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Art & Architecture Departure of Vancouver Art Gallery’s director Kathleen Bartels a surprise to many

Kathleen Bartels, former director of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Kathleen Bartels was a stabilizing force when she joined the Vancouver Art Gallery as director in 2001 from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “She is intelligent and creative with superb leadership skills,” said then-board president Merla Beckerman in a news release.

Bartels quickly set her sights on the project that would define her tenure: a new building.

Expansion on the current site – a renovated 1906 courthouse – was deemed unfeasible and Bartels began the long haul of finding a new location for a purpose-built facility. She was passionate and driven – to a fault, some might say.

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Publicly, Bartels always appeared positive. But as obstacles continued in her way, the timeline kept moving back.

In a 2011 interview with BC Business, Bartels mused about having her gallery built in six or seven years. And then, she said, it would be time for new blood. “I want to have a wonderful exit,” she said.

That exit came as a surprise this week, and it is easy to conclude that it was not so wonderful, as Ms. Bartels, with her contract coming up for renewal, was suddenly no longer the gallery’s director.

In a public statement, board chair David Calabrigo said Bartels was leaving “to pursue other professional and personal interests.” The statement, titled “Honouring Kathleen Bartels for 18 Years of Service,” gushed about her achievements and transformative legacy. But that didn’t change the fact that she was abruptly no longer leading the place.

Bartels has accomplished a lot during her tenure, with increased membership and private donations and some excellent programming. She established an Institute of Asian Art (seen by some as an attempt to woo Asian money for her new gallery) and received many personal honours.

But the new gallery dominated her agenda. “This has been a tremendously long journey for me personally,” she told City Council in 2013, requesting land for the new site.

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Bartels faced public opposition from one of the city’s best known art collectors – one with deep pockets and political connections. Real estate marketer Bob Rennie was on the VAG’s board when Bartels joined the gallery – and then he wasn’t. The two famously do not speak. And Rennie floated an alternate idea to Bartels’ plan for a new gallery, suggesting smaller galleries be built throughout the city.

In another twist in this epic plot, one of the biggest supporters of the project – the developer, philanthropist and art collector Michael Audain, former chair of the VAG’s relocation committee – announced in 2012 that he was building his own museum in Whistler.

The city granted the VAG the land it requested, with conditions – among them, funding from the province and Ottawa. Deadlines have come and gone, and been extended. The money has not materialized. A conceptual design from the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron received mixed reviews.

But in January, the VAG finally had some good news to announce: a historic $40-million donation from the Chan family, bringing total private donations to $85-million for the now $380-million project (including endowment; more than $20-million has already been spent).

“I just think that Vancouver deserves this,” Christian Chan told The Globe afterward.

Some design alterations were revealed. Things appeared to be back on track.

But Bartels’s moment was short-lived. Days later, unionized VAG workers went on strike. “Bartels Resign” read one sign at a public rally. The criticism of VAG management extended beyond striking staff – artists and donors also spoke up.

The strike was settled after a week, but not to everyone’s satisfaction.

Still, gallery staff were in shock Tuesday about Bartels’s exit. But they were also comforted by news that her interim replacement would be Daina Augaitis, the highly respected former VAG chief curator and associate director.

Who runs the VAG might be considered inside baseball, but the future of the gallery will have an impact on Vancouver. The messaging around Bartels’s departure makes it clear the project is still on. “This is an exciting time … as we move toward a new, permanent home with a strong team in place,” concluded Calabrigo’s statement.

This week, Chan said “great progress” is being made with the federal and provincial governments. “We are very optimistic about some positive news to announce really soon,” he wrote to the Globe. “Kathleen is and continues to be a major force in that critical effort as a special adviser as she leaves the gallery to pursue her other interests.”

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