries and three smaller viewing spaces. “The space allows us to merge the hierarchical boundary between what museums do and what commercial galleries do, so we can put on exhibitions that create a larger conversation about contemporary art,” says Sylvester.
“The centre of gravity in Vancouver is moving east. The Flats represent a perfect-storm scenario. We’ve reached a critical mass.”
The Flats is at a pivotal moment, with esteemed advocates of contemporary Canadian art including the Catriona Jeffries, Grunt, Winsor, Macaulay & Co. Fine Art, and Monte Clark galleries, as well as live/work artist studios, art suppliers, digital media startups, and the collaborative Centre for Digital Media. Factor in future resident Emily Carr University of Art and Design, which will relocate to a 45 per cent larger campus on Great Northern Way upon completion in 2016, and the Flats is on the verge of transitioning from an alternative arts hub to Vancouver’s premier creative district.
“The centre of gravity in Vancouver is moving east,” says Jennifer Winsor of Winsor Gallery, which relocated from South Granville to a former fish-packaging warehouse on East 1st Avenue in 2012. “The Flats represent a perfect-storm scenario. We’ve reached a critical mass.”
Serious collectors and free-access art seekers make the pilgrimage to the previously unheralded no man’s land; the common denominator in the Flats is dedication. “We don’t have the casual walk-by. We have people that are here with intent,” says Winsor. And according to Sylvester, “You have to figure out where we are—that’s part of the responsibility of being interested in art.”
In addition to more space and the edited crowd, the Flats has community synergy; the galleries are a stone’s throw from the studios of the artists they represent. “Say I have someone here looking at an artist’s work and I thought, ‘I know something they would love.’ Five minutes later, an artist can walk a piece in,” says Winsor.
It doesn’t hurt that cool upstarts Brassneck Brewery, 33 Acres Brewing Company, and Red Truck Beer have moved into the area, which also happens to be Vancouver’s historic brewery district, giving art habitués a place to congregate. “We welcome the breweries and restaurants. We need more,” says Sylvester. “You go to a gallery and you need a respite. You need to think; you need to drink.”