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A rendering of the new Vancouver Art Gallery building. The design includes more than 80,000 square feet of exhibition space, a theatre, a library, artist studios, space for a visual arts preschool and daycare, an Indigenous community space and a 40,000-square-foot courtyard.Vancouver Art Gallery

It has been 11 years since the City of Vancouver agreed to set aside a plot of land for a new Vancouver Art Gallery. VAG officials have long argued that the current building – a former courthouse in the downtown core – is inadequate. Since that initial city council vote, that land – a surface parking lot – has been in a holding pattern; the only thing built there has been temporary modular social housing. The gallery’s plans, meanwhile, have been on a roller coaster ride.

But after years of stops and starts, triumphant announcements and long silences – there is finally momentum, once again.

Gallery officials are meeting regularly with the city, city hall is re-examining the term of the lease agreement, a public open house is scheduled for March, and shovels could be in the ground next year.

All it took was a single private donation – of $100-million.

“Almost 100 per cent it changed everything,” says VAG director Anthony Kiendl of the record donation from philanthropist Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshi Karasawa, that was announced Nov. 4. “I still believed it was possible before that. But I think this provides a certainty and the confidence to realize the scale of the vision.”

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Vancouver Art Gallery CEO Anthony Kiendl at the site of the new art gallery.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

“I mean I suppose if we had tried and failed for a few more years,” Kiendl continues, “maybe you go back to square one and just start from scratch – different location, different concept.”

That, it appears, will not be necessary.

The November announcement included a fairly significant redesign of the building. The change to the exterior – originally to be clad in wood, then glass – has attracted much attention. The new design calls for a copper Salish-inspired “woven” pattern developed during a series of collaborative workshops with Indigenous artists.

The design also includes more than 80,000 square feet of exhibition space, a theatre, a library, artist studios, space for a visual arts preschool and daycare, an Indigenous community space and a 40,000-square-foot courtyard.

Gone is the dramatic entrance procedure: entering from below and having an escalator whisk guests up to the third floor. Instead, visitors will enter from busy Georgia Street into a foyer.

Also gone: an entire floor of underground storage, saving about $12-million.

The restaurant and theatre have been moved down from higher up in the building. That means for off-hour events and meals, there is no need to keep the lights on and station security throughout.

And while the original plan relied mostly on elevators and stairs, with the exception of that grand entrance, the new plan links every floor with escalators. “We don’t want it to look like a Nordstrom department store,” Kiendl says. “We found a really elegant way so it doesn’t.”

Much of the redesign came in consultation with Audain himself, a home builder who knows his stuff.

Audain had not been a fan of the original cladding. And there were other changes he felt would make the building more functional, more efficient and less expensive to build.

“I think ‘suggest’ is the right word,” Kiendl says. “He didn’t mandate anything or require anything, but he suggested.”

The $100-million man

The block on which the new Vancouver Art Gallery is to be located – it will share the land with office space – is bordered by four streets, one of which is Dunsmuir, named for coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, the great-great grandfather of Michael Audain.

Audain, 84, may have been born into privilege, but money was often scarce, as he writes in his recently published memoir, One Man in his Time … .

Born in England, Audain was 9 when he moved to Victoria with his father. In his youth, Audain was a passionate activist. He was jailed in the United States for protesting against segregated bussing as a Freedom Rider. He was a delegate to the NDP’s founding convention, and a founder of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

When an opportunity to go into the home-building business arose, he took it. His company Polygon Homes has built more than 30,000 homes.

Along the way, he started collecting art. He has amassed an astonishing collection – Northwest Coast Indigenous art, Emily Carr, the Group of Seven, B.C.’s photo conceptualists, Mexican modernists. His current passion is Jean-Paul Riopelle; Audain is a founder of the Riopelle Foundation.

For years, Audain was active in the campaign to build a new Vancouver Art Gallery, chairing its relocation committee at one point. He is now honorary board chair.

An early consideration was expanding to the adjacent Robson Square – an option Audain says VAG architect Arthur Erickson was keen on. But that chunk of real estate went to the University of British Columbia.

Building on the current site was determined not feasible. The city and gallery ultimately settled on what was once Larwill Park, a few blocks east of the current gallery.

