Mayor Gregor Robertson has thrown his support behind a plan to build a new Vancouver Art Gallery that he says will help showcase local artists to the world and enhance the city's brand. That's why he'll be voting for a staff report released Wednesday that recommends giving the gallery a 99-year lease for part of the land it has long coveted – the empty block on the east side of the city's downtown at Cambie and Georgia – as long as the gallery association can raise $150-million for the project by April 30, 2015.
"I've been convinced we need a bigger ecosystem for art and organizations to accelerate the success of the local community," said Mr. Robertson, who for the past five years has been non-committal about the gallery's campaign to move to the new site. "We've got to give the Vancouver Art Gallery an opportunity to succeed. They make a big contribution to Vancouver's economy and global brand. This is all about Vancouver taking it to the next level with world-class arts and culture."
To that end, city staff are recommending an array of support and options for the gallery, including the idea of shutting down part of Cambie Street so land can be used for the gallery complex.
(That option would also allow the city to sell off more of the north end of the block for private development, generating higher revenues that can be used to pay off the $60-million bill owing for the pre-Olympics renovation of the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Theatre.)
The city will also pay for any soil remediation needed and wants staff to sit on the gallery's building and architectural technical-advisory committees, which will help speed up the development-permit process.
But along with that, the city also wants more involvement and oversight. If the report is approved – and all signs are that it will be, with the mayor's support for it – Mr. Robertson would become an honorary member of the board.
The city would also get to appoint two other board members – possibly business people from the community. Another benchmark that the gallery must meet is to raise 75 per cent of the total construction costs estimated for the project before a development permit will be issued.
The recommendations end what has been seven long years of lobbying by VAG director Kathleen Bartels to get the land for a new gallery.
Wednesday, Ms. Bartels said she is thrilled with the mayor's "strong commitment and leadership on arts and culture, which he has shown throughout his tenure."
She also acknowledged the battles are far from over.
"We know there's a lot of work ahead and a lot of heavy lifting both from the private and public sector."
Ms. Bartels originally started working to get the site in early 2006 with then-mayor Sam Sullivan's administration, which brought in former deputy minister Ken Dobell to start planning a cultural precinct.
In 2008, then-premier Gordon Campbell announced that the gallery could have waterfront land near BC Place. This took Ms. Bartels and her board on a two-year detour as they explored that idea.
Ms. Bartels relaunched her push for the Cambie and Georgia site in 2010, but was met with resistance from many quarters: the new Vision council, which wasn't enthusiastic about turning over a site worth anywhere from $100-million to $200-million; urban planners, who worried the gallery's move would empty out the heart of the city; and prominent art collector Bob Rennie, who said the city couldn't afford such a grandiose project in tough economic times.
Two years ago, the city asked Ms. Bartels to come up with a business plan, which she did late in 2012. Then it brought in a panel of art-gallery experts from around North America to help assess what to do next.
That panel included Matthew Teitelbaum, the director of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Paul Schimmel, the former curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
The gallery deserved a chance to move forward, the panel said, with conditions.
The local arts community also threw its support behind the move to a new site. That alleviated concerns from the city that the local arts community would be resentful about money going to a major new gallery, instead of community art support.
But Mr. Robertson said the city has been persuaded the gallery will benefit all local arts efforts. As well, the staff report stipulates requirements that the gallery work closely with the region's arts groups.
"There were concerns raised about a new gallery drifting away from the local arts community," he said. "That absolutely can't happen."