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The indelible history of West Van's New Design Gallery
When the New Design Gallery opened in West Vancouver, contemporary art was anything but popular, especially among “stuffy” Vancouverites who preferred traditional landscapes over abstract designs.
That was 57 years ago, a time when brave people were still settling into communities as they pioneered the rugged North Shore. But a close-knit group of artists who were ahead of their time — especially in Canada — built homes on vacant forested lots in West Van, creating an artistic hub for those pushing creative boundaries.
Strongly influenced by Europe, modern art was just emerging on the scene in British Columbia. When the New Design Gallery launched in 1955 on the 1400-block of Marine Drive above a jewelry studio, a crowd gathered but few people actually bought anything, Bill Koochin recalls as he examines a wooden sculpture of his that was shown at the gallery on opening night.
Bringing back fond memories from the past, the West Vancouver Museum is currently showing paintings and sculptures once displayed at the New Design Gallery in an exhibit that runs until Sept. 15.
Leading the way, the New Design Gallery was one of the very first galleries in Canada to be dedicated exclusively to modern art.
It filled a niche when it opened in West Van in the mid-1950s. North Shore artists, who were becoming well known on the West Coast and internationally, had few opportunities to exhibit and sell their work locally.
“There was hardly any money in art at the time,” says Koochin, as he strolls around the museum pointing at friends’ paintings he hasn’t seen in more than five decades.
“If anyone made $100 it was a big story, but still we all enjoyed being artists.”
But the scene was about to change for these artists, allowing a certain few to make a living at their craft.
In December 1955, shortly after arriving in Vancouver from the United States, Alvin Balkind and Abraham Rogatnick opened the gallery.
Having studied art and design at university, and influenced by local architects Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey, they brought new perspectives about contemporary art to the Lower Mainland, an area that lagged behind Europe in the art scene.
“The gallery was very instrumental in promoting art,” explains Koochin, adding that although people didn’t buy much at first, they were still being exposed to design they weren’t used to.
The New Design Gallery showed other North Shore artists, including Gordon Smith, Bill Mayrs, B.C. Binning, Zoltan Kiss and Don Jarvis.
Their paintings can currently be seen at the West Vancouver Museum, much in the same way they were almost 60 years ago, three blocks away at the New Design Gallery.
“Being an artist back then was much different than today; they weren’t as accepted in the community. But there seemed to be a lot of artists here, especially in West End rooming houses,” says Koochin, adding that he was one of few contemporary artists who did sculpture instead of painting.
The gallery received attention across Canada, including in the local papers.
“I herewith stick my neck forward at an unbecoming angle and say that even the most discriminating shopper among us will find a gift that would be acceptable to the most discriminating recipient,” wrote Vancouver Sun columnist Penny Wise soon after the grand opening.
The New Design Gallery served as meeting spot for North Shore artists for three years, until it moved downtown on West Pender Street, where it merged with the newly formed Arts Club.
For more information about the current exhibit, visit westvancouvermuseum.ca. Bill Koochin’s sculptures, including his newest “portrait masks,” can be seen at billkoochinsculptor.com.