The AMS Permanent* Art Collection

*Next week, students will be asked to vote in a referendum to authorize the AMS to sell three works of art from its permanent collection. Didn’t know the AMS even had an art collection? We found an expert willing to explain it all, Kate Barbaria, last year’s AMS Art Gallery Commissioner.

So, here’s the deal: The AMS owns an astonishingly great collection of Canadian art, for a group of self-centred hacks who don’t give a shit about art and haven’t for the last 50 years, (as far as I can tell based on my research in the AMS archives).

About collections, in general

Most art institutions (galleries, museums, artist-run centres, etc.) have permanent collections that trace both the history of their particular institution, as well as the history of whatever art is being produced around them at the time. These permanent collections are amassed through donation and purchase. They can include anything from paintings, to sculptures, to videos, to written instructions for a curator. Sometimes (oftentimes, actually), the collection is a smattering of good and bad, quality and not-so-quality, important and crap. This, however, is not a “bad” thing. Curators should be reluctant to let go of anything in their collection, despite its perceived value. It should be difficult for the institution to deaccession (sell) works from a permanent collection because it is impossible to tell, in the present moment, the “cultural” value of the collection in part or whole. That is to say, a collection is not only its parts, but a sum of its parts–a record of what people were thinking, what they were buying, and what they were making. Just because something looks like shit doesn’t mean it should be got rid of, and just because something can be sold for a lot of money doesn’t mean that is its true value.

That being said, if an art institution is struggling, the collection is an asset, and if the primary goal of the institution is to support current artists by paying them for their work or funding grants, then they should probably mine the hell out of any assets they have to make that happen. The artists in the collection, after all, have already been paid.

About your permanent collection

The AMS Permanent Collection began in the early 50s when a group of professors decided that UBC students deserved an art collection as good as its university. Collecting was overseen by B.C. Binning, a prominent British Columbia artist, and the head of the Fine Arts Department at UBC, but chosen by students. This means that the early collection, which was hung in Brock Hall for many years, was developed by someone with CREDENTIALS. I mean this guy Binning really knew his shit. He would take students to visit local artist studios, would help the students liaise with them, would bargain down prices on pieces for the collection, and essentially got us a whole bunch of radical, really quality work in line with the narrative of Canadian painting that was being structured at the time.

When Binning retired in 1974, the torch was not passed on to another professor, but straight to the AMS. Awesome, right? Pretty much. But this is where that part about the possibilities of a good/bad collection come in. The AMS Permanent Collection, at this point, takes on some interesting characteristics. Students are teaching themselves how to collect, how to liaise, how to bargain with artists, which means that from 1974 to the present, the collection has some serious hight points, and some serious low points. But, like I said, the collection as a whole tells us a fascinating story not only about student interests in these years, and the struggles that they might have had finding artists who would work with them, but also about the state of Canadian art from the mid-70s to the present, about its ups and downs, its struggle to place itself in a discussion of contemporary art in North America.

What’s in it, more specifically

Currently, the AMS Permanent Collection has around 60 pieces. There is one piece of video art (by Marina Roy, a professor at UBC), one installation (by Abbas Akhavan, which goes with Roy’s piece), two photographs (one by Roy Arden, and one by Adam Harrison), a handful of sculptural works (including a giant ceramic watermelon by Gathie Falk, and a plexiglass cutout by Michael Morris, who has a show on at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery right this very moment), one work by a First Nations artists (Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun), one giant inflatable landscape by the N.E. Thing Company (please please don’t sell this one, AMS!!!! It’s my favourite), and a whole buncha paintings, drawings, and collages. Some of these paintings are by the Group of Seven, and some of these pieces are by their contemporaries.

The AMS Art Gallery has been collecting roughly one piece of art a year for the past 25 years, and for the 25 years before that, the collection was growing by several works per year. Last year, as the AMS Art Gallery Commissioner, I had to agree not to include money traditionally earmarked for collecting in the budget, for the second year in a row, in order to ensure that the AMS Artist in Residence program would continue. The AMS Artist in Residence program (begun by Art Gallery Commissioner Jeremy Jaud), is currently the only monetary award given out by the AMS Art Gallery, and it finances an art show for one artist or curator at the end of the school year.

The Commissioner is charged with showing the permanent collection two time per year. Last year it was shown three times (Neighbours; I’m A Debaser; Claude Breeze and Friends). The year before that, I’m not sure. Pieces from the collection have been showcased in exhibits at the Vancouver Art Gallery several times since collecting began.

