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The Globe and Mail

Vancouver Art Gallery’s new space is a Pyrrhic victory

Vancouver Art Gallery officials were celebrating this week, after learning the city is recommending they receive a 99-year lease for two-thirds of a block known as Larwill Park.

But of course, securing the land – currently a parking lot on the edge of downtown, a few blocks from their current site – is hardly a done deal. There is money to raise – and lots of it.

The 99-year lease recommended in a city report is conditional on the VAG raising about $100-million from Ottawa and another $50-million from the province by April 30, 2015.

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Initial indications suggest that will be challenging.

"At this time a multimillion-dollar funding commitment is not something our government can afford," a spokesperson for Heritage Minister James Moore told The Globe on Wednesday, pointing out that the ministry had not yet been presented with any official proposal for a new gallery.

Provincially, Culture Minister Bill Bennett said Friday that providing an additional $50-million in the short term is "not very likely," even though his party supports a new VAG (and under Gordon Campbell, already provided $50-million). "It's an exciting opportunity that the City of Vancouver has created here, but we certainly would not want the Vancouver Art Gallery to assume that we would have any capital dollars over the next two years."

Should the NDP win the election, culture critic Spencer Chandra Herbert said this week that his party "would be more than happy to consider this, but in the context of many other requests."

This does not mean the project is doomed; the city has indicated to The Globe that should private donors come forward with that money rather than government, that condition would be satisfied (although such as scenario is perhaps hard to imagine in this economy).

But in any case, let's dream for a moment: Should the VAG raise the money, get the land, and build a new museum, it opens up possibilities for its current home, the old provincial courthouse designed by Francis Rattenbury which is at the heart of the city, geographically and otherwise.

The city wants a cultural use for the site. What might it become, years down the road?

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"The redevelopment of the Rattenbury building is going to be every bit as important for the city as a new purpose-built art gallery," says Ron Stern, chair of the Vancouver Concert Hall and Theatre Society.

His group wants to build a concert hall on – or rather under – the site. Its proposal includes a 1,950-seat concert hall under the Georgia Street plaza, plus a 450-seat small theatre, leaving room for other uses, such as exhibition space. The Bing Thom design revealed two years ago remains "very much alive," says Mr. Stern, who would like to see the site integrated with Robson Square.

"If you think of the two blocks together, you're really opening up even greater possibilities for the city. So I'm sure one of the options you'll be looking at is the closure of Robson Street, with plazas on both sides. All of a sudden we're looking like a real city."

The Museum of Vancouver (MOV) is also interested in the site. "It's a great location in a historic building," said CEO Nancy Noble on Friday, during a break at a (coincidentally scheduled) relocation meeting.

"It's really in the heart of the city," she said. "People gather at that location and because the Museum of Vancouver's vision is to lead provocative conversations about the city's past, present and future, it feeds into that. We want to be known as the place that we have conversations about what our city is and can become, and that location is already doing that, de facto."

She also points out that the building has already been renovated to be a museum, with exhibition halls and storage space. That said, the MOV is considering other potential locations, including the post office.

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There has been talk about the possibility of an Asian art museum moving into the VAG space. Robert H. N. Ho, a wealthy West Vancouver-based philanthropist with an interest in bringing Chinese art to western audiences, heads a foundation that recently gave millions to the Guggenheim Museum in New York to commission works from contemporary Chinese artists.

When asked about possible interest in the site, Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation CEO Ted Lipman replied by e-mail: "Our Foundation is interested in any development which seeks to grow Vancouver as a cultural hub between East and West … As a funder of cultural projects we focus primarily on 'software,' people and programmes, not hardware and buildings. But any major development of Vancouver as a nexus for Chinese culture is likely to get our attention."

Other potential uses: a museum for First Nations art or more room for the University of British Columbia, which already has a presence in Robson Square.

The conversation seems to be centred around the site as a shared cultural hub. Mr. Stern says there are ways to incorporate a multitude of groups.

"The focus has to be not just individual users," he says. "It has to be, 'What's the highest and best use for the best block in this city?' That's what the city has to ask itself. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They can't blow it."

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