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Plans for a new Vancouver Art Gallery, in the works for years, are in question after the provincial NDP government rejected a request from the organization for additional money to help fund the $350-million project, The Globe and Mail has learned.

The decision was communicated to gallery leadership in a December, 2017, letter to the chair of the gallery’s board of trustees and obtained by The Globe through a provincial Access to Information request.

In it, Culture Minister Lisa Beare responds to a request for an additional $50-million to fund the project, which has faced repeated delays as it struggles to secure private and government funding. The latest request was on top of $50-million already committed by the previous BC Liberal government.

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Ms. Beare explains that the additional funding request does not fit into the current government’s priorities.

“As such, the province is unable to commit to your funding request at this time.”

The letter notes the gallery needs to “demonstrate significant progress in raising private funding for this project.”

Gallery leadership has been seeking $150-million in private donations.

A conceptual design by the architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron shows what the new Vancouver Art Gallery may ultimately look like.

Herzog & de Meuron

In an interview with The Globe earlier this year, gallery director Kathleen Bartels said her organization had raised $40-million in private money − $10-million of that in the last eight months of 2017, bringing the gallery close to the launching point of a public capital campaign

The gallery has also been hoping for $100-million in funding from the federal government.

The new building would make the gallery the largest public art museum in Western Canada and was described by former Liberal B.C. premier Christy Clark as a “strategic infrastructure priority for our province.”

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In 2008, her Liberal predecessor Gordon Campbell committed $50-million toward the project. In 2013, the City of Vancouver donated the land to the gallery for a 99-year lease.

In her letter, Ms. Beare urges the gallery to submit another funding request if it can “demonstrate significant progress in raising private funding for this project.”

When asked for comment on the letter Thursday, the gallery responded with a statement saying its leadership continues to forge on with plans to develop a new home.

“The gallery continues to work closely with all levels of government,” Ann Webb, associate director of engagement and strategic initiatives, said in the statement.

“We are also working diligently with the private sector to raise the required funds to realize this important project, and we are very optimistic about the future.”

In a statement issued Thursday, City of Vancouver communications manager Ellie Lambert said the land offer is dependent on the gallery raising the $100-million from the federal government and another $50-million from the provincial government.

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“At this time, the city does not intend to provide further financial support for the Gallery expansion.”

Ms. Beare’s letter does not detail the “pressing government priorities” that are forcing the NDP to make funding choices. But the government came to power last summer facing an expensive agenda, including affordable housing and more money for health care, education, an ambitious daycare plan and infrastructure priorities.

Asked on Thursday about the letter, the minister’s office said, in a statement, that it stands by the decision not to provide funding at this time.

“The position outlined in the letter remains unchanged, and we remain in contact with the gallery as they provide on-going updates regarding the status of their funding request and the progress on private funding,” said the statement.

But Ms. Beare’s office said they have not received any further submissions from the Vancouver Art Gallery on the issue.

“We know this gallery is an important project for the City of Vancouver and the vibrant arts and tourism communities,” the statement said.

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In 2015, a concept design was revealed for a 310,000-square-foot building with a wood exterior approximately 20 storeys tall. It was expected to be opened in 2021.

The gallery, which attracts about 570,000 visitors each year, is now located in a former provincial courthouse in Vancouver’s downtown core that was renovated in the 1980s, but the gallery leadership says the building is too small to fully exhibit its collection.

The new gallery is to be located a few blocks east of the current space.

Groundbreaking for the $300-million building (with an additional $50-million endowment) was supposed to have begun last year.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the B.C. NDP government had withdrawn a commitment to fund a new Vancouver Art Gallery made by the previous government. In fact, the current government has rejected a second request from the gallery for funding; an earlier commitment for $50-million remains in place.
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