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The University Art Centre opened December 4th, 1948 as a result of the efforts of the University Fine Arts Committee, the Visual Arts Committee and thanks to a gift from the University Chapter of the I.O.D.E (Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire). The gift was meant not only to create the University Art Centre but also for the purpose of establishing a memorial to the late Dean Mary L. Bollert who was an Honorary Regent of the Chapter. It was hoped that: "With this Art Gallery and Art Workshop providing the stimulus, new artistic sensibility will be developed and new creative gifts will be uncovered that will enrich and heighten the repute of the University, the City and the Province. And in due course, that will enrich life and improved fame will create fresh demand for further artistic growth for, first, a University Chair in Art and, ultimately, a University Department of Fine Arts."
The Centre was located in the basement of the North Wing of the Main Library and operated under the direction of the University Fine Arts Committee. It served as an exhibition space and educational centre until the Fine Arts Department was established in 1955, when it became the UBC Fine Arts Gallery. After the Department’s creation it assumed responsibility for the Gallery, and in 1962 Alvin Balkind became curator.
Mr. Balkind focused resources on experimental programming in art, design and curating. His tenure (1962-1973) coincided with the emergence of Vancouver's awareness of international contemporary art, and he was integral in fostering this awareness by bringing a number of influential contemporary artists to the city such as Ray Johnson. When he left, the gallery almost closed because it had flourished through his energy rather than through university funding. However, in 1975 Glenn Allison became director and he initiated a program of commissioning artists to conceive site-specific installations for the space. He also continued Alvin Balkind's focus on contemporary art.
In 1989, Scott Watson, the current gallery director, was appointed and has continued the legacy established by Balkind and Allison, making Vancouver a premier centre for contemporary art in Canada. Between 1950-1987 there were many attempts to have a dedicated gallery built on University grounds but none up to that point were realized. This changed in 1987 when Mrs. Helen Belkin presented the university with a considerable monetary gift. The university matched her gift in order to create the building budget, which was put towards the construction of a new gallery. In 1995, construction was completed and the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery was opened. The building itself was designed by Vancouver architect Peter Cardew and has received international acclaim for its architectural innovation.
The gallery is not comprised of any Board or legislated advisory committee, but operates as an academic unit of the University. Before 1990 the official director of the gallery was the Head of the Fine Arts Department, although in practice the curator was responsible for the direction and operation of the gallery. The realities of the situation initiated a process through which the gallery became an independent unit, monitoring its own budget and answering directly to the Dean of Arts rather than to the Fine Arts Department. After 1990 the gallery curator officially became Director and an independent entity from the Fine Arts Department.
The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery's mandate is to research, exhibit, collect, publish, educate and develop programs in the field of contemporary art and in contemporary approaches to the practice of art history and criticism. The gallery is not limited to particular media or disciplines; however, it places special emphasis on the areas of the Canadian avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, the international network developed at the time and its role in the art of today, emerging artists, Vancouver's post-war history, and practices and projects that challenge the status quo including exhibition concepts initiated by artists. Since 1992, the gallery has also been responsible for the University Art Collection. The Gallery's operations, exhibitions, programs and acquisitions are funded in part by the UBC Faculty of Arts, the Belkin Family Foundation Operating Endowment, the Belkin Gallery Endowment for Acquisitions and Exhibitions, private and corporate sponsorship and government arts funding agencies.