When Audain announced in 2012 that he would build his own museum in Whistler, B.C., it was perceived as a blow to the VAG’s plans. He said he wanted to see a museum built for his art in his lifetime – which some saw as a lack of confidence in the VAG project. The Audain Art Museum opened in 2016.

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The Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C., in Dec. 2018.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The VAG forged ahead, in 2015 revealing under then-director Kathleen Bartels a design by Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron. Bartels – who had led and championed the new building project – left the VAG in 2019; her contract was not renewed.

So why would Audain return now with this Hail Mary donation?

“I think I had to be invited, didn’t I?” he says, noting admiration for Daina Augaitis, who served as interim director after Bartels’s departure.

“When Daina was there, she invited me to come back and offer some views about the design they had and how it might be somewhat improved,” Audain says. “And I hadn’t felt invited to do that before. If indeed I made some comments or suggestions earlier, they didn’t result in any modification to the plans. As someone who has been visiting art museums regularly all my life since the age of 15, I felt I might have something to offer. And I was pleased to find that Daina and subsequently the new director, Anthony, were quite receptive to some of my views.”

When asked whether Bartels had not been receptive, Audain declined to answer directly. “That’s all in the past, so I don’t really want to go back there. So that’s all water under the bridge now.”

Bartels, now executive director and chief executive officer of the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, declined to comment this week on the VAG’s future.

Audain says he was also inspired by the donation made by the Chan family – a then unprecedented $40-million announced before Bartels left in 2019. The new facility will be known as the Vancouver Art Gallery at the Chan Centre for the Visual Arts.

Not a done deal

This is a $400-million project; there is still $160-million to be raised. Kiendl says the projected cost is up-to-date, with professional estimates made as recently as November. Although the actual cost won’t be known for certain, he acknowledges, until the deal is tendered.

Some of that money, both Kiendl and Audain hope, will come from the federal government. They say the project would have a meaningful impact on COVID recovery, creating about 3,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs in tourism.

The 2013 memorandum of understanding between the gallery and the city called for $100-million from Ottawa and an additional $50-million from the provincial government (which gave $50-million in 2008), in exchange for a long-term lease of the land.

The city told The Globe this week that it is developing a new lease for the site and is in the process of reviewing various conditions.

“The gallery is seeking to move beyond the structure that had been put in place to secure the funds and right now everything is on the table,” Kiendl says. “We’re looking at it with a new perspective and ultimately seeking to achieve our target of $160-million from as many sources as possible.” Both he and Audain note that Ottawa has put millions into other public museums.

“I hear from donors that it’s an issue of fairness,” Kiendl says. “They’ve contributed; they would like to see some of their top tax dollars also contributing.”

One thing seems certain: Vancouver real-estate marketer Bob Rennie – who has a renowned contemporary art collection and has been a vocal critic of the VAG project – will not be coming to the table. That’s despite the departure of Bartels (with whom he did not get along). He has said he would rather see the money spent on the art itself rather than a building.

“My position on the Vancouver Art Gallery has not changed,” Rennie told The Globe. “I’m going to leave this one to Michael.”

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The snow-covered square outside the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, in Jan. 2022. Should the gallery move, the city intends to maintain the site’s current cultural designation.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

As for what happens to the VAG’s current home should the gallery move, the city intends to maintain the site’s current cultural designation. In a statement, it said it will follow the usual procedures to determine future use “once the Vancouver Art Gallery completes fundraising and construction, and eventually occupancy of the new art gallery begins.”

Among the institutions that have previously expressed an interest in the building is the Museum of Vancouver, which is in a much less central location in Kitsilano.

“I think it would be great for the Museum of Vancouver to be in a historical building in the centre of the city,” says Mauro Vescera, who took over as MOV’s director in 2019, and attended the Nov. 4 funding announcement. But nothing is certain. “There’s a lot of moving parts.”

Construction timelines have been shifting constantly. In 2013, when city council voted to officially designate the land for the VAG, the projected opening according to a city report was 2019.

The new timeline calls for a five-year construction process. With a 2023 groundbreaking, the gallery could open in 2028.

“I think Anthony really has the potential with his team to pull this off,” Audain says. “And my God, this city really deserves an important art museum.” He notes that Vancouver is revered internationally for its visual artists – yet lacks a proper public gallery.

“If we built wonderful convention centres and hockey rinks and sports stadiums, we can sure as hell build a world class art gallery.”

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