Looking for more culture
John Mackie, Vancouver Sun
Published: Saturday, December 08, 2007
VANCOUVER - In a few years, Vancouver might have a new art gallery, a new museum, a new maritime museum, a new national aboriginal art gallery, a new national portrait gallery and a new waterfront sports stadium. Or not.
There is no shortage of big ideas floating around, but how many of them will come to fruition is debatable.
The Vancouver Maritime Museum has been looking at relocating on and off since the 1980s.
The Vancouver Art Gallery has spent four years looking for a new site.
The Vancouver Whitecaps had hoped to have a soccer stadium ready for 2007, but getting the bureaucratic approval has been so slow the stadium is probably at least three years away - even though team owner Greg Kerfoot has offered to pay for the stadium himself.
It's a far cry from Toronto, where the Art Gallery of Ontario is doing a $254-million expansion, designed by the internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry.
The Royal Ontario Museum is undergoing its own $275-million expansion designed by another internationally renowned architect, Daniel Libeskind.
The Toronto FC soccer club plays in a new $70-million stadium, BMO Field.
Local art collector, philanthropist and developer Michael Audain thinks Vancouver is in dire need of some new cultural facilities.
"We are very underfunded in cultural infrastructure in this town, whether it's in terms of theatres, concert halls or the art museum side of things," says Audain, who recently donated $1 million to a new museum featuring the work of artist Bill Reid. "We're very underfunded compared to Toronto or Montreal, let alone our almost sister city to the south, Seattle."
Condo king Bob Rennie is also big on culture - he's building his own private gallery in Chinatown to showcase his contemporary art collection.
"Look to cities around the world that we like to go to," Rennie says. "You just check off the boxes. They have theatre, they have opera, they have music, they have art. We've got to get to a point where we can tick off all the boxes. How many of our tourists are coming here just for culture?"
Audain also says it makes good business sense to put resources into cultural facilities.
"People tell me that cultural tourism and eco-tourism are the two most rapidly growing sectors in the tourism industry," he says. "They also tell me that cultural tourists are the highest income bracket and the highest spenders."
Audain's focus is getting a new home for the Vancouver Art Gallery.
"The present art gallery is very constrained in terms of its space; it only can accommodate three per cent of its current collection," he says. "It can't even exhibit a lot of the important [local] artists of the contemporary period. I've had friends who visit Vancouver and they go to the Vancouver Art Gallery, expecting to see our Jeff Walls and our Stan Douglases and our Ken Lums, and often none of them are up on the walls. Which is really strange. At times we don't even have very many Emily Carrs up, either.
"When a museum has works that are considered extremely important by world standards, they should be on permanent exhibition. And this doesn't happen at the Vancouver Art Gallery today."
But it will if Kathleen Bartels has her way.
Bartels is the VAG's high-energy director, and you get the feeling she is going to get a new building for the gallery, even if she has to build it herself.
After a four year search, the Gallery has decided on a location: the old Greyhound bus station/Larwill Park site at Georgia and Hamilton.
"We had a list of criteria that we wanted the site to accommodate, and after looking at everything from the post office to Sears to many other sites, we thought the old bus depot was the best site for the Vancouver Art Gallery," she says.
"Its location on Georgia street is important. [As is] its proximity to the RAV line, its proximity to Chinatown, Yaletown and Gastown. It's close to the CBC, to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. It's an important hub in the city."
Bartels says the Vancouver Art Gallery should have "double the space" of the current location in the old courthouse at Robson and Hornby.
"We're at 157,000 square feet in this facility, so we're looking at doubling that to about 320,000 square feet," she says.
This wouldn't be cheap, particularly because Bartels wants to conduct an international competition to design the new building.
"We're certainly looking at hundreds of millions of dollars, without question," she says. "But when you build great museums, and engage really interesting architects, they aren't inexpensive buildings. They're very specialized. You have special needs for exhibition space, climate control, storage space."
Bartels would like the building to be architectural landmark.
"We want for it to be significant architecture, I think that's really important," she says. "You go to a city and look at a postcard: okay, that represents Australia, the Sydney Opera House. The Louvre represents France or Paris, or the Guggenheim in New York. The list goes on and on. We would certainly like it to serve that purpose as well."
