The new Vancouver Art Gallery is bold. How they plan to pay for it

The gallery will back on to two towers separated by an alley that will connect it to Dunsmuir

The view of the future Gallery from above the Dunsmuir St. Viaduct

Looking from Yaletown towards the future gallery

Absent federal or provincial support, the project faces a steep uphill climb

With splashy renderings and a new $23-million pledge, the Vancouver Art Gallery on Tuesday unveiled its conceptual design for a new museum building on West Georgia, to be completed in 2021, taking a big step forward in its move out of the space-constrained, heritage-designated courthouse downtown. Indeed, the VAG’s is the largest arts-related private fundraising initiative in B.C. history, with the gallery and its supporters seeking to raise $350 million.

The proposal, first seriously floated in 2007, will relocate the VAG from its courthouse to a new seven-storey building on city-owned land at the foot of the viaducts. The new building will have nearly double the exhibition space of the current structure—increasing from 40,000 square feet to 85,000 square feat—and will house a permanent collection of work by B.C. artists, a 350-seat auditorium, free galleries on the ground floor and an Institute of Asian Art. In total, the building will be 310,000 square feet, occupying the Georgia Street-facing third of Larwill Park.

Spread out over seven floors, with two floors below grounds, the exhibition space will be split with 60 per cent of floors five, six and seven and 40 per cent on the bottom two floors. The 230-foot wood box structure will open onto a plaza, on grade with the plaza in front of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, with space for a future expansion. The plans also call for Cambie Street to be left open to traffic. The wood-panelled exterior also evokes a growing niche sector in B.C.: specialized wood panels and beams, which are increasingly being used in the building of taller wood towers around the world (it’s also an initiative for which the province has pulled out its pocketbook in the past). The gallery hopes to begin construction on the building by 2017. 

But the proposal still faces a steep hill before it breaks ground. The idea of moving the VAG to Larwill Park won 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.) That deadline came and went. “We’ve talked with the city and we’re going to work through the deadlines with them,” said Kathleen Bartels, director of the VAG, after the presentation. “We’re in that process.”

While the Gallery’s board pledged $23 million on Tuesday, in addition to the $40 million raised over the last five years from private donors, the project has raised only $50 million of the estimated $200 million that it hopes to raise from the provincial and federal government. “This is an exciting time for the Vancouver Art Gallery as plans for the new building continue to progress,” said Peter Fassbender, the provincial government’s new minister for community, culture and sport. Fassbender, nor any representative of the province, was at the unveiling on Tuesday morning, and the province has made no new commitments since 2009. “This project is simply too expensive,” wrote a spokesperson for then Canadian Heritage Minister Shelly Glover to BCBusiness earlier this year. 

But at the presentation on Tuesday, Bruce Munro Wright, chair of the board of trustees at the VAG, said the campaign is only in its earliest phase and that his team will seek to win public support and pledges from private donors before asking the federal and provincial governments. In a nod to the Royal Ontario Museum and the Ontario Gallery of Art—which received a respective $30 million and $24 million from the feds—Bartels added, “We feel very confident. There’s never been a civic project at this scale without support from the provincial and federal government.”