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The Vancouver Art Gallery has issued a statement saying former director Kathleen Bartels 'is leaving to pursue other professional and personal interests.'

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

In a surprise move, the Vancouver Art Gallery has announced that its long-time leader, Kathleen Bartels, is no longer its director. The sudden departure comes two years ahead of the scheduled opening date of a new gallery, a project Ms. Bartels has been leading for more than a decade.

The VAG issued a statement Tuesday saying Ms. Bartels “is leaving to pursue other professional and personal interests.”

Daina Augaitis, who left her position as chief curator and associate director at the VAG in 2017, will be interim director while the search is conducted for a new one. Ms. Bartels is remaining as a special adviser to Ms. Augaitis and board chair David Calabrigo during the transition. The search for a permanent director will begin immediately, the statement says.

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Ms. Bartels’ departure – just ahead of the expiration of her contract – comes four months after she presided over the celebratory announcement of a $40-million donation for the new building from developer Christian Chan and his family.

“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,” Ms. Bartels said that day.

The VAG will continue to pursue the project, Mr. Calabrigo said in the gallery’s Tuesday statement. “This is an exciting time for the Vancouver Art Gallery as we move toward a new, permanent home with a strong team in place.”

Related: Private donation of $40-million is a game-changer for Vancouver Art Gallery’s new building

The Vancouver Art Gallery's final design for its new downtown building, which is to be called the Chan Centre for the Visual Arts.

Ms. Bartels, who is from the United States, joined the gallery in 2001 from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Tuesday’s statement, titled Honouring Kathleen Bartels for 18 Years of Service, celebrates Ms. Bartels’s accomplishments in the director position, saying the gallery has made “great strides during Kathleen’s tenure,” noting an increase in attendance, private-sector donations and the institutional endowment. “She leaves behind a legacy of transformation, and we are grateful for her contributions.”

Mr. Calabrigo said he was not available for comment. In a brief interview, the VAG’s honorary board chairman (and former chair), Michael Audain, praised Ms. Bartels. “She’s had a superb record of accomplishment at the gallery and she is one of the most prominent museum directors in our country, that’s for sure,” Mr. Audain told The Globe and Mail.

In the most recent annual report, Mr. Calabrigo called Ms. Bartels a “visionary leader” and praised her “steadfast commitment to excellence.”

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But Ms. Bartels has attracted criticism in recent months, particularly during a strike by VAG workers over the winter, which started just days after the Chans’ donation was announced. Some striking workers and VAG supporters questioned Ms. Bartels’ actions and were critical of her salary. There were calls for her resignation.

“How can management so badly sour the news of a fantastic 40 million dollar donation with a strike by staff?” VAG donors Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft wrote in a strongly worded letter to Ms. Bartels at the time, which has been posted to social media. “Very bad strategy and terrible optics.”

The letter called the strike “a serious strategic blunder” and called on the board to step in and resolve the situation if the administration was not able to.

“Morale is low due to less-than-respectful treatment by management,” B.C. artist Rodney Graham wrote to Ms. Bartels and Mr. Calabrigo in a letter posted to Instagram by striking workers. “It is unseemly for an institution as important as the Vancouver Art Gallery to treat their employees in the manner in which they have, and it is time for management to act responsibly and respect the VAG staff’s modest demands.”

Unionized workers voted to end the strike after a week. The labour action delayed the opening of two exhibitions, including French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950.

At that opening, Ms. Bartels thanked her staff. “This mutually agreed-upon, four-year contract will keep the gallery on the path of collaboration, sustainability and future growth. The Vancouver Art Gallery has an incredibly talented and dedicated and passionate staff, and I’m so glad to have everyone back at the gallery.”

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A number of gallery employees have departed recently, including the director of marketing and communications about a month ago. Also this spring, the operator of the gallery’s café vacated the space, saying that problems with management contributed to his decision to close the restaurant.

As for the new building, the VAG has already recorded more than $20-million in disbursements for the project, and ground has not yet been broken. When asked about this in January, Ms. Bartels explained that those costs date back to 2004 and include feasibility studies, a capital campaign, public relations and the architect-selection process.

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