Christian Chan became the very public face of hope for the Vancouver Art Gallery a few weeks ago when he, on behalf of his family, made a $40-million donation to the VAG for a new building. The amount was the largest single private donation to an arts and culture organization in British Columbia’s history.
The announcement prompted gasps and multiple standing ovations at a five-star hotel across the street from the current gallery. “This will be the most important project of a generation,” an emotional VAG director, Kathleen Bartels, told the packed room after Chan spoke. The new building is to be called the Chan Centre for the Visual Arts.
But up until this very public moment, Chan, 36, had been a private person from an exceedingly private family that made a fortune in private business. (In 2018, the family made the Canadian Business Top 100 richest Canadians list, clocking in at No. 98, at $1.07-billion.) And not much was known about the man who represented the family of real estate developers and philanthropists, or his passion for supporting the arts.
At that announcement, Chan talked about the family foundation, which has concentrated on health care and education, making its foray into cultural infrastructure with a $10-million gift a performance hall that opened as the Chan Centre the University of British Columbia in 1997.
“At the time, I was just a 14-year-old kid more interested in BB guns, firecrackers and the Foo Fighters than I was in world music or a symphony orchestra,” he said.
“I was a pretty naughty kid,” he told me in the interview a couple of weeks later, when I asked about the air rifles and explosive devices. “Actually, up through university, I just had misguided priorities, put it that way.”
He was in university – NYU – when his mother became ill and died. She was only 50. “Losing her was drastically life-altering; it led to a major course correction for me,” he says.
It was his mother, Nancy Marie Chan, who first exposed him to visual art, taking him to galleries when he was very young in Vancouver and in San Francisco. The 1995 Andy Warhol exhibition at the VAG made a deep impression.
“You know how the art world can be; it can be very insular and feel like it’s a bit of a club. But Andy Warhol is an easy entry point for people to feel like they can relate, or simply enjoy,” Chan says. “And that’s how I felt.”
He becomes most animated when asked about art; for instance a painting hanging in the company boardroom by Vancouver-based artist Sean Mills. “He really likes to play with light and form and materiality of paint in his practice,” Chan says, then takes out his phone to show me more of the painter’s work.
When I asked what kind of art he has hanging on his walls at home, he mentioned a Banksy, but was much more keen to talk about James Nizam, Ed Spence and Tyler Toews, local emerging artists.
“I love art because I know what it can do for people’s souls,” he says.
For a billionaire (or a member of a billion-dollar family), Chan comes off as down to Earth. He prefers his 2012 Toyota Highlander, he tells me, to his recently purchased Tesla. “I’m a frugal guy,” he says. “Any good business person is.”
Chan was born in San Francisco; his mother was a fifth-generation Californian; his father, Caleb, was an immigrant from Hong Kong. The family established International Land Group in San Francisco in 1979.
In 1987, the family moved to Vancouver. The development business, co-owned with Caleb’s brother Tom Chan, was renamed the Burrard Group. Christian Chan is now executive vice-president.
He is a dual citizen, dividing his time between Vancouver and Seattle, where Burrard Group is developing a 41-storey residential building.
He started the Burrard Arts Foundation in 2013, which has a strong focus on public art and emerging artists.
Chan has been on the VAG board for three years. The gallery has been working to build a new museum for more than a decade. It estimates the construction cost at about $330-million.
Chan says the project is consistent with the family foundation’s goals to support wellness and education. “The institution is a highly accessible way for people to broaden their cultural horizons,” Chan says. “So from an education point of view, it’s a no-brainer. But also you’ve probably met many people whose lives have been positively changed by art.”
Less than two weeks after that splashy announcement, workers at the gallery went on strike, causing some donors to express concerns that the labour action was a momentum-stopper for the new gallery project. (Staff returned to work the following week.)
But Chan says he believes people will be able to separate issues that may arise during the normal course of gallery operations from a longer-term vision for the gallery.
He told me that since the $40-million was announced, other donations have followed. The VAG is still seeking another $50-million from the province (in addition to $50-million it pledged in 2008) – and provincial support in securing funding from Ottawa. He says he is optimistic the province will come through.
The $40-million man is ready to do his part, too. “I certainly will do what I need to do as far as shaking hands and kissing babies to get the job done,” he says. “I just think that Vancouver deserves this.”