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Getting to know Art Vancouver: Lisa Wolfin

As setup begins behind the scenes of Art Vancouver this week, the founder of the non-profit Vancouver Visual Art Foundation (VVAF) and the contemporary art fair, Lisa Wolfin, reminisces on where things began and her hopes for this year’s rendition. While Art Vancouver brings in crowds of tourists today as the biggest contemporary art fair in Western Canada, it was once just a spark of inspiration that the artist and ex-fashion designer had yet to act on. 

Lisa Wolfin being interviewed
Lisa Wolfin interviewed at Art Vancouver 2023

I sat down with her last week to discuss the fine balance of hard work, determination and luck that brought about Art Vancouver, which is now entering its eighth edition in the city.

Having found great success in fashion early on in her career and later in the art world, Wolfin had long held the desire to have a gallery space of her own. Prioritizing time with her three children when they were younger, it wasn’t until Lisa noticed an underutilized space at the

Hollyburn Country Club that she began making steps in that direction. 

After talking to the club and having them agree to let the walls be used as a gallery space, she began reaching out to artists in and around the Greater Vancouver Area to see who might be interested in having their work displayed. Artists were eager to be involved, given that rent prices in the city prove difficult for sustaining enough gallery space. Even still, this process brought her into connection with several artists that would later aid in finding talent for Art Vancouver.

It wasn’t until her husband, who worked in Toronto, invited her that she began visiting art fairs in the area, arriving at the realization that this was something the Vancouver art scene could use. 

There are three different types of art fairs: those for artists, those for galleries and shows that combine the two. Toronto has all three types, and with Lisa’s inspiration building, she realized just how much something like this could build opportunities for British Columbians, Canadians and global artists. With her experience curating Hollyburn Country Club, she had already begun to build a growing network of artists and the skills to further the dream.

Returning to Vancouver, Lisa started figuring out how she could turn this dream into a reality, starting with a feasibility test and researching how these things operate. 

Lisa Wolfin and the Art Vancouver team in Korea
Lisa Wolfin and the Art Vancouver team in Korea

I ask Lisa now, “What was the hardest thing when you were starting out?” 

Without missing a beat she responds, “Well, you don’t know anything.” And we both laugh. 

Despite some of the knowledge Wolfin brought from her background, she had never produced a show before. “Where do you get the people sitting at the door checking people in?” She continues, “Where do you get all the attendees? Where do you get volunteers? How do you produce a show?”

From this initial conception of the show in 2013, it would be another two years before Lisa worked through the answers to those questions.The early days of those two years included many long days and nights of sending out emails with the help of friends and Lisa’s daughter, Taisha. The women sent out emails to artists and galleries to let them know about the new contemporary art fair. They spread the word at other art fairs they attended, just getting the message out in the hope there would be as much interest as Lisa’s research suggested there would be. 

She admits there was a definite element of luck with people starting to register to exhibit.

Thanks to her background in fashion, Lisa knew how to reach out to media outlets to let the public know about the event. They started plastering the town in postcards and posters, which started bringing in sponsors and more interested artists. 

“You know, one day I got a phone call from Australia, a guy from the newspaper, saying, ‘I just want to know why I should tell everyone here in Sydney why they should drop everything and fly over to Vancouver for this event.’” 

She wondered how he even found out about the show. He was just doing some Googling and the show popped up. 

German Vogue then contacted her for a travel article about Vancouver. “So, the first year was all these shocking, ‘How’d you hear about us?’ moments,” Lisa says.

Lisa Wolfin being interviewed at Art Vancouver
Lisa Wolfin interviewed at Art Vancouver 2019

Among the many challenges of creating an event like this was the fact that many galleries were unwilling to take on the risk of taking part in an art fair in its first year. The result was that Art Vancouver became an event that featured more individual artists than galleries. 

Since that first show in 2015, Art Vancouver has had its fair share of success stories. After the thrill of selling lots of work at the fair itself, one Argentinian artist was commissioned by a couple who brought him to their Hawaiian estate to paint what he wanted for a month. From there the couple took him to Miami, contacting galleries and consulates until he was so busy that he couldn’t attend all the shows interested in exhibiting his work. That artist has now received a lifetime achievement award in Argentina.

The wife of that same couple sponsored young Los Angeles artist Skylar Grey. At the time, he was still an emerging artist, but by the age of 23, his artwork was selling for $60,000, and Ferrari commissioned him to paint one of their cars. His work became known to the extent that he was now working for rappers and actors.

Others have found similar success through the connections built at the contemporary art fair, but they’re not the only ones building connections. As international artists attend the fairs, Lisa and her team have been invited to attend art fairs in several countries where they have fostered strong relationships with local artists and galleries. 

The future hope is that, like some of the other cities in the world, Lisa will be able to foster an art week that brings more tourists to Vancouver and provides a bigger platform for local artists.

I asked Lisa if she thinks not knowing how these first few years would go helped her get this show off the ground, and the answer was a resounding “yes.” 

“You can’t think about it,” she says, “You just have to do it.” She shares with me a sentiment of her late father’s, “When you don’t know where you’re going you’re spinning around. ‘Should I go this way, this way, this way, this way?’ But the minute you go, ‘I’m gonna go through that door,’ you know where you’re going.” 

In some fortuitous manner, Lisa points and as she is saying this, the door in the lobby we’re sitting in opens. Hopefully, a good omen that this year’s show, which is opening later this week, will open doors for both the artists and galleries involved.

By Annalisse Crosswell

Looking for a sneak peak at what this years Art Vancouver will look like? Here's a brief video summary of the event from past years:


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