With the possible departure of the Vancouver Art Gallery from its current home, one local cultural institution that is not joining the queue for a spot in the coveted Rattenbury building is the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. It's not just because gallery director Mike Robinson believes there's value in his institution staying where it is (less than a block from the VAG, incidentally). The reason Mr. Robinson isn't declaring an interest in the VAG's current home is because he is less than confident that the VAG will be able to raise the money it needs to build a new facility.
"My sense is raising $300-million in a city with very few corporate head offices is a difficult number to attain," Mr. Robinson said Friday. "And when you look at the post-2008 economic mode around the world, putting together a $300-million project for culture in this time, I think, is a real struggle."
He speaks from experience: About seven years ago, when he was president and CEO of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, a move to a new facility appeared to be very much in the cards. Then, within a year, it fell apart – and this was in oil-rich Alberta, before the economic crash, and with a less ambitious capital campaign. "And Calgary at the time had 128 major corporate headquarters," he pointed out. "Vancouver has nothing like that."
Mr. Robinson tells the story as a cautionary tale to the VAG and the city: Don't count your new iconic buildings before they're hatched – or funded.
"I wish them the best and I'm certainly a great fan of risk. … But I think it's a very difficult thing to accomplish right now in the world. … That's all based on my hard realization that we couldn't do it in Calgary in 2006 when the streets were awash with cash."
Here's what happened in Calgary. The Glenbow, housed in a dated 1960s concrete bunker of a building downtown, has issues with street visibility and appeal, and maintaining museum-quality conditions. In late 2005, the board decided to try to move to the planned Encana building, at a projected cost of $210-million. The plan was to raise $70-million each from the province, Ottawa and the private sector.
Through much of 2006, a great deal of staff time and resources were devoted to the project. "Meanwhile you still have to run the store. And content is king. You can't afford whilst you're designing and fundraising and planning the dream building to let attendance slide. You've got to maintain the buzz," Mr. Robinson said.
Fundraising for programming became problematic. Patrons were confused; they thought they were supposed to give to the capital campaign instead. Then there were changes on the political and corporate fronts, and suddenly the Glenbow found itself negotiating with new funding partners that seemed less than committed to the project. "So what looked like a slam dunk became an uphill slog," Mr. Robinson said. By early 2007, the project had been abandoned.
At the end of that year, Mr. Robinson left the Glenbow. He ran for the Liberals in the 2008 provincial election and lost. In 2009, he took up the post at the Bill Reid Gallery (he is also CEO of the Bill Reid Trust). He'll leave the job at the end of the year.
Beyond the lessons from his Glenbow experience and doubts about the VAG raising the money ($150-million of it by April 30, 2015), Mr. Robinson has other concerns.
"There are a lot of long-standing cultural organizations in Vancouver … that are struggling, and I think there's a duty to help the existing cultural infrastructure get stronger. And I have pretty significant worries that if we're into now a two-year philanthropy campaign for the new VAG, that's going to drain the swamp for a hell of a lot of the rest of us."
Mr. Robinson says the VAG should consider staying put and expanding onsite, and must ask itself some tough questions.
"The board should not concentrate on starchitecture and should beware edifice complex. The key questions should be: Can you produce wonderful content? Can you operate the building effectively and on budget? Do you have a big enough endowment to ensure in the future as costs rise that you can cover them? And at the end of the day, I think cities and regions are better off supporting what they've already got, helping them finesse and grow and shine and polish the existing cultural infrastructure rather than develop brand new magnificent enormous structures."
Of course, each capital project has a unique set of circumstances. But Mr. Robinson says the Glenbow can serve as a case study – and a reality check.
"Within the cultural brethren and the sisterhood, one hopes the best for everybody. And it's a very bold risk that's been announced. And at some level you hope people will try and make their dream possible. But having said that, the whole thing has to be tempered with an understanding of the Canadian reality in 2013, '14 and '15. And so I don't see it happening."