How a $100 million private gift got the Vancouver Art Gallery’s transformation back on track

A rendering of the new Vancouver Art Gallery building. The design includes over 80,000 square feet of exhibition space, a theater, library, artist studios, space for a preschool and visual arts daycare, an Indigenous community space and a playground. 40,000 square feet.Vancouver Art Gallery

It’s been 11 years since the City of Vancouver agreed to set aside land for a new Vancouver Art Gallery. VAG officials have long maintained that the current building – a former courthouse in the city center – is inadequate. Since that initial city council vote, that land – a surface parking lot – has been on hold; the only thing that was built there was temporary modular social housing. The gallery plans, meanwhile, have been a rollercoaster ride.

But after years of shutdowns and restarts, triumphant announcements and long silences, there is finally momentum, once again.

Gallery officials meet regularly with the city, the town hall is reviewing the duration of the rental contract, an open day is planned for March and the shovels could be in the ground next year.

All it took was one private donation – $100 million.

“Almost 100%, it changed everything,” says VAG Director Anthony Kiendl of the record-breaking donation from philanthropist Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshi Karasawa, which was announced Nov. 4. “I always believed it was possible before this. But I think it gives the certainty and the confidence to realize the scale of the vision.

“I mean, I guess if we had tried and failed for a few more years,” Kiendl continues, “maybe you’re back to square one and starting from scratch — a different place, a different concept. “

This, it seems, will not be necessary.

The November announcement included a fairly major overhaul of the building. The modification of the exterior – which was originally to be clad in wood, then glass – attracted a lot of attention. The new design utilizes a copper Salish-inspired “woven” pattern developed during a series of collaborative workshops with Indigenous artists.

The design also includes over 80,000 square feet of exhibition space, a theater, library, artist studios, space for a preschool and visual arts daycare, an Indigenous community space, and a courtyard. of 40,000 square feet.

Gone is the dramatic entry procedure: entering from below and whisking guests up to the third floor via an escalator. Instead, visitors will enter from busy Georgia Street into a foyer.

Also gone: an entire floor of underground storage, saving an estimated $12 million.

The restaurant and theater have been moved to the bottom of the building. This means that for after-hours events and dining, there is no need to keep the lights on and station security throughout.

And while the original plan relied mostly on elevators and stairs, except for this grand entrance, the new plan connects each floor with escalators. “We don’t want it to look like a Nordstrom department store,” says Kiendl. “We’ve found a really elegant way to make that not the case.”

Much of the redesign was done in consultation with Audain himself, a home builder who knows his trade.

Audain hadn’t been a fan of the original coating. And there were other changes that he said would make the building more functional, more efficient, and less expensive to build.

“I think ‘suggest’ is the right word,” says Kiendl. “He didn’t mandate anything or demand anything, but he suggested.”

The 100 million dollar man

The block on which the new Vancouver Art Gallery is to be located – it will share the land with offices – is bordered by four streets, one of which is Dunsmuir, named after coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, the great-great -father of Michael Audain. .

Audain, 84, may have been born into privilege, but money was often scarce, as he writes in his recently published memoir, A man in his time… .

Born in England, Audain was 9 years old when he moved to Victoria with his father. In his youth, Audain was a passionate activist. He was jailed in the United States for protesting bus segregation as a Freedom Rider. He was a delegate to the founding convention of the NDP and founder of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

When an opportunity to start building houses presented itself, he took it. His company Polygon Homes has built more than 30,000 homes.

Along the way, he started collecting art. He amassed an amazing collection – Northwest Coast Native art, Emily Carr, the Group of Seven, British Columbia photodesigners, Mexican modernists. His current passion is Jean-Paul Riopelle; Audain is one of the founders of the Riopelle Foundation.

For years, Audain has been active in the campaign to build a new Vancouver art gallery, chairing its relocation committee at one point. He is now Honorary Chairman of the Board.

One of the first considerations was to expand into the adjacent Robson Square – an option that Audain said VAG architect Arthur Erickson was enthusiastic about. But that part of the real estate went to the University of British Columbia.

Construction on the current site was deemed impossible. The city and the gallery eventually settled on what was once Larwill Park, a few blocks east of the current gallery.

