“Finally, we’re here,” said David Calabrigo, the board chair of the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), during Friday morning’s “ground awakening,” the official construction groundbreaking ceremony, for the long-awaited project to build the art museum’s new home.
Site remediation and construction activities will begin over the coming weeks on the vacant parking lot site of 181 West Georgia Street at the northeast corner of the intersection of West Georgia Street and Cambie Street — next to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre — in downtown Vancouver.
It was also announced today that an additional $5 million had been raised from a donation by the Djavad Mowafaghian Foundation, bringing the VAG’s total amount raised for its new home to $345 million or 86% of the $400 million budget, which includes a $50 million operational endowment.
After years of a sluggish pace with fundraising, the project saw new momentum from the November 2022 announcement of a historic $100 million donation by Michael Audain, the chairman of Polygon Homes, and a renowned art collector and philanthropist.
“The building will in effect serve as the ‘Art Gallery of British Columbia’, which really makes sense since many other provinces have a provincial art gallery,” said Audain during today’s event, who was the only speaker to receive a standing ovation from the large audience of donors and supporters.
In November 2022, the project also received a financial boost from the provincial government, with its commitment growing to $100 million — up from the $50 million original promise of 2008.
“The core stuff of government — housing, public safety, education, and healthcare — that’s the focus of our government. But any government that is exclusively focused on service delivery has a blind spot and is missing a key element, which I feel is a responsibility of government. It’s to recognize the full human history that includes sport, art, and culture, and also the economic impact that brings,” said Premier David Eby today.
“It is really apparent the art gallery is outgrowing its [existing] space, and they can’t put on the kind of exhibitions that they have the opportunity to present as an international-leading art institution because of the restrictions that they face.”
Out of about 10 speakers, Michael Audain was the only one to get a standing ovation from the large crowd of donors & supporters.
— Kenneth Chan (@iamkennethchan) September 15, 2023
The new art gallery, designed by Switzerland-based architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, with the Vancouver office of Perkins&Will as the architect of record, is conceived as a 228-ft-tall stack of varying-sized box volumes, which contains 10 levels of interior space. It features a mass timber design with an Indigenous-inspired “basket weave” veil, along with a high-performance envelope towards achieving a Passive House green building standard.
Herzog de Meuron is perhaps best known for designing Beijing’s Birds Nest Stadium, and some of the world’s most renowned museums, including London’s Tate Modern.
The new VAG’s total building floor area will be about 300,000 sq ft, including 80,000 sq ft of dedicated exhibition and gallery space. In contrast, the existing VAG inside the heritage courthouse building is just under 170,000 sq ft, with about 40,000 sq ft of exhibition and gallery space.
The expanded exhibition space will enable the VAG to show more of its permanent collection, including works by Emily Carr and Indigenous artists. According to a 2015 internal audit by the City of Vancouver, the VAG at the time had about 12,000 works worth $260 million. But due to the limited space, it is only able to exhibit a tiny fraction of its collection, with the vast majority kept in underground storage.
In addition to doubling the size of the exhibition space, the new VAG will have a 265-seat auditorium theatre, five classrooms, artist studios, a resource centre, library, archives, Indigenous community space, and the location of the Institute of Asian Art, along with a restaurant, teahouse, and bar.
“We’re not just constructing a building, but a creative hub and a crossroads that supports the work of artists and other cultural practitioners from across British Columbia and beyond… Art museums are uniquely equipped to share new knowledge with mass audiences. Transcending any singular language or way of thinking, multi-sensory and pluralistic communication is integral to our survival in the 21st century,” said Anthony Kiendl, the CEO and executive director of the VAG.
“As we transition to our new building, we’re set to grow our public programming space to ensure visitors from every walk of life can enrich their perspective. Embarking on the construction of a purpose-built home will provide the optimal platform to pursue these goals.”
At ground level, the new museum will provide 63,000 sq ft of outdoor courtyard public space.
Kiendl says the site — which is at the narrow point of the downtown Vancouver peninsula, at the top of the escarpment — was historically a crossroads for Indigenous people to get from one place to another. With the courtyard, he says, the new VAG will establish a new space for people to cut through between SkyTrain Stadium-Chinatown Staton’s Beatty Street entrance and West Georgia Street towards the Central Business District.
The City of Vancouver did not provide a direct financial contribution to the project, but it provided the land for the new building, with a 2013 agreement providing a 99-year lease to the non-profit organization. The property, based on its current zoning, was worth $50 million at the time, and its value has since doubled.
The new VAG is expected to generate $88.2 million in annual economic growth from tourism and add $84.4 million in local GDP from operations and hospitality activities. Over 4,000 jobs will be created from construction and ongoing operations.
It is also expected to provide a major lift to the immediate area, with synergies to new office developments, such as The Post with Amazon and Westbank’s steam plant office building redevelopment, and the cultural institutions of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch, CBC Vancouver studios, and the two stadiums.
“This means a lot not just to the arts community, but to the City of Vancouver. The construction is going to create a lot of jobs, and the economic benefit after. It’s going to have a huge impact on the City of Vancouver. It’s going to give it even more swagger, and it’s going to plant the seed for future generations,” said Mayor Ken Sim.
“People are going to come here and enjoy the arts, and be inspired. They choose careers in film, gaming, augmented reality, virtual reality, photography, digital animation, or the arts in general.”
When complete in 2028, it will be formally named the “Vancouver Art Gallery at the Chan Centre for the Visual Arts,” acknowledging the $40 million donation made by the Chan Family Foundation in 2019, which is best known for making possible the UBC Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.
During today’s event, several speakers, including federal MP Hedy Fry, expressed a desire for the federal government to provide a greater contribution beyond its $30 million, which is largely funded by a federal green building design grant.
Audain made a critique that the federal government is willing to provide billions of dollars for arts and culture initiatives in Central Canada, “but support here [in BC] has not been forthcoming.”
Fry said, “I can promise you we will fight for that.”
The vision for relocating VAG to a new purpose-built home first began nearly two decades ago. The Plaza of Nations site at the edge of Northeast False Creek was previously considered as the location before the organization and municipal and provincial governments chose the Larwill parking lot site. Herzog & de Meuron’s initial design for the new VAG at the Larwill site was first unveiled in 2015, at which point fundraising began.
The relocation of the VAG also presents a major opportunity for a new museum to take over the former courthouse building, which was built in 1906, used as a courthouse until 1979, and then used as the VAG since 1983 after a significant renovation and conversion designed by Arthur Erickson.
The heritage building is owned by the provincial government, with the City of Vancouver holding a 100-year head lease on the property until 2079. The VAG’s operations at the building are made possible by a sub-lease over the past four decades.
What should happen to the heritage courthouse building after the Vancouver Art Gallery leaves the premises?
— Kenneth Chan (@iamkennethchan) September 15, 2023