When Equinox Gallery—one of Canada’s best-established galleries, and a longstanding benchmark of Vancouver’s art scene—announced its 50th anniversary, earlier this year, I did a double-take. I couldn’t fathom a program as energized as Equinox’s going back so far. (When such deep anniversaries are celebrated by Canadian galleries, they tend to be our country’s tenacious and self-starting artist-run-centers.) But indeed, Equinox was established as a private gallery by the late and much beloved Elizabeth Nichol in 1972, entering—and ultimately helping evolve—a more regionally-focused Vancouver. Nichol’s first show included Jean Paul Lemieux, David Milne, Paul-Émile Borduas, and Roy Lichstenstein, and she would go on to represent legends-in-the-making like Gordon Smith, Dempsey Bob, Fred Herzog, and Bill Reid.
In the early ‘80s, the gallery’s current owner / director Andy Sylvester joined. With little experience, Sylvester began to learn and harness the gallery’s ropes. Over the course of forty years, he—along with co-director Sophie Brodovitch, who joined in 2008—have evolved the program to attract canonical figures like Gathie Falk. In establishing its significant representation of artist estates (which now includes Jack Shadbolt and Harold Town, alongside Smith and Herzog), the gallery’s commitment to the long arc of an artist’s career has become its calling card.
Across several sweeping conversations, Sylvester and Brodovitch spoke about charting a successful gallery through a gentrifying landscape, and navigating at least two recessions and several moves. They both agreed that “editor” is among the most important roles they play, with respect to their artists, and that at the end of the day, “you have to run it like a business.” As Brodovitch notes, though, certain things don’t change. “So much of what we do is regional. […] I think we’re all remarkably tied to the place that either we’re from, or that we are in.”
—Sky Goodden, Publisher and Editor, Momus
Andy, you started in 1981, and the gallery started nine years before that. Do you have a sense of the scene in Vancouver, both when you started and when the gallery was founded? What kind of landscape or conversation was Equinox Gallery entering into when it started?
Andy Sylvester: When I got to Vancouver in 1980, I had to try to get a cultural lay of the land. I could see that Vancouver was full of energy and possibilities and that it was supported by different templates, from the artist-run centers like Western Front to the Vancouver Art Gallery to UBC’s Fine Arts Gallery. These were all extremely influential in a thriving artistic ecosystem. There were several private galleries presenting new work to Vancouverites—not only Equinox but also Ace Gallery, Bau-Xi—these were in terrific locations, as well as in good mental spaces.
That’s a nice way to put it, knowing how good a scene is by the mental spaces it produces.
AS: It was a time of optimism and collaboration … and then a recession came right after that, which wasn’t so much fun.
I want to better understand your origin story with Elizabeth and who was she to you when you began.
AS: When I landed in Vancouver after a year of traveling and photographing throughout North America, I needed a job. I went for an interview with Elizabeth, and we hit it off immediately. Elizabeth was always interested in art, inquisitive about the world at large, and believed that Vancouver needed to have more cultural venues. She and her husband John Nichol were involved with the political and social networks of old-school Vancouver. She understood clients while I understood the art-making part. But even as a newcomer to a commercial gallery, I recall walking into her space on West Eighth Avenue and being overcome with the view of the city. Even then, I thought when you walk into a commercial space, you need to be wowed by the art first. I always remember that’s why I wanted to move the gallery out of there.
The landscape was competing with what was going on inside the walls.
AS: Completely! I would say Liz would agree with me if she was alive. Elizabeth’s original space was designed for a different time; the collectors that she had access to were quite a smaller group. And so that kind of positioning of the space may have suited their view. But it soon became apparent that it was very limiting for artists and for expanding our audiences.
So when you inhabited the space, did you understand immediately what the vision was for the gallery? Or was it still being molded?
AS: Elizabeth had longstanding represented artists who were very loyal to her and definitely a part of the program. And then there were immediately all kinds of other artists who were interested in showing with her as well, because the Vancouver commercial gallery world was very small.
