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Art & Architecture Future of a new Vancouver Art Gallery building uncertain amid lack of private funding

Installation view of the Guo Pei: Couture Beyond exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Rachel Topham

Rihanna wore a magnificent yellow gown and cape to the Met Gala in 2015, and a star was born. Not the singer herself – she was already A-List – but the voluminous cloak’s designer, Guo Pei.

Since October, visitors to the Vancouver Art Gallery have been able to see that 55-pound cape (One Thousand and Two Nights, 2010) and dozens of other intricate and spectacular designs by the Beijing-based designer at the exhibition Guo Pei: Couture Beyond.

It is the VAG’s first fashion exhibition and it appears to be a success. Each time I’ve stopped in, the space has been buzzing with visitors. While the gallery can’t yet provide hard statistics, it says the show is doing well, both in terms of attendance and engagement.

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This exhibit featuring glittery, opulent dresses for the very wealthy comes as the VAG is urgently working to raise money to build a new gallery. It has been a years-long pursuit with an estimated project cost of $350-million that has produced a conceptual design but, in the absence of the required funding, no actual construction. Private donations have not yet hit the mark, according to a board member.

One of the chief problems with the current location, a renovated courthouse, is its size. It’s simply too small. So, back to Guo Pei, why give up the entire first floor – maybe a quarter of the gallery – for a show about fashion, when exhibition space is so limited?

“I think the idea of showing a diverse range of visual culture is our priority, and fashion [is] part of that,” says Rochelle Steiner, the gallery’s chief curator and associate director.

“And Guo Pei just seemed so fitting to us, not just because of where she’s from, but because of her practice,” says Steiner, who joined the gallery this year.

The Guo Pei: Couture Beyond exhibition, which features glittery, opulent dresses for the very wealthy, comes as the VAG is urgently working to raise money to build a new gallery.

Rachel Topham/Vancouver Art Gallery

The exhibition seems to appeal to a wider demographic, including a younger audience. Steiner says there has been more demand for tours in Mandarin and the show has seen more traffic on social media, including the Chinese-language platform WeChat. The wall labels – the few that are there (I would have appreciated more individual information about each garment) – are in English and Chinese.

I ask Steiner whether the show is perhaps part of an effort to reach out to the Lower Mainland’s significant Asian population – and potential donor base – as the VAG works to raise money for the new building.

Steiner says no, that programming endeavours are separate from development efforts.

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But it can be difficult to separate anything that happens at the VAG from its continuing campaign for a new gallery, which dates back more than a decade.

A conceptual design for a new 310,000 square foot building was unveiled in 2015, years after talk of a new space for the gallery began. There haven’t been many developments since that big reveal. No splashy announcements, no novelty-sized cheque presentations, no capital campaign launches.

The city has set aside land for the VAG a few blocks east of the current gallery; a surface parking lot (where temporary modular housing for homeless people was recently erected).

But the city has ordered the VAG to meet certain conditions by Dec. 31, 2019 – the second extension it has given the gallery. The original conditions included raising $100-million from the federal government and $50-million from the province (in addition to the $50-million the former BC Liberal government granted the project in 2008). The other $150-million is supposed to come from the private sector. The VAG has raised about $45-million in private funds to date.

The 55-pound yellow cape that Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Gala.

Rachel Topham

“The site won’t necessarily be there forever. So there’s a terrific time urgency on things,” VAG board member Phil Lind told me recently.

Lind, a Rogers broadcasting executive, was in town to speak about his recently published memoir to the Canadian Club.

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He is a passionate contemporary art collector; his Toronto home is filled with it. Lind joined the VAG board of trustees specifically because of the new gallery project, he told me. But during our interview, he didn’t sound overly optimistic. He says the VAG has not yet raised enough private money.

“I think part of it is that the givers in Vancouver haven’t been sufficiently enticed at the moment,” Lind says.

B.C. Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Lisa Beare told the VAG board last December that the government would consider the gallery’s additional $50-million funding request based on its progress raising private funds.

The hope had been that revealing an exciting design would provoke donations. But Swiss-based architects Herzog & de Meuron’s conceptual design – stacked boxes with a wood exterior – received mixed reviews. (The Globe and Mail’s architecture critic, Alex Bozikovic, loved it.)

“It may not be my cup of tea,” Lind says of the design, “but it is distinctive. … If it gets built, it will be a knockout.” It will attract more visitors to the gallery and add to Vancouver’s overall tourist appeal, he adds.

“Is the design your cup of tea?" I ask him.

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“I think it’s okay. I think it’s fine,” he says.

When I ask if he thinks the project will be built, Lind says he really doesn’t know.

“Certain things have to happen and if they don’t happen, it won’t be built, that’s for sure. And one of them is that a major amount of money has to be raised in a very short period of time privately. If that comes to pass, if there’s another $40- or $50-million dollars raised in the next while, I think it’s got a chance.”

One of the chief problems with the current location, a renovated courthouse, is its size. It’s simply too small.

Rachel Topham/Vancouver Art Gallery

When the design was revealed in September, 2015, the projected opening date was 2021. In March, 2017, the VAG told me the project was on track for a groundbreaking in 2017 and that 2021 opening.

Heading into 2019, the VAG is sticking with that timeline – although now they’re saying it could creep into 2022.

Without a single shovel in the ground, that seems hard to imagine.

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(VAG director Kathleen Bartels was not available for an interview in late December and Steiner was not able to speak about this subject. When I recently tried to click on the “timeline” link on the VAG website’s “future gallery” portal, nothing came up.)

The $350-million project cost ($300-million for construction plus $50-million for an endowment) remains the VAG’s projection.

It is unclear what might happen on the new building front in 2019. But inside the current gallery, visitors can look forward to the exhibitions French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950, which opens in February; Moving Still: Performative Photography From India, opening in April. And, not yet announced, an Alberto Giacometti show opening in June and a retrospective of photographer Vikky Alexander’s work in July.

One of the points the gallery has stressed in its quest for a new building is that because of space constraints, so much of its collection remains confined to the vault. There’s no new gallery yet to rectify this, but next year, the fourth floor of the current space will be devoted to shows made up of works from the permanent collection.

The next show to open in that space will focus on the concept of the street. The exhibition, still being put together and as yet unnamed, will look at the idea of the street as a central space, a public space, a private space. It seems like a good theme to ponder as the VAG continues its efforts to move to a new one.

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