The Vancouver Art Gallery, fighting for years to build a new facility, received a conditional green light on Wednesday. Now it faces a serious challenge: In order to get the land it has been granted by the city, it will need to raise an ambitious pile of cash at a time when governments and donors alike are clawing back funding for cultural institutions.
A city report recommending the gallery receive the land is the latest development in the institution's years-long campaign to move out of its too-small and outdated facility and build an iconic gallery that can house more of its collection – now over 10,300 works in total, most of which are currently relegated to a basement vault.
The city recommends the gallery receive the land only if it can raise millions of dollars by April 30, 2015. Much of that money is to come from the federal and provincial governments – at a time when both Ottawa and British Columbia are struggling to deliver balanced budgets. The rest would come from the private sector – at a time of economic uncertainty.
Gallery director Kathleen Bartels, who has spent the better part of a decade fighting for a purpose-built gallery, was "extraordinarily thrilled" on Wednesday.
"We've been waiting for this moment for a long time," she told The Globe and Mail. "I think we've had our ups and downs and I just try to keep my eyes focused on the end goal and what I think is really exciting for a city, for the artists that live and work here."
While members of Vancouver's visual arts community have been strong supporters of the new gallery, there has been vocal opposition as well – concerns that there just isn't the money available for this kind of facility – and the question of a new gallery for the city has been hotly debated.
On Wednesday, the city released an optimistically titled report – called "A New Vancouver Art Gallery at 688 Cambie" – which recommends granting the gallery a 99-year lease for two-thirds of a block across from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, a few blocks from the gallery's current site (one plan may see the gallery and theatre sites connected, and the street in between closed). A purpose-built gallery at this site is "not only the best option" for the gallery, but "a critical step in supporting and nurturing our creative capital and furthering development of the infrastructure required to enrich our global city," the report says.
But the gallery will need to meet a number of conditions, including raising $150-million in government funding – $100-million from the federal government, and an additional $50-million from the provincial government, which has already committed $50-million toward the project. This as an election campaign kicks off in the province, with both the incumbent Liberals and the poll-leading New Democrats positioning themselves as fiscally responsible.
The gallery will have to raise 75 per cent of the construction budget (including the government funding) before development permits are issued.
Should building costs exceed the estimate (currently $300-million) provided by the VAG, it will be up to the gallery to raise those additional funds. The city will not take on costs of the project going over-budget.
The gallery must also have an endowment in place and demonstrate in the next two years a clear operational strategy, and continued support for local artists, and not focus solely on the capital project.
If the gallery is unable to meet the conditions, the land will revert to the city.
The fundraising requirements laid out by the city are bound to be seen as a serious challenge by two local players – the powerful developer, art collector and philanthropist Bob Rennie and consultant David Baxter – who have raised concerns repeatedly that the VAG's fundraising ambitions are unrealistic in the post-2008 economy and in a city such as Vancouver, which is not a "head-office city." (By press time on Wednesday, they had not seen the city report and could not comment.)
But Bartels remains optimistic. She says once the land is confirmed (the issue will go to City Council next week), she'll be able to move forward with fundraising and launch a search for an architect – which will also help raise the funds required.
"Securing an architect and getting a beautiful rendering of what the possibilities will be for a new building to be able to show to our private funders but also governments will be critical."
She says those fundraising efforts will go beyond Vancouver and B.C. to Toronto – where she says there are "huge supporters" – and other parts of Canada.
When asked about the possibility of providing substantial funding for a new Vancouver Art Gallery, a spokesperson for Minister of Canadian Heritage, Jessica Fletcher, responded: "We have not been presented with any official proposal for a new Vancouver Art Gallery. At this time a multimillion-dollar funding commitment is not something our government can afford."
At the provincial level, B.C. NDP culture critic Spencer Chandra Herbert told The Globe his party would give any funding request "due consideration," but "in the context of many other requests. We obviously can't make a big capital announcement today." There was no immediate response to a Globe request for an interview with B.C. Premier Christy Clark on the issue.
Over the years that Bartels has been pushing for a new gallery, A Frank Gehry redesign was commenced and completed at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Saskatoon has dreamed up – and raised funds for – a new gallery, with construction crews already on-site, and completion expected in 2015 or 2016. Meanwhile, the economy has tanked, and a vocal (and very wealthy) proponent of the new gallery – Michael Audain, once chair of the gallery's relocation committee and still chair of its foundation – is hurrying along with plans to build his own gallery in Whistler, which will house much of his extraordinary collection.
When asked if she was frustrated by all the delays over the years, Bartels said the only frustration she felt was on behalf of the local arts community.
"We're so rich in artists – for which I think we're the envy of other cities around the world, particularly cities in Canada, that we have such a vibrant visual-artist community," she said. "Those are the things if anything that have been frustrating for me is that we have this amazing art community; we want to be able to serve them in a much broader and better way, and we haven't been able to do that in our current facility. We certainly try but there's just too many restrictions here."