One of the unique things she did was to feature international art that she would buy and exhibit—this was influential work that immediately appealed to a different crowd. She would show Helen Frankenthaler and David Hockney and Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and that immediately got a different crowd to come and see the work. That was an important strategy for developing her clientele. Unlike a lot of gallerists, she had capital and could buy inventory. So the secondary-market aspect of her business was present from the start, and there was no one else doing that. There were no auction houses at the time.
It’s interesting to look at the roster now and to see so many legends. Was there a kind of legendary tier embedded in that roster from the beginning?
AS: That’s an interesting question. But yes. Like Takao Tanabe, who had shown with Elizabeth since 1974; he brought an audience. Whenever he had an opening, it was a big deal, and continues to be. And then [once] we were sitting there and Gathie Falk came in and said, “I want to show with you.” Falk also brought a different crowd, and a group of loyal collectors. And Bill Reid, he was pursued by many when he decided he wanted to expand his audience to engage in a much broader conversation with his art, and show in a gallery that was not exclusively for Indigenous art. So I worked with him very closely for about ten years. Soon after he joined the gallery in the ’80s, one of Elizabeth’s friends wanted to commission Bill to create an outdoor sculpture, on the scale of an ambitious public artwork. I sat in the office with Liz and Bill Reid, and this couple said, “Bill, you know, we’d like to commission you to do this piece … how much do you need?” At that time, there was no public money for such projects, it was all private. I got to watch the entire process unfold from, literally, a cocktail conversation to a multimillion-dollar, ten-year project.
This was one of your big educations?
AS: Yes, that was a very good education because I observed how the collectors dealt with it, how the institutional bureaucracy handled it, and how the artist made it all happen, from building a team and hiring people to getting a foundry in New York. And someone had to go there to check the patina, and that was me. Bill was not only a great artist; he was really knowledgeable and strategic. He had worked at CBC as an announcer, so he understood hierarchy and communications. And, bridging the Haida and Western worldviews, he could excite people and make things happen just by speaking about them from a personal perspective. It was truly remarkable to learn from him.
That’s a powerful starting point.
AS: My other main education was watching Gathie Falk work. When she wants something, she is absolutely determined: “This is what’s going to happen.” And also, thanks to once being late for Gathie—just fifteen minutes, but seeing how offended she was—I’ve never been late for another studio visit in forty years.
Oh, wow, learned in good time! [laughs] Sophie, how do you see your role onto your artists? And what was your start like?
Sophie Brodovitch: I came to this after having completed the master’s curatorial program at UBC and had curated at a public gallery. But work-wise, I came from the film industry that calls on you to serve in so many different capacities: producer, business manager, lawyer, agent.
For our role with artists, you can act as all of these things in different capacities, but I think editor is probably the most important role you’re playing. If you can get to that point with an artist of being a trusted editor, that’s going to be the single best work you can do for them. I suppose there is a parallel to the film producer, whereas in a gallery, you become the person who puts the artwork out into the world, framing its reception for the collector and broader audience.
AS: I would add that I think editing is the most undervalued criteria that galleries have; it’s essential to many artists’ careers. It’s really important, and really difficult. And one of the things that one learns over time is the relationship that Sophie talked about: artists, like clients, also have to acquire a level of trust in your judgment.
I gave a talk to students recently, and they were very surprised to learn how involved we are in the studio, the back-and-forth conversation about history and context, and how to construct an exhibition out of what one finds in a studio. We shape a narrative around the work that can be understood by collectors of all different types and depths. To have potential clients take the time to come in and look at artworks today requires nuanced and individualized language. And that level of trust in your judgement is as essential to gain with your clients as it is with your artists.
You’re carrying two worlds in balance. Speaking of which, it’s important that we talk about estates. Your gallery is somewhat unique in representing quite a few estates, and I know that requires a certain amount of resources and great deal of attention and sensitivity. Estates are something that, as we know, the art world does very unevenly. The responsibility must be enormous. Can you talk about how you carry that responsibility?
AS: It’s important work that can build or ruin an artist’s career. If done improperly, it can be very damaging for the family or estate. I had a trial by fire when Jack Shadbolt died. Equinox never represented him during his life, but when Jack died, his wife Doris Shadbolt—a brilliant art historian, author, and curator—asked me if Equinox could represent the estate. So, of course, I said yes and went out to the studio, and the editing process that Doris had with respect to Jack’s work—it was remarkable.
