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Several plans and due dates for the Vancouver Art Gallery's new location have fallen through. Marsha Lederman looks at when the paint on the VAG's future will finally dry

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Saturday, January 13, 2018 – Page R1

The plot of land across the street from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver is still a parking lot. By now, the EasyPark was supposed to have been a construction site.

Now that it's 2018, another target date for the Vancouver Art Gallery's proposed new building has come and gone: The slated 2017 groundbreaking did not take place, despite assurances in the spring from the VAG that the project was "on target, on budget, on time."

Groundbreaking at the site known as Larwill Park (long before it was a parking lot, it was an actual park - and in between, a bus depot) has now been pushed back to 2018.

Still, the director of the gallery, Kathleen Bartels, says all is well regarding the plans for the new building, on both the design and fundraising fronts.

The reason for the delay revolves around funding - and the chief reason for the funding delay has to do with the change of provincial government this year, according to Bartels.

"We haven't been able to move forward as quickly as we'd like when we talk about the potential of groundbreaking ... but we're moving forward," she said during a year-end interview with The Globe and Mail.

The Vancouver Art Gallery's current home is a former provincial courthouse in central downtown, originally designed by Francis Rattenbury and renovated in the early 1980s by Arthur Erickson Architects. Its exterior is a gathering point for the city, but the building has all kinds of problems when it comes to exhibiting art - it's too small, to begin with.

Bartels joined the gallery in 2001 from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and began what has become a lengthy campaign to build a new gallery. Expansion on the current site - the solution favoured by some vocal supporters - was not the best option, study found.

At one point, the province gave the VAG $50-million and a deal was reached to build the gallery at a site on False Creek. "The goal is to break ground shortly after the [2010] Olympics with a target completion date of late 2013 or early 2014," read a Globe story published in May, 2008.

But in 2010, that plan died and the VAG landed on Larwill Park, a few blocks east of the current gallery, as the right site for a new building. A crucial vote at City Council in 2013 granted twothirds of that parcel of land to the VAG (the rest of the site is slated for commercial use) with conditions attached. In 2014, the VAG selected Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron to design the building. The Pritzker Architecture Prize winners are working with the Vancouver office of Perkins + Will.

The concept design was revealed in September, 2015: a 310,000-square-foot, 230-foothigh vertically oriented architectural statement with a wood exterior; a 40,000-square-foot publicly accessible courtyard; and more than 85,000 square feet of exhibition space - more than double the gallery's current capacity. Response to the stacked-box design was mixed.

The expectation was that the VAG would break ground in 2017 with a targeted opening date of 2021.

In a spring 2017 interview with The Globe, Ann Webb, the VAG's associate director, director of engagement and strategic initiatives, said the project was "on target, on budget, on time."

The budget is $350-million - $300-million for construction and $50-million for an endowment. In spite of the length of time it is taking to realize the project, Bartels says that figure hasn't changed.

"We are designing to budget, which I think is a very critical element. And we've been very rigorous in our budget oversight," she says. "Through the whole process we've always carried money for [cost] escalation.

So we've been very mindful of that - that prices change as you move forward with a project. So we've been carrying escalation to ensure that we're covered for any of those sorts of issues."

The VAG is seeking $100-million from Ottawa and an additional $50-million from the province. The rest is to come from the private sector. The VAG has until the end of 2018 to reach its government fundraising targets. (The city gave the VAG an extension to the memorandum of understanding after the gallery failed to meet its first deadline.)

In April, the VAG submitted its business case to the provincial government, which the province is to send on the VAG's behalf to the federal government in an application to the New Building Canada Fund (which supports infrastructure projects deemed to be of national, regional or local significance that contribute to economic growth, the environment and stronger communities). The VAG's ask - for $100-million over the period of a few years - has not yet been sent to Ottawa, as the province determines its priorities, Bartels explains. (Priorities for this fund are set by the provinces and communicated to Ottawa.) But she calls government feedback about the project "extremely positive."

Bartels has met with several provincial and federal ministers about the proposed building, including federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, and provincial minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Lisa Beare. She has not yet met with B.C. Premier John Horgan but points out that his chief of staff is Geoff Meggs, a former Vancouver city councillor who used to sit on the VAG board. "He's been very helpful and instrumental so I think that relationship is very important," Bartels says.

(A request for an interview with Beare was turned down; The Globe was told the minister is not speaking on the subject at this time but would be happy to talk at an "appropriate moment.") In the meantime, the VAG has been targeting its fundraising efforts at the private sector, with results: Bartels says the VAG has raised $40-million in private money; $10-million of that in the last eight months of 2017. That brings gallery officials close to the point where they can launch a public capital campaign.

"Our goal before we go public with the campaign is to at least get to, I would say, probably $50to $60-million [from the private sector]. So we're closing in," she said shortly before the holiday break. "We have a series of asks out there right now, which could push us over that top."

The upside of the delay, Bartels says, is that the VAG has had more time to work on the design.

Now in the design development phase, they are looking at public spaces, the configuration of the galleries, lighting and circulation - how people move through the building.

"I think at this point now we have our kind of final circulation plan. That doesn't mean there won't be tweaking along the way, but as we know visiting many museums, some museums get it right and some don't. And it's so critical in a vertical museum to get it right," she says.

Upstairs at the current VAG, they have constructed a large 1:40 scale model for the permanent collection area on the lobby level, and have been playing with layout using images of artworks. "By doing that, you really have an understanding and a sense of 'Okay, well maybe the doors need to go here versus there.' " The groundbreaking is not the only big development anticipated for 2018. The VAG is also expected to name a new chief curator in the first quarter to replace Daina Augaitis, who left this year (she is now chief curator emerita). They're down to a "very short shortlist," Bartels says, after having contact with more than 1,200 people about the position.

Another unresolved matter at the VAG has to do with 10 sketches attributed to Group of Seven co-founder J.E.H. MacDonald and acquired by the institution about two years ago. As The Globe has reported, questions have been raised about the works - which the VAG revealed with much fanfare had been buried for decades on MacDonald's property outside Toronto. Some of the sketches were sent to the Canadian Conservation Institute for testing. While the VAG received the results of that testing in September, 2016, the gallery has refused to disclose those results. (The CCI has referred The Globe's inquiries to the VAG.) In our interview, Bartels again declined to share the contents of the report, nor would she say why they're not being made public.

"We know there are varying opinions about the authorship of some of the J.E.H. MacDonald paintings that the gallery acquired and these works have been and will continue to be the subject of further study and research," she said. "And that's the gallery's position at this point."

She said the gallery "has been doing our due diligence and we will continue to do further research on these particular paintings."

As someone who reports on the Vancouver Art Gallery, I have heard some skepticism about those paintings - but also a great deal of skepticism about the new building. What would Bartels say, I asked, to anyone feeling skeptical that the VAG is actually going to build the new facility?

"I would say it's going to happen. We have no skepticism on our front," she says. "We've been doing our good work on the design front and the fundraising front. These sorts of projects cannot be rushed and they need to be thoughtful. It's a very big project and it's a project that is for generations to come and we want to get it as close to right as we possibly can."

Associated Graphic

The new Vancouver Art Gallery will be built at Larwill Park, a former park that currently serves as a parking lot in the city's downtown.


Conceptual designs by architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron show what the new Vancouver Art Gallery - years in planning - could ultimately look like.


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