Vancouver Art Gallery suddenly parts ways with executive director Kathleen Bartels

Bartels had been leading a fund raising campaign for a new gallery

The Vancouver Art Gallery's longtime plan has been to move out of its current location at Robson Square | Chung Chow

The Vancouver Art Gallery is about to embark on a new era, given the sudden and unexpected departure of Kathleen Bartels, the gallery’s executive director for the past 18 years.

The gallery's board chair David Calabrigo said in a statement on May 28 that associate director Daina Augaitis will be the gallery’s interim director, and that an executive search for a new permanent executive director will begin immediately. During the transition, Bartels will remain as a special advisor to the gallery's interim director and board chair.

Bartels, Calabrigo added, “is leaving to pursue other professional and personal interests.”

He credited Bartels for helping the gallery transform its programming, growing the organization’s donor base, its members, attendance and annual revenue at its Robson Square location.

She had also been spearheading a longtime fundraising campaign to finance the gallery's dream of moving to a new site on the southern two-thirds of the block bounded by Cambie, Dunsmuir, Beatty and West Georgia streets.

That project is estimated to require $300 million worth of fundraising plus $50 million for an endowment fund, although those figures have not been adjusted for inflation in the last decade.

In January, the gallery unveiled its largest private donation for that initiative to date: a $40-million donation from Vancouver's Chan family. That donation raised total private fundraising for the new gallery to $85 million, or $65 million short of its private-sector fundraising goal of $150 million to build the 310,000-square-foot, 220-foot-tall building.

The other four largest private donations to help build the new gallery are all for $5 million, and they are from David Aisenstat, the Diamond Foundation, Brian Hill and Andrea Thomas Hill, and Phil Lind. 

B.C.'s Gordon Campbell government kicked off the VAG’s fundraising efforts in 2008, with a $50 million contribution. Vancouver city council, in 2013, then agreed to give the VAG a 99-year lease on its desired site, which is known as Larwill Park even though it houses a parking lot. That site was valued at $100 million at the time.

The city at the time required that the VAG raise $100 million from the federal government, and a second $50 million from the provincial government by spring 2015 – a deadline that has been extended many times, with the city never appearing to be willing to enforce its deadline.

In the interim, B.C.'s Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Lisa Beare has balked at anteing up another $50 million until the gallery could meet its private-sector fundraising goals. The current federal government's process for determining infrastructure spending is to have provincial governments prioritize projects, and a new art gallery has not been atop the B.C. government's priority list. 

Some wealthy philanthropists have also stood on the sidelines without committing money to help build a new gallery. Real estate marketer Bob Rennie, for example, is a longtime critic of moving the gallery to a large new space because he believes that generating the capital needed to build the gallery will divert philanthropic and government money needed for other community projects or arts organizations.

Art collector Michael Audain has told Business in Vancouver that he has not yet committed capital toward the new gallery because he did not want to have the money committed for a long period of time with the potential that the new gallery would never be built. 

Regardless, the gallery has long said that it is bursting at the seams in its current facility. 

Its annual operating budget is approximately $19 million, and Calabrigo said that it has made great strides during Bartels’ tenure in increasing the levels of contributed and earned income. Private sector donations increased by more than 250% during her stint, he said. 

Calabrigo added that its institutional endowment grew 50 times to more than $11 million, from $200,000, when Bartels joined the gallery.

Attendance, he said, has also grown substantially, as has membership, which now stands at about 37,000 people.