AS: [gesticulates three columns] Yes. No. Maybe. Jack was a self-confident man and hadn’t thrown much out, and Doris had reserved comment as an expert in her own right and seemed very ready to edit the work. In control of the estate, she moved quickly and decisively, especially with the no pile.
Some artists are very, very good at editing their work, and many are not. Maintaining a high quality of what enters the marketplace is essential. You must also be prepared to contextualize the work in exhibitions, publications. The great thing about most of the estates we handle is that these artists were, for the most part, very clear before they passed away that “this is how we want it to work.” It is a tremendous responsibility to deliver on these expectations, and it’s also fascinating to figure out how you manage these over time.
What is the constant of running a successful gallery for fifty years? What is yours, Andy?
AS: It’s three things that are equally important. It’s about fostering long-term relationships with artists and growing and adapting with them. Secondly, it’s about understanding that there are many audiences, and they change—we must be attentive to their needs in terms of space, program, language, communication, cordiality. And, as a small business, you need a business plan and must follow good business practices. I learned, from watching Elizabeth, to pay artists first and pay your bills—always—or you won’t be in business for long.
I do want to touch on the changing landscape of Vancouver. I think a good way into this might be through the more personal lens of Sophie joining the gallery. Sophie, when did you join?
So, what was the scene? Was there a recession in full blow?
SB: There was about to be a complete meltdown of the entire real-estate world in the United States, and the financial world went into a giant hole. I didn’t have a clear idea of how the private sector functioned when I joined. In some ways that was a blessing because I wasn’t settled into a prescribed way of doing things.
AS: Yet, partly because of her history in the film industry, and definitely because of her enthusiastic personality, we still worked at full speed, presenting nine solo shows and three group shows a year. Up and down, no down time. The energy Sophie brought and still brings is amazing. What was also nice is that we developed an “Ideas” folder, and we’ve drawn on that a lot over the years.
I also wanted to think through some of the connective tissue within the roster. Mitch Speed wrote about a show that Sophie curated in 2019 that paired B. C. Binning, Renée Van Halm, and Devon Knowles, and I was just rereading this paragraph that got to something at the heart of Equinox, I think:
Throughout the last seventy-odd years, a language of painting and sculpture has developed in Vancouver, rooted in a Bauhaus-inflected integration of fine art, architecture, engineering, and design. A central figure in this tradition, B.C. Binning taught for many years at the University of British Columbia, whose department of Fine Arts he founded. Renée Van Halm has spent a career making devoted, albeit critical, paintings, sculptures, and installations, reflecting on architecture and its cultural use. In various ways, the youngest of these three, Devon Knowles, deploys architectonic forms in sculpture. The resultant works are like ghost images of the urban landscape; they reanimate histories, held in architectural form and surface.
I want to understand how you were thinking about those lineages yourself, and how they emerged for you.
SB: I was thinking about several different generations of Vancouver artists who all consider their urban environment. I love B. C. Binning’s approach from the postwar period that is simple in its geometric abstraction, yet whimsical, almost childlike, in some of his constructions, seeing the city through these lines. Renée Van Halm’s studio looks from an industrial area towards what is now Olympic Village, and you can really see how her works from around then—2009—were so informed by all of these changing structures in front of her windows with all these layers of construction happening on top of one another. Devon Knowles is working with the transformation of the city—looking at sites in the cities and tracing their changes and transforming them into a completely different materiality: stained glass. I was very happy to have Mitch Speed offer a different language and a new depth to this association.
Is there a thread that you can see forming among some of your artists in terms of responding to the urban environment of Vancouver, especially?
SB: It’s hard not to be influenced by what’s around us. And it seems to also appeal to audiences to see how artists make sense of this place that we all share: Fred Herzog, Marten Elder thinking about light in the context of LA. But then I look at somebody like Angela Grossmann, who we’ve just started working with, and her work is part of a different narrative around the female body and other excluded bodies. Or Shawn Hunt’s figurative explorations. In a certain sense, I’m also looking for works that are outside prevailing tendencies.