It is clear that the Permanent Collection is not used to the advantage that its founders hoped it would be. It’s hardly ever seen, and its current storage conditions mean that it is deteriorating in an…unpleasant…manner. The AMS has poured a substantial amount of money into stabilizing the condition of the collection in the past two years, but it needs to spend even more if the collection is going to survive the next quarter century. That is being partially addressed by the new storage being designed for it in the new SUB, but many pieces need restoration before they can be shown at all.


Money for student artists? Great! Fix the collection? The current referendum doesn’t do that, nor does it solve, in my opinion, the financial struggles the AMS finds itself in. Selling pieces of the collection to fix the collection is a good idea. Selling pieces of the collection to pay for…something…is a weak promise at best.

Kate Barbaria was the AMS Art Gallery Commissioner 2010-11. She graduated from UBC in 2011 with a BA in Art History, with a minor in Medieval Studies. Kate co-curated “Faces” at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery and “Post No Bills: A Punk Rock Family Tree” at the Museum of Vancouver. Can do 9 pushups.


Comments are disallowed for this post.

  1. Well I am an engineer and don’t pretend to know anything about art. Also when I sat on council I didn’t pay enough attention to our collection, except to be vaguely worried about it whenever it was brought to my immediate attention.
    I didn’t expect that this vague dread would by triggered again by seeing a referenda that could potentially secure the future of the collection. At first I associated this with the thought of splitting up the collection. As I have thought more about it though it goes much deeper than that; it is, I think, about the implied lack of plan after getting permission to sell the art.
    I think its fair to say that in recent memory AMScouncil has not given much strategic thought to your art; they can’t really be faulted for that though since in their minds there are more pressing concerns to the society than how to administer the permanent collection. The job of worrying about it has been largely off loaded to the art gallery commissioner and occasionally the executive. A way they could start to fix that is to try to build some community around student centric art on campus. Then empower that community to manage your art so that it can be showcased and preserved. I think taking the long term future of the art out of the direct hands of council into the hands of those that care more about it would be a good first step in making me feel better about your art’s future.
    Now given that long term planing can start to take effect the remaining problem does come down to money. The obvious solution is to get donations to form the backbone of the endowment. The AMS already has a registered charity arm that would be perfect for raising funds for the preservation of your art. The main reason I expect that avenue hasn’t already been gone down is lack of drive to see it done, thankfully my idea of community building should cover that.
    Now as to the referenda itself, it’s not definitive one way or the other. That is to say that no course of action is locked in by you voting yes. All it is really doing is authorizing council to at some point, if they still choose, to sell 3 pieces of art. Which means that if they did form a long term plan that required them to sell some art they could without having to ask again. The down side to that is the lack of real codeifiable restrictions on how the money could be used; additionally the lack of time restriction on when the art would be sold, tomorrow or in a decade when everyone who passed the referenda graduated out of memory.

    So do I think you should vote yes? I truthfully don’t know.

    Do I think that you should demand council care more about your art, or at least let you do the caring for them? Decidedly Yes

    Posted by Julian Ritchie | January 21, 2012, 12:08 am
  2. Apologies there is an end date to the possible sale of art, Feb 28 2013
    consider the relevant statement retracted.

    Posted by Julian Ritchie | January 21, 2012, 12:37 am
  3. It seems to be a shame to sell off pieces of the collection. It also seems strange to require a referendum to enable the sale of pieces from the collection. There is rarely anything sacrosanct about holding a collection without at times selling some piece of it. If the purpose is to sell to put money into the AMS general funds – then that’s a really poorly thought out idea. If the idea is to reorganize the collection in accord with a clear long term idea and plans to publicly showcase the art, then that makes a little more sense.

    Posted by Charles Menzies | January 21, 2012, 8:10 am
  4. Charles, the AMS bylaws are what require a referendum for this question and for the Whistler Lodge.

    Bylaw 11(7): “Council shall not dispose of any land, buildings or improvements thereto, or art objects owned by the Society unless such disposition has been authorized by a Resolution of the Society.”

    It is a challenging requirement, since the AMS is only so-so at passing referenda. However, this was probably put in to prevent “self-centred hacks who don’t give a shit about art” from dismantling the collection.

    Posted by Neal Yonson | January 21, 2012, 10:16 am
  5. I helped hang all three of the permanent collection shows last year and from that experience I bet can make a pretty good guess as to why the collection has been shown so infrequently in years past.

