If pent-up delight were to be expressed in a work of art, it might look something like the scene at the Vancouver Art Gallery announcement on Wednesday; the result of what the city’s mayor called “mind-blowing generosity.” Buzzing with government and VAG officials, donors and publicists – and a smooth jazz soundtrack in the background – the room felt rich with optimism even before the astonishing announcement. Then there were gasps, followed by wild applause and a standing ovation as the VAG revealed that the Chan family has donated $40-million for its new museum – the largest single private donation to an arts and culture organization in British Columbia’s history.
“In a world that seems increasingly divided, the need for healthy social dialogue, broader cultural understanding and enlightened critical thinking is as crucial now as it’s ever been. ... The arts have this power,” said Christian Chan, representing his family – real estate developers and philanthropists.
The gallery also unveiled the final design for the new building, which is to be called the Chan Centre for the Visual Arts.
“It’s a historic day for the gallery. You look at an 88-year history and this has to be one of the high points,” director Kathleen Bartels said.
The lead donation is a game-changer for the VAG’s protracted campaign to construct a new museum, one that’s built with the specific purpose of being a gallery, unlike the current structure, which is a former courthouse. The gallery’s campaign to attract $150-million in new government funding has come up short, and the hope has been that private donations would encourage the government to buy in. The gallery says it now has $135-million in funding secured – $85-million in private money as well as $50-million donated by the province in 2008.
“Moving forward it’s just a full-court press with governments,” said Ms. Bartels, who has led the charge for a new gallery for well more than a decade.
“We’ve been very clear in speaking with our government partners – the province, the feds; particularly the provincial government – there was a number they wanted us to get to and we have far exceeded that number. And when you do that, I think that’s when the magic happens.”
The $300-million construction cost (plus a $50-million endowment) remains the target budget, but with the passage of time, Ms. Bartels says it is reasonable to expect that figure to have increased by 10 per cent, bringing the construction budget up to $330-million.
Without a single shovel in the ground yet, financial statements show that the gallery has already recorded more than $20-million in disbursements for the project. Ms. Bartels explains that those costs date back to 2004 and include feasibility studies, engagement, its capital campaign, public relations and the architect selection process.
The gallery says it hopes to break ground in late 2019 or early 2020, and that construction would likely take about three years.
Gallery officials say its current building is inadequate – it’s too small and wasn’t initially designed to be a museum. They have determined that an expansion on the current site, in the downtown core, is not feasible.
In 2015, the Swiss architecture firm selected by the VAG after an international search revealed the concept design for a new gallery to be built on a prime piece of city-owned land a few blocks from the current site, near the east end of downtown Vancouver. Herzog & de Meuron presented a wood-wrapped structure made up of stacked boxes, with a large public space at ground level.
On Wednesday, the Pritzker Prize-winning architecture firm, which is working with local architects Perkins+Will, revealed the final designs for the 300,000 square-foot building.
The most visible change: Where much of the building’s exterior in the original version was clad in wood, much of it is now covered in glass.
“It’s a no-brainer; we’re in the city of glass," Christine Binswanger, Herzog & de Meuron’s partner in charge, explained during a presentation.
The gallery is to take up two-thirds of the site known as Larwill Park – currently a parking lot, where temporary housing for people who are homeless was recently erected.
But use of that city land was tied to funding criteria: that the VAG raise $100-million from the federal government and $50-million from the provincial government, in addition to the $50-million already donated to the project by the Gordon Campbell government.
Now, with this donation, gallery officials say they have the momentum they need to raise that money – both from the government and privately.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said the city is “deeply committed” to the project and he will be an advocate for it at other government levels. He said he and B.C. Premier John Horgan spoke about the project “in a positive way” on Tuesday. Further, Mr. Stewart is travelling to Ottawa next week to discuss transit funding, but said he hopes to raise the issue of VAG funding as well, noting that it is an election year.
The provincial Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture was present for the announcement, but did not speak. Afterward, Lisa Beare told reporters, “We haven’t received the new application from them yet, so we’re looking forward to that.”
Mr. Chan says he has been in discussions with the VAG for more than a year about the donation.
The Chan family, which owns the Vancouver-based Burrard Group, has been active in real estate on the West Coast for more than 40 years. It has also been involved in arts philanthropy, most notably with the University of British Columbia’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 1997.
“We love Canada; we built our company here, we have our family here, we want to contribute back to the community and specifically believe in the power of cultural institutions to do that,” said Mr. Chan, who is a trustee on the VAG board. “We started the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts and we want to continue that legacy, because we believe in the immense public good and social benefit that these institutions provide.”