Jeff Wall makes an observation in his catalogue essay for the 2011 Fred Herzog book, Photographs [the essay later appeared in Vancouver Magazine] that he doesn’t “think we can have a photographer like Fred Herzog now.” I gather he meant that the city Fred was photographing, that in turn made his practice so indelible, was gone. Both the subject and the framework that it inspired were gone. But then I think about some of these younger artists that you’re working with, the line that you can trace from Herzog to them is still visible.
SB: I agree that our artists are acknowledging a sense of place with its historic conditions. This reflects the time we are in.
One of the through lines is that most things have a local dimension to it. For example, we seriously consider local audiences—we’re here. If you look at all the commercial galleries in North America, the majority of them are working with clients and artists within a hundred kilometers of their location. So much of what we do is regional. There are of course some major galleries that work internationally but for the most part, I think we’re all remarkably tied to the place that either we’re from, or that we are in.
I think that’s true. Vancouver is a special case, though. Vanessa Kwan, director of grunt gallery, recently reflected: “We really suffer from people not being able to afford to work and live here.” How do you see this reality impact a reliance on the regional?
SB: Yes, affordability is a huge issue for so many in Vancouver. We’ve seen a large exodus, maybe fifteen years ago, when many moved away, and then slowly some began moving back. Some now live in further, more affordable reaches of the Lower Mainland. Other have moved further but stayed with the province: Sonny Assu went back to his traditional territories; Shawn Hunt is on the Sunshine Coast, where he is able to raise his family in proximity to his extended family.
The gallery moved for a second time in 2021. What was that like, reducing your size?
SB: When we moved from the original location on Granville Steet to Great Northern Way, behind Emily Carr [University of Art + Design], we started from scratch. It was first meant to be a short-term project space, but the location worked so well, and people loved it, so we took it on as our main, and only, location. Its scale was impressive, but it lacked intimacy where you could install just one single thing, say a secondary-market work you wanted to highlight. And sometimes that’s all you want to do.
And the interaction with that space from the public was surprising at times. Because it was a monumental space, I suppose visitors felt it must be a public space. People would ask, “How come you’re not charging for entry?” The annoyed phone calls, emails … “Why are admission prices not listed on the website?” At least we had a good comeback! It’s always nice to be able to say: “It’s free, please come by.”
[laughs] That’s fascinating—people want to pay to establish a sense of ownership over the experience, or something. Otherwise maybe there’s some kind of social contract that feels opaque.
SB: Right. So when we moved to Commercial Street in 2020, we were able to adapt that experience to how we built it. But also, I don’t know if it’s the neighborhood or timing, but there’s a much different, very amiable respect for the space and for what we’re doing.
Is there a gallerist who holds the model for how you’re trying to do things?
SB: Being a gallerist and believing that it’s worth doing takes a confluence of things, including support, appreciation, hard work, vision, and just perseverance to make things happen. There’s no specific model gallery that we look to. Everyone is unique in dealing with their opportunities and challenges. But I look to Gathie Falk when it comes to life in general. There’s someone who does exactly what she wants to do. And for no other reasons than it has to be done, and it is worth doing.
You erected an exhibition last summer called 50 years | 50 stories. How did you begin the process of choosing what stories to tell?
SB: We just came up with the question of, “What if we picked fifty artworks and told stories about them?” So all five of us in the gallery began writing these stories from a personal perspective, and the response to that was amazing. The stories seemed to humanize aspects of gallery life, for both ourselves and for our artists. Sometimes we blend into the background, behind the desks at the gallery, so I think this project reinforced the individuality of each of us and put to paper the fact that we really enjoy what we do, and that we have feelings about the artists and about the work.
Do you have a sense of why you’ve been successful where others haven’t, or advice for how to survive?
SB: I’m very fortunate that Equinox has an existing model in place that I can build from. I have the value of older voices and the encouragement of talking things through and the amazing history of seeing things through despite the ups and downs. In terms of advice … it’s tough to say specifically. I think you just do what you do, and you do it with as much honor, integrity, and goodwill as you can.