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Hope builds for new Vancouver Art Gallery with prospect of federal funds

Since proponents of a new Vancouver Art Gallery unveiled their much-discussed conceptual design last fall, an eerie silence has ensued.

The $350-million dream of current VAG director Kathleen Bartels was seen as pretty much dead, at least as long as the Conservative government was running the show in Ottawa. Ms. Bartels's planned vision requires funding, including $100-million from the federal government and another $50-million from the province. (That would be in addition to the $50-million in seed money former premier Gordon Campbell offered several years ago).

The Conservatives said unequivocally they had other priorities. Effectively, that meant Ms. Bartels's only hope was a change of government, one that had a different attitude toward the arts. She got her wish. Now, there is genuine optimism that Justin Trudeau's government could be inclined to extend a lifeline to Ms. Bartels, allocating money toward the project from its $20-billion social-infrastructure budget.

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It's not clear if Ottawa is disposed to cover the entire $100-million or just a significant chunk of it. Either way, it's the first bit of good news project backers have received in some time. A large contingent of officials from the City of Vancouver, including Ms. Bartels, were in the nation's capital last week to meet with officials of the Trudeau government and to plead for some of the infrastructure billions it will soon begin dispensing. One of the offices Vancouver officials dropped in on was that of Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly.

While no firm promises were made, city officials left feeling confident a new gallery could make the list of projects the government is willing to help fund.

Which is fine as far as it goes. But even if the federal government stepped up with the entire $100-million federal share, it still leaves Ms. Bartel at least $50-million short and likely far, far more than that. The gallery director is still hoping the province will come through with $50-million. That is highly unlikely.

Firstly, Premier Christy Clark, like the former Conservative government in Ottawa, does not consider a new art gallery a priority.

And there is little question that one person who has been filling her ear with reasons why it shouldn't be supported financially is real estate marketer Bob Rennie, a renowned art collector in his own right. He's adamant a new gallery makes no sense; he doesn't have much time for Ms. Bartels, either.

Mr. Rennie is the chief fundraiser for the provincial Liberals and by all accounts has done a magnificent job of not only ensuring the party has no debt heading into the next election but also has a massive war chest to boot. Ms. Clark is not going to risk doing anything that annoys someone as important to her operation as Mr. Rennie.

When I reached Mr. Rennie on Monday, he was no less firm in his belief a new art museum is a terrible idea. For starters, he said, the stated $350-million price tag has likely escalated by at least $100-million due to rising construction costs and the fact it didn't include all of the features that the project proponents are intending to build.

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He said the architects' fee – the proposed gallery was designed by the renowned Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron – could be almost $23-million alone. (Based on a 5-per-cent fee for a $450-million project). Mr. Rennie said the VAG does not have the fundraising capacity in a city like Vancouver to raise the kind of dollars needed to annually operate such an institution.

If the provincial government was inclined to give the VAG $50-million more, and the federal government stepped in with $100-million, that would bring the total amount of taxpayer dollars contributed to a new gallery at $200-million, and that doesn't include the amount of money the city of Vancouver is foregoing by donating the prime piece of Vancouver real estate upon which the new gallery would be built.

"That is taxpayers' dollars we're talking about," said Mr. Rennie. "It's not pennies from heaven."

He says if Ottawa gives Vancouver $1-billion toward a planned Broadway subway, and $250-million for social housing, he can't imagine it also throwing in $100-million for a new art gallery.

"If you were to ask me which one of the three is likely to fall off the table in the end, the answer is pretty obvious," said Mr. Rennie.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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