Vancouver Art Gallery | BCBusiness

Vancouver Art Gallery | BCBusiness

With over $300 million to raise, VAG's ambitious new campus may never see the light of day

A city-owned parking lot known as Larwill Park in downtown Vancouver—the proposed home for one of the most ambitious cultural building projects B.C. has ever seen—is likely to house cars, not Carrs, for a good while longer.

Just one month before a council-imposed deadline to raise $150 million in government funding for the project’s estimated $350 million in construction costs, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s plan for a landmark campus kitty corner to BC Place appears fated to be postponed, perhaps indefinitely. By most accounts, the gallery is nowhere near to meeting that fundraising deadline, and it’s likely to miss another city condition for the nominal 99-year lease on the site: to raise 75 per cent of its construction costs by December.


The federal government isn’t keen to give the VAG any money for its proposed new building. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been willing to spend on select cultural institutions. Below, some recent largesse:

Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg: $121 million
Status: completed in 2014

National Arts Centre renovation, Ottawa: $110 million
Status: underway

Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa: $80 million
Status: underway

Royal Ontario Museum renovation, Toronto: $30 million
Status: completed

Art Gallery of Ontario renovation, Toronto: $24 million
Status: completed in 2008

The VAG’s fundraising challenge is something of a perfect storm. Both levels of government have nothing to be gained politically from dishing out hundreds of millions of dollars for what’s perceived, in the hinterland, as an elite big-city institution; it’s not the power base of either the provincial Liberals or the federal Conservatives. And the VAG is one of several cultural projects planned or underway that draws on a similar, small pool of benefactors.

So what next? In the event that the VAG doesn’t think it will meet its April 30 deadline, explains Richard Newirth, director of cultural services at the City of Vancouver, gallery director Kathleen Bartels will have to write a letter to the city—by the end of March—requesting that council revisit its deadlines. At some point after that, he adds, city manager Penny Ballem would submit a revised memorandum of understanding for council to vote on. As for the fast-approaching fundraising deadline, “those internal conversations and the conversations with the VAG have not occurred.”

The idea of moving the VAG to Larwill Park was first floated in 2007, garnering council approval in late April 2013. The catch, however, was that it had to secure a $100-million contribution from the federal government and a further $50 million from the provincial government by the end of April 2015. (The provincial government, under Gordon Campbell, had already committed $50 million to the project.) Reading the tea leaves of recent missives from ministry flacks, that seems unlikely. “This project is simply too expensive,” a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage minister Shelly Glover said in an email to BCBusiness. “At this point there is no new capital funding,” wrote a spokesperson for B.C.’s minister for community, sport and cultural development, Coralee Oakes.

Sensing that government funding would be an obstacle, the VAG and its leadership have, in the past year, been burning up the phone lines approaching major private donors, as well as promoting (near and far) their new “starchitect” for the project, Swiss-based Herzog & de Meuron. But that appeal to private donors was dealt a serious blow when last June Michael Audain, founder of developer Polygon Group and the gallery’s foremost private backer, departed from the VAG board. Audain has decided to shift his focus to his private collection—a blue-chip mix of Canadian modernists, such as Lawren Harris and E.J. Hughes, and works by acclaimed contemporary photo-based artists—to be housed in a $30-million museum in Whistler, set to open this fall.

It’s difficult to overestimate Audain’s role in building support for the VAG’s Larwill Park plan. At the peak of his involvement, Audain had drawn $40 million in commitments from the private sector for the capital campaign and became the public face of the fundraising effort. With Audain out, there is no prominent voice in the business community rallying for the move to Larwill Park—only carping from the sidelines from oft-quoted VAG critic, realtor Bob Rennie.

When the VAG begins its public pitch to donors this spring, with concept sketches in hand, theirs will be the largest arts-related private fundraising initiative in B.C. history. Part of the VAG’s evolving pitch has been intersecting its programming with areas of interest to donors; last year’s blockbuster Forbidden City exhibit, which received $1 million in funding from the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, a major investor in Canada’s oil sands, and $500,000 from Vancouver donor Robert Ho, is a prime example. Indeed, the VAG has promised a permanent space for Asian art in its new building, with Bartels promising “significant funding from donors who live part of the year in China and part in Vancouver.”

But with over $300 million in total fundraising to go, and the clock quickly ticking down on 2015, it’s an open question as to whether that space will ever get built—or if the bulk of the VAG’s collection will continue to gather dust deep below the passing crowds on West Georgia.