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A determined advocate won’t be enough for VAG pipe dream to be realized

You could make the argument that hiring an architect to design a museum that may never get built is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

But then, Kathleen Bartels, director of the existing Vancouver Art Gallery, needs something of a miracle if a new version of the VAG is to rise up on a downtown site donated by the city. And she's no doubt hoping that hiring a renowned architectural firm, and offering the public a rendering of what this flashy arts centre might look like, will produce some fresh momentum for the project and attract much-needed funding.

If nothing else, Ms. Bartels is an incredibly determined woman. A lesser person would have given up on this venture long ago, considering the many obstacles that have been placed in her way. Yet she has gamely battled on, managing to persuade the city to fork over some land if she can come up with the $300-million-plus in funding that is going to be needed to see a hole dug and a museum go up.

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And that is where the dogged art director may finally meet her match.

Ms. Bartels is counting on a combined $150-million from the federal and provincial governments, Ottawa being on the hook for two-thirds of that amount. The provincial Liberals have already anted up $50-million – under former premier Gordon Campbell – but another $50-million that Victoria was supposed to donate was taken off the table by the balanced-budget-conscious Christy Clark.

And there is almost zero chance the provincial government will be finding that money any time soon.

Here is the problem that the new gallery's proponents face.

The federal Conservatives, first of all, don't believe a new gallery is a priority. In fact, one senior member of the government said that if it had $100-million to spend in Vancouver, a new gallery would be so low on the priority list you could barely find it. The contempt with which the Conservatives hold the cultural community in the city is palpable. You get no sense when talking to top-ranking Tories that they believe Vancouver is a metropolis deserving of a world-class museum; more so is the belief the city needs to grow up a bit first, become a little more worldly and sophisticated.

It's not that the Conservatives are anti-culture per se – although many would argue they are – it's just that they don't believe a new art gallery should trump, say, infrastructure projects such as a new subway along the Broadway corridor. In fact, the antipathy with which the current government in Ottawa regards Ms. Bartels' project can best be summed up by a text I received from a senior Tory MP shortly after it was announced that the famed Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron had been hired to design the prospective museum.

"Architect behind Tate Modern chosen to design proposed Vancouver Art Gallery," it read, "to design something that won't ever get built. Well done."

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So, good luck to Ms. Bartels getting money out of Stephen Harper and his friends. But the likelihood of her getting any more cash out of Victoria is just as remote.

Firstly, the B.C. government doesn't have a lot of spare coin for what some might characterize as a vanity project. The Liberals are not expected to be flush until the purported liquefied natural gas boom materializes some time in the next five to 10 years – if it does at all.

So there is that issue.

But just as problematic for Ms. Bartels is the fact that the Liberals' chief fundraiser is a person not unfamiliar to her: Bob Rennie. Mr. Rennie, of course, is the celebrated real-estate marketer who has built up a small fortune plying his trade, most of which he has spent amassing a valuable and noteworthy art collection. He is the proposed art gallery's fiercest critic. He doesn't believe Vancouver can afford Ms. Bartels's concept, arguing that the city's philanthropic pockets simply are not deep enough.

It's little secret, also, that Mr. Rennie has some sway with B.C.'s Premier. Consequently, it seems unfathomable that Ms. Clark would ever support a project to which someone in her inner power circle so adamantly objects. Unfortunately for Ms. Bartels, that is just the crummy politics of the situation.

Of course, governments change and with them priorities and agendas. So one day, Ms. Bartels might find a sympathetic ear in Ottawa and Victoria, but not likely for a while. My guess is that if a new museum is ever going to get built in Vancouver, it is going to take the generosity of wealthy patrons to do it.

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And at the moment, there is no indication anyone is willing to step up to the extent needed to help Ms. Bartels realize her dream.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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