But Rennie cautions against going the Toronto "star-citect" route.
"The ROM has Daniel Libeskind, the AGO has Frank Gehry," says Rennie.
"They're wonderful architects I guess, but we talk more about the architecture than the function inside the building. When you talk about the Four Seasons Opera House there, I don't hear people talking about the architect ahead of the word opera. Yet right now, when you talk about the ROM, you talk about Daniel Libeskind before you talk about the contents. And I don't know whether that's what we need. It's not Canadian to be begin with, to boast like that," he notes with a chuckle.
"The format of institutions having a star-citect is so over. Today institutions have the most brilliant sustainable green box, and the contents become more important than the box. That I think is the future model."
Where would the money come from?
Bartels says a third from the federal government, a third from the province and the city, and a third from the private sector. Asked if she thinks she could really raise $100 million in private donations for a $300 million art gallery, she confidently states "without question."
"The gallery is on a great track, we have great momentum. We're a real success story, what we've been able to accomplish in the last six or seven years. Our admission numbers are the highest they've ever been. Our membership six years ago was about 8,000; it's 40,000 this year.
That is just remarkable for any institution our size in North America. We're higher than the The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, we're higher than the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles."
If the VAG does move, it would open up the old courthouse building for another institution. Mayor Sam Sullivan has said Vancouver would be interested in getting the National Portrait Gallery that the federal government wants to farm out to a city other than Ottawa. Another potential candidate would be the Vancouver Museum. The Museum is currently located in Vanier Park at Kits Point, a site that has major drawbacks.
"Access is probably the biggest problem," says Museum director Nancy Noble. "It's tucked away on a really nice piece of land, but access to it is difficult."
Problem number two is that many Vancouverites just don't know that the Vancouver Museum exists. It's overshadowed by the Planetarium (a.k.a. the H.R. McMillan Space Centre), which is in the same building at 1100 Chestnut. The Museum draws about 65,000 people a year. By contrast, the Titanic exhibit at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria drew 450,000 people this past summer.
But the Vancouver Museum simply couldn't put on something like the Titanic show, because it doesn't have the space or resources. Neither does the Vancouver Maritime Museum, which is also in Kits Point at 1905 Odgen.
The future of the Vancouver Maritime Museum is fuzzy. If a new National Maritime Centre is built on the North Vancouver waterfront, Vancouver Maritime Museum director Wesley Wenhardt says the existing facility will probably fold.
"We really support the North Vancouver National Maritime Centre," says Wenhardt. "We feel that we worked on the vision [which grew out of studies by the Vancouver Maritime Museum]. It looks like the North Vancouver group has been able to pick up the vision, modify it slightly, then put together a new development on the North Shore. Our board is totally supportive of it."
Larry Orr of the City of North Vancouver says the proposed maritime centre would probably be a $100 million facility, with 110,000 square feet of space.
The location would be in the historic Wallace Shipyards site just east of Lonsdale avenue.
The North Van waterfront is already undergoing major redevelopment: Orr says Pinnacle International is developing 1,200 residential condos beside the Maritime Centre site, and there are plans for "Granville Island market" style retail.
There is one hitch for the new North Van Maritime Centre: the Vancouver Maritime Museum's collection of 20,000 items is owned by the City of Vancouver, which might be loathe to give it up.
The legendary ship the St. Roch would probably go to North Van with its artifacts - after all, it was built there - but many other items might wind up back in the Vancouver Museum. (For many years, the Vancouver Museum and the Vancouver Maritime Museum were wings of the same organization.)
Crunch time is the spring, when the Vancouver Art Gallery will make a formal request to Vancouver council to move to a new site. If it's approved, it might open by 2013.
The National Maritime Centre in North Van will also submit a proposal to the federal and provincial governments in the next month about its plans, which it hopes to have approval for by May or June. It could possibly open by 2011.
If both are approved, it will have a domino effect on the other institutions. If neither is approved, there will be a lot of disappointed people.
Some facts about Vancouver cultural institutions
John Mackie, Vancouver Sun
Published: Saturday, December 08, 2007
Vancouver Art Gallery
Location: 750 Hornby Street
Annual Budget: $12.2 million (2006)
Annual Visitors: 375,000 (2007 projected)
Exhibition space: 36,000 sq. ft.
