This week, Emily Carr University of Art + Design unveiled the plan for its new campus: a high-tech, public-welcoming 26,500-square-metre game-changer that seems sure to create a dynamic learning environment for students and will invigorate the neighbourhood known as the Flats. The Diamond Schmitt Architects' design includes two public plazas, three mountain-view atria, a 2,800-square-metre learning commons, and studios and classrooms that spill out onto common areas meant to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration.
Then there's the city's other big cultural infrastructure project-in-waiting: a new Vancouver Art Gallery.
Where Emily Carr has been quietly and smoothly moving toward getting shovels in the ground this summer and welcoming its first cohort in 2017, the Vancouver Art Gallery trajectory has been a messy road to maybe.
Before even presenting a design, Emily Carr raised $118-million of its $122-million projected cost, including $101-million from the province. Raising the rest through private donations should be easier with the design now public.
By contrast, the VAG has raised $55-million of its projected $350-million cost, the vast majority of it also from the province. But it is staring down a looming deadline.
Two years ago, council approved a long-term lease of the parcel of land known as Larwill Park. The VAG would receive about two-thirds of the block, rather than the whole thing as it had requested, and would have to share it with a development.
The deal was conditional on several factors, including a fundraising timeline: It would have to raise $150-million from governments by April 30, 2015. Ottawa would have to provide $100-million, and the province $50-million (in addition to the $50-million previously granted by then-premier Gordon Campbell).
With that money clearly not in the immediate cards, the city had been planning to offer an extension to the VAG of perhaps 12 months, with an eye to the federal election and the possibility of a more VAG-friendly federal Liberal government.
But there has been frustration at city hall over concerns the VAG has been ignoring many of the guidelines the city laid out – including a feeling that the project is more extravagant than the city had hoped.
These concerns were communicated to VAG officials in a letter dated March 10, as reported in The Globe and Mail last month. The mayor's letter reiterated the terms council had agreed to, and reminded the gallery that proposed designs need to comply with those terms.
Despite the finger-wagging correspondence, and what has been described to The Globe as a disappointing response from the gallery, city hall remains eager to see the project realized, and staff are looking at options around an extension.
The VAG has had a long, tough slog of it. A perhaps ill-conceived, or at least premature, show at the gallery right now features the past work of VAG architects Herzog & de Meuron and charts the gallery's path to a new facility – dating back to 1998, when a report found its current home to be deficient. VAG director Kathleen Bartels has been working to get the gallery into an appropriate facility for more than a decade. There have been many twists and turns. At one point it was heading for False Creek, but that turned out to be a false start. In 2012, one of the most vocal (and deep-pocketed) supporters of the new VAG, Michael Audain, surprised everyone by announcing he was building his own gallery in Whistler, telling The Globe at the time he remained determined to see a new VAG but that it "appears that's going to be a longer-term exercise."
The Audain Art Museum is set to open this fall. Meanwhile, in North Vancouver, Presentation House Gallery is building a $15-million facility, to open in 2017. Last fall it announced a $4-million lead gift from the Audain Foundation and Mr. Audain's company, Polygon Homes.
So the VAG is competing for fundraising dollars, and with one big disadvantage: The influential Bob Rennie, who has the ear of the Premier, has been a vocal opponent of its plan. He also sits on Emily Carr's board.
Emily Carr is on track to create a new cultural hub in East Van in an area where several private galleries have set up shop, as well as the Centre for Digital Media.
A new VAG could also be transformative, solidifying a cultural precinct on the eastern edge of downtown, across from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and the CBC.
This tale of two cultural institutions will lead to a new chapter for Vancouver. But will both stories have a happy ending?