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‘Optimistic’ Vancouver Art Gallery awaits city’s decision on land Add to ...

A decision is imminent, if slightly overdue: Soon the Vancouver Art Gallery – and the rest of us – will learn whether it has persuaded the city to award a prime piece of downtown land to the gallery. Known as Larwill Park, the land is currently a parking lot bordered by Cambie, Georgia, Dunsmuir and Beatty.

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The speculation is rampant: The gallery will get the land; it will get the land with caveats; it will be granted an extension; gallery officials are jumping through hoops to prove they have met the requirements laid out by the city more than two years ago.

At the VAG, the mood feels genuinely upbeat – not just brave-face upbeat – with the city report expected within the next four weeks.

“We feel very, very optimistic that the decision will be a positive one,” gallery director Kathleen Bartels said Friday.

“This dialogue we’re having [with the city] is very positive,” board chair Bruce Wright added.

On Feb. 1, 2011, Vancouver City Council voted unanimously to reserve two acres of the block for two years, giving the VAG time to make its case for that land, where it wants to build a 300,000-square-foot gallery.

“The solution will lie, I think, in a quick and thorough and timely process that engages the community,” Councillor Geoff Meggs said at that meeting.

Quick and timely may not have come to pass, with the two-year deadline having come and gone, and the community engagement is a question mark, but Mr. Meggs says city staff have been thorough.

“They’ve done more work on this and more reviews and sought more outside advice than on almost any other process in recent years, except the Olympic Village,” he said Friday.

Two years ago, the city instructed the gallery to meet several objectives, including: demonstrate “rigorously and transparently” a viable business case; show broad support from the public and cultural community; provide evidence that Larwill Park is the best option; and demonstrate its ability to raise the estimated at $300-million to build it.

Ms. Bartels said that from the gallery’s perspective, it has met all the requirements. On the business plan, she pointed to a study the VAG commissioned from Lord Cultural Resources, which concludes, she said, that a Larwill Park VAG would be operationally sustainable. The report may be rigorous, but it’s difficult to know, as it has not been released to the public (other than a leak to a journalist). Not exactly transparent.

On the question of the gallery’s location, Ms. Bartels said the city has commissioned “numerous studies” in the past two years looking at various potential sites. The studies “clearly stated” that Larwill Park is the right site, she said.

And then there’s the key question of whether the VAG is able to raise the money to build a new gallery, estimated (for years now, without an increase for inflation) at about $300-million. The VAG has $50-million in the bank from the province, and has lined up a further $40-million, but beyond that, gallery officials say, it’s very difficult to raise money – or even demonstrate that it can raise the money – without having secured the land.

“You can’t go to these people a million times and you can’t go to them with hypothetical situations,” Mr. Wright said.

Added Ms. Bartels: “We need a site, because otherwise it’s a theory, it’s a maybe. People don’t want to support a maybe.”

It seems certain that a blow to the gallery’s fundraising plan has been the decision by philanthropist/art collector Michael Audain – once chair of the VAG’s relocation committee – to build his own gallery in Whistler, taking his art collection – and his fortune – with him (although not all of it, in either case). He still supports the move, and remains chair of the VAG foundation, but he has said he wants to see his collection housed properly in his lifetime. That doesn’t suggest a great deal of faith in seeing a new VAG anytime soon.

But Ms. Bartels said “Michael remains extraordinarily committed to realizing a new Vancouver Art Gallery. I don’t think that story’s over.”

In terms of broad support, more than 200 people from the visual arts community have signed an online petition calling for a new VAG.

And last month, the city held two meetings with stakeholders – an intimate session with high-level visual art authorities, and a larger meeting with cultural leaders where, although she was not in attendance, Ms. Bartels understands the response was very positive.

But demonstrating public support is another matter. When asked about this, Mr. Wright pointed to the VAG’s large membership base and conversations board members have had in the community. Beyond that, when pressed, Ms. Bartels said the city asked the VAG not to engage in that exercise. “They wanted to handle the public process side of it; the public consultation side of it. It’s been in their court,” she said.

Mr. Meggs said he hasn’t heard a single person say there’s no case for expansion.

But what that expansion looks like is another matter. Opposition to the VAG’s plan has come from condo marketer and art collector Bob Rennie, who, in a final effort to sway the decision, sent a package to city hall this week, arguing that the VAG has not met at least four of the city-imposed conditions, and that raising the money for a new gallery will be exceedingly difficult.

Whatever happens next, it is certainly too late for timely; this is a discussion that has been going on for more than a decade, and has at times been polarizing, political and even ugly. Community engagement – certainly in the past two years – has been underwhelming.

Now, says Mr. Wright, it is time to move forward. “If we don’t seize on this opportunity, there might not be another opportunity to have a beautiful, splendid gallery in the downtown core.”

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