British Columbia

Several questions but few firm answers for Vancouver Art Gallery's future after director's departure

In the absence of information or comment by Bartels, some in the art community are wondering whether it will mean a change in the longtime strategy of raising funds for a new downtown building. 

A longstanding proposal for a new building is still in place, but a path to completion is unclear

The Vancouver Art Gallery has been advocating for a new building at Larwill Park, across the street from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, since 2013. (Vancouver Art Gallery )

Stephen Sondheim once wrote that "art isn't easy" — and neither, apparently, is finding out information about the Vancouver Art Gallery's future.  

In the week since Kathleen Bartels stepped down as director of the Vancouver Art Gallery after 18 years, few details about why she left — or what comes next for the gallery — have been forthcoming. 

Multiple current or recently departed board members declined interview requests about the art gallery's future or Bartels' departure or deferred comment to chair David Calabrigo, who did not respond to an interview request. 

In the absence of information or comment by Bartels, some in the art community are wondering whether it will mean a change in the longtime strategy of raising funds for a new downtown building. 

"It became a major focus for Kathleen. She really wanted to get it done. She thought it was very important. It is important, but the real problem is can we get it done or can't we get it done?" said  Andrew Gruft, a donor and professor emeritus at UBC.

"The new director may decide that they want to keep pushing and keep going for it or they may decide that they want to scrap the idea of 10 years of banging your head against the problem."

The Vancouver Art Gallery has long held that its current building, formerly the city's main courthouse, is too small and not designed for art collections. (CBC)

Not enough money in town?

The VAG has pursued a new building for over a decade, first at the Plaza of Nations site and now across the street from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. 

The plan has stayed the same since 2013: raise $150 million from private donors and convince the B.C. and federal governments to provide $100 million each, creating a $300 million building on city-owned land that would be given to the gallery on a 99-year lease, along with a $50 million endowment.

To date, the province has promised $50 million, donors have promised $85 million, and the federal government has promised nothing.

"I do think the plans were very ambitious [and] pretty big for this town," said former board member and art historian John O'Brian, who curated a show at the gallery last year. 

He agrees with the current board that the gallery is too small for its expansive collection. 

But he also believes a long-term solution is staring the organization in the face. 

"There was a reluctance on the part of  the previous director to think about the present building as a place for possible expansion," he said, referring to the Francis Rattenbury building that housed Vancouver's courthouse prior to the art gallery.

"It wouldn't be easy and might be slightly awkward, but it is the best address in town and a fascinating building that people enjoy going to."  

Kathleen Bartels served as director of the Vancouver Art Gallery for 18 years. (Vancouver Art Gallery)

Steady as she goes

Currently however, both government and the art gallery are publicly pursuing the same path as before.

"I don't think that people should presume that the project will change," said Vancouver Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, the city's representative on the board. 

"How that gets built out or if it's scalable or there's an opportunity to have complementary other uses on the site, those are great conversations to have. But the board is very committed to that design at this stage."

As for the province, Arts and Culture minister Lisa Beare says its policy on providing an additional $50 million still stands.

"We are looking forward to seeing how the art gallery continues to proceed with their private donations," she said.

"We had said once they reached a significant level that they would be able to come back and bring us their proposal, and we're certainly looking forward to seeing that."

As to what constitutes "a significant level' of support" or whether there's a deadline by the gallery, or any level of government, for reconsidering its plans — those are questions that, much like the reasons for Bartels' departure, remain almost as opaque as the world's art market.