    It is incredibly difficult to safely remove any of the works from storage due to the horrific conditions of the boxes the work is stored in. Last year five of the more valuable pieces got upgraded to fancy wooden crates, which was awesome, but the rest of the works are mostly still in boxes that feel like the bottoms could fall out at any moment which makes putting on a show difficult an other uses of the work impossible. It would be fantastic for a canadian art history class for example to be able to come to the gallery after hours and have the art gallery commissioner pull out some work for them to see first hand, as textbook reproductions are always inadequate. This unfortunately is unlikely to happen due to the risk it would impose on the art because of the shitty boxes.

    If the referendum passes and works are sold I would urge the ams to put a good chunk of that money (like ten grand at least probably) back into the collection to work towards solving the problem of the works being “expensive to insure and hard to display.” They should do this by consulting professionals at the Belkin or the Vancouver Art Gallery about industry standard storage practices and having new boxes built for all of the work. Maybe even we could upgrade from cardboard to something sturdier like chloroplast.

    With better boxes, the collection becomes immensely more accessible, heck, you might even be able to negotiate a better deal on insurance next time the collection is assessed. If the collection is a financial drain with not enough benefit for students, using money from the collection to support student artists or acquire new work, while both awesome activities, are not long term solutions.

    If you deaccession work because the collection has problems (as the referendum states) use that money FIRST to fix the problems of the collection! After that, do whatever. First buy boxes.

    Posted by Brendan Albano | January 21, 2012, 10:26 am
  6. Correction: one of the photographs is by Adam Harrison, not Adam Harris.

    Posted by Kate Barbaria | January 21, 2012, 10:52 am
  7. Brendan,

    The plan is to have the money from the endowment be overseen/administered by a committee made up of some professionals (Belkin director, etc), faculty, and students who study art. It could go towards the maintenance of the collection, acquisition of new work, and other funding for student art.

    The big issue is not that the collection is a financial drain (the insurance costs are some $9,000), but that the art is not being cared for, and that funding for arts is limited.


    Posted by Elin Tayyar | January 21, 2012, 11:19 am
  8. I would encourage the AMS to only sell work to improve the remaining collection or to help fund current artists. If the proceeds leave the art community, we, as a culture, continue on the path of diminishing the arts in general to solve other financial issues.

    Posted by steve barbaria | January 21, 2012, 12:05 pm
  9. Hey Elin,

    That is reassuring to hear!

    The referendum question does not discuss how the “AMS Arts Endowment Fund” will be administered, and says that it will be “used to purchase additional art and support other on-campus arts programming and initiatives,” making no explicit mention of the fund going towards the maintenance of the collection.

    This lack of clarity in the referendum question itself was the source of my alarm, and I certainly hope that, should the referendum pass, the way you have described the running of the endowment is how it ends up being run!

    Posted by Brendan Albano | January 21, 2012, 12:20 pm
  10. Steve: any money from the sale will go back to arts funding. We do not have financial issues. The problem that this question is looking to address is the lack of funding for the arts at UBC, and a lack of care for our impressive collection. The referendum legally binds the AMS to put all of the proceeds from the sale towards an Arts Endowment.

    Brendan: I understand that the question does not touch on all the specifics, like the committee structure, governance, etc. Those will all be done if the referendum passes. The question does bind us to spending the proceeds from the endowment specifically on Art. The rest will be hashed out if and only if the question passes.


    Posted by Elin | January 21, 2012, 3:53 pm
  11. It is such a classic neo-liberal move – sell possessions that one holds to pay for current expenses (pretty it up by placing funds in an endowment). One should not be surprised – it’s what most major governments (left or right) are doing – selling off assets and turning to market approaches. Ironically, raising cash in this fashion ultimate impoverishes our governing agencies and our society. While the individual pieces are not really separately important to keep, and while recognizing the bonanza like possibilities of selling off a few pieces, the real poverty of practice is that for years the collection (and by extension a lot of other public goods) has been allowed to languish. The first real hit was several decades ago when the galley was turned into a bar – that was the beginning of the end for the AMS collection which up until then had a permanent place for display. But the argument at that time was that the liquor sales would contribute to the AMS and maintain the art collection and student arts etc, etc, etc. … All things that are being said by this generation of students leaders.

    Posted by Charles Menzies | January 23, 2012, 7:20 am
Please vote for us in the Continuous VoterMedia Contest