When Audain announced in 2012 that he would build his own museum in Whistler, British Columbia, it was seen as a blow to VAG’s plans. He said he wanted to see a museum built for his art during his lifetime – which some saw as a lack of faith in the VAG project. The Audain Art Museum opened in 2016.

The VAG forged ahead by revealing in 2015, under the direction of Kathleen Bartels, a design by Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron. Bartels – who had led and championed the new construction project – left VAG in 2019; his contract was not renewed.

So why would Audain return now with this Ave Maria gift?

“I think I had to be invited, didn’t I?” he says, noting his admiration for Daina Augaitis, who served as acting director after Bartels left.

“When Daina was there, she invited me to come back and give her thoughts on the design they had and how it could be improved somewhat,” says Audain. “And I had never felt invited to do so before. If indeed I made some remarks or suggestions earlier, they did not involve any modification of the plans. As someone who has regularly visited art museums all my life since I was 15, I felt that maybe I had something to offer. And I was pleased to find that Daina and subsequently the new director, Anthony, were quite receptive to some of my points of view.

When asked if Bartels hadn’t been receptive, Audain declined to answer directly. “It’s all in the past, so I don’t really want to go back. So that’s all water under the bridge now.

Bartels, now executive director and CEO of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto, declined to comment this week on the future of the VAG.

Audain says he was also inspired by the donation made by the Chan family – an unprecedented $40 million announced before Bartels left in 2019. The new facility will be known as the Vancouver Art Gallery at the Chan Center for the Visual Arts.

Not a done deal

This is a $400 million project; there is still $160 million to raise. Kiendl says the projected cost is current, with professional estimates made as recently as November. Although the actual cost is not known with certainty, he acknowledges, until the offer is made.

Some of that money, Kiendl and Audain hope, will come from the federal government. They say the project would have a significant impact on COVID recovery, creating around 3,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs in tourism.

The 2013 memorandum of understanding between the gallery and the city provided for $100 million from Ottawa and an additional $50 million from the provincial government (which gave $50 million in 2008), in exchange for a long-term lease. term of the field.

The city told The Globe this week it was developing a new lease for the site and was reviewing various terms.

“The gallery is looking to go beyond the structure that had been put in place to secure the funds and right now everything is on the table,” Kiendl said. “We’re looking at it with a fresh perspective and ultimately looking to reach our goal of $160 million from as many sources as possible.” He and Audain note that Ottawa has invested millions in other public museums.

“I hear from donors that it’s a matter of equity,” says Kiendl. “They contributed; they would like to see some of their best taxes contribute as well. »

One thing seems certain: Vancouver real estate marketer Bob Rennie – who has a renowned contemporary art collection and was a vocal critic of the VAG project – won’t come to the table. And this despite the departure of Bartels (with whom he did not get along). He said he would rather see the money spent on the art itself than on a building.

“My stance on the Vancouver Art Gallery hasn’t changed,” Rennie told The Globe. “I’ll leave this one to Michael.”

As for what would happen to the current VAG headquarters if the gallery moves, the city intends to maintain the current cultural designation of the site. In a statement, it said it would follow standard procedures to determine future use “once the Vancouver Art Gallery has completed fundraising and construction, and occupancy of the new art gallery will eventually begin”.

Among the institutions that have already shown interest in the building is the Museum of Vancouver, which is in a much less central location in Kitsilano.

“I think it would be great for the Museum of Vancouver to be in a historic building in the center of the city,” says Mauro Vescera, who took over as MOV director in 2019 and attended the Nov. 4 funding announcement. . But nothing is certain. “There are a lot of moving parts.”

Construction deadlines are constantly changing. In 2013, when the city council voted to officially designate the land for the VAG, the planned opening according to a city report was 2019.

The new schedule foresees a five-year construction process. With a first groundbreaking in 2023, the gallery could open in 2028.

“I think Anthony really has the potential with his team to be successful,” Audain said. “And my goodness, this city really deserves a major art museum.” He notes that Vancouver is revered internationally for its visual artists – but lacks a proper public gallery.

“If we build wonderful convention centers, hockey rinks and sports stadiums, we can certainly build a world-class art gallery.”

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William E. Bennett