Skip to main content

Senior partner at Herzog & de Meuron Christine Binswanger, pointing, discusses architecture at the VAG on Thursday.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

A planned extension of the deadline the Vancouver Art Gallery is facing to raise funds for its new downtown facility could be in jeopardy. The extension had been in the works at city hall, but it is now in a holding pattern because of new tensions between the city and the gallery, The Globe and Mail has learned.

When the city approved the deal nearly two years ago to lease land to the VAG for its new facility, it included a number of conditions, including a requirement that the gallery raise $100-million from the federal government and an additional $50-million from the provincial government by April 30, 2015.

That has not happened, and both levels of government have signalled that funding of that magnitude is not in the cards.

Recognizing that, the VAG formally asked the city for an extension to the fundraising deadline.

In response, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson sent a letter to gallery director Kathleen Bartels and board chair Bruce Munro Wright earlier this month. The letter indicated that "there would likely be significant support by city council for an extension of the timelines and milestones … provided the VAG is committed to the original requirements approved by council."

Those requirements, laid out in the April, 2013, council reports, relate to the design of the new VAG, the gallery's governance and consultation with the public and cultural sector on the VAG's plan.

The mayor's office did not receive a response to that letter, dated March 10, until Wednesday of this week. And at city hall, it was considered a disappointment in both content and tone, according to sources. It lacked specifics in terms of how the VAG planned to meet the criteria, and reiterated the request for a fundraising extension.

Although it had not yet communicated this to the VAG, city hall was preparing to grant the extension – likely another 12 months – a term that takes into account this fall's federal election. The VAG is hoping a change in government in Ottawa could open up the possibility of securing federal funding. "We are also very conscious of the pending federal election, and the opportunity it presents to the gallery for securing funding for this major capital project," Mr. Robertson wrote in the letter to the VAG.

The federal Conservatives have repeatedly said the funding is not possible. "Our government's position on the matter has not changed: This project is simply too expensive," Heritage Minister Shelly Glover's office said in a statement to The Globe this week. In a previous e-mail last November, it pointed out that a request of $100-million for a single institution exceeds the scope of the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, the only federal cultural infrastructure program – which has an annual budget of $30-million for the entire country.

Receiving an additional $50-million from the current provincial government also appears to be a long shot. In 2008, the B.C. Liberals, under then premier Gordon Campbell, granted $50-million to the project. The city's conditions indicate that the VAG must receive another $50-million from the province. But a highly influential figure – Bob Rennie, the B.C. Liberals' chief fundraiser – has been staunchly and very publicly against the VAG proposal. And Mr. Rennie, a highly successful Vancouver real-estate marketer, certainly has the ear of Premier Christy Clark.

Ms. Bartels has consistently put on a brave face about the VAG's inability up to this point to raise that money from the two levels of government. She has said once the conceptual design is revealed later this spring, it will be easier to raise the money needed.

But at city hall, there is a loss of confidence in the VAG's ability to deliver on that condition. Despite having two years to do so, the VAG has not formally asked the federal or provincial governments for the money.

According to sources, the city feels the VAG has ignored many of the guidelines the city had asked the gallery to take into account. For example, the $350-million project is far more extravagant than the city had hoped. Following an international competition, the gallery commissioned a top Swiss firm to design the gallery.

The frustration at city hall over the issue was exacerbated by comments Ms. Bartels made in the Vancouver Sun this week, saying the VAG had always found the funding milestones set out by the city to be unreasonable.

As a result, a source at city hall on Thursday described the appetite to grant the extension as "pretty slim." The source added that it appears the VAG's progress for meeting deadlines is "not good."

Meanwhile, the VAG opens an exhibition Friday featuring the past work of Herzog & de Meuron, the architecture firm it has employed. In that exhibit, the opening date for the new VAG is listed as 2021 – pushed back from the previously scheduled 2020.

The Globe was unable to ask Ms. Bartels about this delay – or any matter relating to fundraising for the new building. She had agreed to an interview following the media preview, but cancelled it abruptly, issuing a statement later in the day instead.

"We remain extremely thankful to the City of Vancouver and the government of British Columbia for their continued support," it began, adding the VAG was "working tirelessly to raise the required funds" and "making every effort to pave the way for further funding from government sources, which is a long, complex and challenging process."

With roadblocks at the government level, the VAG is focusing on the private sector for funding.

But philanthropist Michael Audain's surprise decision to build his own art gallery in Whistler has been seen as a blow to the VAG's ambitions. Mr. Audain was once the chair of the VAG's relocation committee and its foundation board – and a key public voice for the plan. He left the board last year. A few months later, he was named the VAG's first honorary chairman. While Mr. Audain remains supportive of the VAG project, his focus is now on his $30-million 56,000-square-foot gallery in Whistler, which is scheduled to open in the fall. A large fundraiser is being held in Whistler this weekend.

In addition to the Audain Gallery, there are a number of high-profile cultural projects competing for philanthropic dollars – including the new Emily Carr University of Art and Design campus in East Vancouver and the new Presentation House Gallery planned for North Vancouver.

Ms. Bartels is taking pains to appear optimistic. "This exhibition is a very exciting prelude to the unveiling of the conceptual design of our new building later this spring, when we will also be making a major funding announcement," she said in her remarks at Thursday's media preview.

The city wants clarity on this issue as soon as possible. Part of that block, known as Larwill Park (currently a parking lot across the street from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre), is to be developed under the proposal. And the city is banking on the funds from that. If the new gallery is not going to be built, the city needs to make other plans for the property. That's why the new deadline – if the city agrees to the extension – is likely to be a drop-dead one.