Items in Collection: 9,000
Percent on Display: 3
Possible new location: The former Greyhound bus station site at Georgia and Hamilton.
Problems: The current location is in a former courthouse that underwent a $20 million renovation to make it suitable for the Vancouver Art Gallery when it moved there in 1983. But it has proven to be an awkward fit, because the neo-classical building doesn't really work that well as a modern art gallery. The VAG says it needs to double its space. A new facility would probably cost $200 million to $300 million, which would require a lot of funding from the federal, provincial and civic governments, as well as fund-raising from the private sector.
Location: 1100 Chestnut
Annual Budget: $2 million
Annual Visitors: 65,000
Exhibition space: 20,000 sq. ft.
Items in Collection: More than 100,000
Percent on Display: 5
Possible new locations: None have been identified yet, but the current Vancouver Art Gallery site is an obvious contender. The city owns the former Storyeum site in the Woodward's parking garage in Gastown, which has 108,000 sq. ft. of space, but most of it is underground. The former Woodward's building has not been considered as a museum site,
according to Vancouver Museum director Nancy Noble.
Problems: The Museum's current site in Kits Point is out of the downtown core, and out of the public consciousness. Public access is limited: Kits Point residents successfully fought a battle to keep tour buses out of their neighbourhood. The Museum is a also good hike from the nearest bus stop. The Museum is overshadowed by the Planetarium (aka the H.R. McMillan Space Centre), which it shares the building with. If the Vancouver Museum was to move, it would require several million dollars in government funding, which might be hard to get if both the Vancouver Art Gallery and North Vancouver's National Maritime Centre proceed. But Vancouver does have $20 million sitting around that was collected from developers for a Coal Harbour Arts Complex that was never built. The new convention centre is being built on the Coal Harbour Arts Complex site.
Vancouver Maritime Museum
Location: 1905 Ogden
Annual Budget: $1.1 million
Annual Visitors: 90,000 (including outreach programs)
Exhibition Space: 14,500 sq. ft.
Items in Collection: 20,000
Percent on Display: 5
Possible new locations: None
Problems: The Vancouver Maritime Museum has a marvelous location on the Kits Point waterfront, but its building badly needs to be renovated: it doesn't have the temperature and humidity control system which is standard in modern museums.
The Maritime Museum has often had a frosty relationship with some Kits Point residents, who have successfully fought to keep it from expanding at the current site. If the North Van National Marine Centre is built, the Vancouver Maritime Museum will probably fold.
The city of Vancouver owns its collection, which might wind up in the Vancouver Museum.
National Maritime Centre
Proposed location: The Wallace Shipyards, Lonsdale and Esplanade, North Vancouver
Cost of Construction: about $100 million
Size: 110,000 sq. ft. (35,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space)
Problems: Financing would largely come from the federal and provincial governments, which haven't been putting much money into cultural facilities. The current member of parliament for North Vancouver is a Liberal, and the federal government is Conservative. The Lower Mainland has also had a long history of grand concepts that never happened: The Vancouver Maritime Museum tried to build a similar museum on the Coal Harbour waterfront a few years ago, but failed. The new facility hopes to get much of the Vancouver Maritime Museum's collection, but Vancouver council might say no.
Whitecaps Soccer Stadium
Proposed location: Downtown Vancouver waterfront, between Canada Place and Main street
Cost of construction: About $70 million
Seating: 15,000 for soccer, with the ability to double to 30,000
Problems: Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot wants to built it right now, with his own money, but he has to go through Vancouver's glacially slow bureaucratic process.
In other cities, the stadium might already be finished; in Vancouver after two years of studies it's still probably still at least three years away.
Kerfoot originally had hoped to build it over the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, which he purchased for about $20 million in 2005. But there were objections because of dangerous goods that are sometimes on the tracks, so the site may be moved on to land owned by the Port of Vancouver, a federal body.
The Canada Marine Act states the Port can't sell the land, so it may have to arrange a land swap with Kerfoot's railway holdings to make it work.
i've always thought that the H.R. Macmillan Space Centre should move in with an expanded Science World, which sadly is the only real remotely close museum we have....also the most successful, afterall it's able to host massive exhibits like Body Worlds.