The Vancouver Art Gallery courts Chinese donors

NEW CANVAS | Amelia Gao at the fundraiser for the VAG’s Institute of Asian Art
NEW CANVAS | Amelia Gao at the fundraiser for the VAG’s Institute of Asian Art

As the Vancouver Art Gallery tries to build its donor base, a new class of immigrants rises in importance

When Amelia Gao set out to plan a splashy $8,000-a-table fundraiser for the gallery’s Institute of Asian Art, launched in the fall of 2014, she wasn’t sure there would be much interest among her target audience of new Canadians of Chinese descent. “We weren’t very confident that people would be interested in paying that much for a ticket,” says Gao, a gallery trustee and Victoria-based collector who immigrated to Canada in the late ’90s. But the VAG event, held in late January at the gallery, blew through its $380,000 target, raising a total of $600,000—making it one of the gallery’s biggest fundraisers of the year. “New immigrants from China have become involved in politics, education, business—but in art, we’re still a pioneer in this particular area.”

While several Vancouver arts institutions are targeting a specific subset of the Chinese-Canadian community these days—recent immigrants whose first language is Mandarin—few are seeing the return on investment that the art gallery is. The amount raised at the January gala is about as much as the $658,000 raised from all VAG fundraisers in 2015. Part of that success can be attributed to a shift in the type of immigrant. The influx of Chinese who came to Vancouver in the 1980s and ’90s, many from Hong Kong and Taiwan, “expected art institutions to be sponsored and funded by government,” says Zheng Shengtian, an adjunct director at the institute. He notes how much he struggled to fundraise for the independent Vancouver-based gallery Centre A for contemporary Asian art back in 1999.

But by the 2000s, a new wave of immigrants—many from mainland cities like Shanghai and Beijing—brought with them new attitudes about art and patronage. And the VAG launched efforts to reach out to them—giving tours in Mandarin, recruiting Chinese Canadians to its advisory boards and building blockbuster shows by recognizable Chinese artists such as Ai Wei Wei and Yang Fudong. “Many came to the gallery to see shows with familiar names they knew from China or Taiwan,” says Gao. “They felt this institution was not only for mainstream non-Chinese citizens but also for them.” Many of the new immigrants were also more educated, having studied abroad, and had exposure to China’s booming contemporary arts scene.

Attracting this new class of donor is critical to the VAG’s future as it tries to build its ambitious new $350-million gallery. While the funds raised so far do not explicitly go into the VAG’s capital fund, they are helping underwrite a full-time curator and future exhibits for Asian art. And the VAG isn’t limiting itself to Canada’s borders in its search for new Chinese donors: last March, the VAG held an event to raise awareness for the institute at the Art Basel fair in Hong Kong, and Gao says more similar events are planned in Beijing and Shanghai. “There is a small number of people who are paying attention, but we hope more Chinese Canadians will become involved in the future.”


Fundraiser: The Vancouver Art Gallery’s In the Mood for Love gala
Target: Chinese Canadians
Date: January 2016
Raised: $680,000


Fundraiser: BC Children’s Hospital A Night of Miracles gala
Target: Canadians of South Asian descent
Date: November 2015
Raised: $315,000