With the deadline looming for the Vancouver Art Gallery to prove its case for a new home on city-owned land, local art collector/philanthropist Bob Rennie has presented a detailed proposal for his alternative vision.
The 22-page document was sent to some key players last week, including the VAG's chair, the B.C. premier and Vancouver's mayor. It calls for exhibition and storage space at seven newly created or re-imagined distinct venues, including the VAG's current home downtown.
Rennie, who made his fortune marketing condominiums and owns a private gallery in Vancouver, co-wrote the proposal with consultant David Baxter. Rennie first floated the idea – in more general terms – at a panel last summer. When The Globe and Mail wrote about the proposal, it sparked a discussion – and some criticism of Rennie, who famously does not get along with VAG director Kathleen Bartels.
Their proposal outlines what they call "the $150-million solution" for a Vancouver Art Gallery System. The current VAG building would be renovated to house a gallery of historical Canadian art (works by Emily Carr, the Group of Seven) and a gallery of conceptual photography, built around local stars such as Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas.
A new gallery of contemporary art would be built downtown, and four smaller thematic exhibition spaces would be built around Vancouver over the next 15 years. Arguing there's no point in paying downtown rates for storage, the proposal also calls for an administration and storage facility in which the VAG would be the lead partner. The VAG's space at the Shangri-La Hotel would remain as is, for an eighth venue.
Exhibition space would increase more than fourfold to 180,000 square feet.
The schedule would see the contemporary gallery opening in 2018, at which point it would become the temporary home to the VAG, with renovation on the current building then beginning and ready to open in 2020.
The authors say their vision can be realized for $150-million ($125-million for construction plus $25-million for acquisitions), rather than the $300-million new building discussed by the VAG.
The document suggests the VAG scale back its ambitions – particularly when it comes to fundraising.
"In this new economy, no one institution should seek a disproportionate share of ... resources, thereby attempting to cannibalize the funding from either public resources or private philanthropy for other institutions."
The VAG has said for years its facility is inadequate, and has been working on a plan for an iconic facility on city-owned land known as Larwill Park. In February, 2011, city council gave the VAG two years to prove its case for that land – including demonstrating public support and a solid business plan. The VAG now faces a Feb. 1, 2013, deadline.
VAG director Bartels was not sent Rennie's proposal directly, and says she has not had a chance to review the document. "This will be I'm sure one of many suggestions that come forward and it certainly is not the first, and we'll continue to be open and accessible to ideas because this is a community organization, and I feel that we have tremendous support for our vision to build a new purpose-built art gallery on the Larwill Park site," she said.
Bartels has said the multi-venue model would not be ideal for a number of reasons, including higher operating costs. When Rennie first proposed the idea of creating several smaller gallery venues, some dissenters argued that as a real-estate magnate, Rennie could benefit by the impact on property values.
When asked about this on Tuesday, Rennie was adamant. "The document has to do with community-building, arts and culture, and the public good," he said from Paris. "This has nothing to do with condominiums."