Director’s exit reframes debate over VAG’s future

Exec Kathleen Bartels makes abrupt departure after driving campaign for new facility

vag north plaza
The Vancouver Art Gallery has long said that it is bursting at the seams in its current facility at Robson Square | Chung Chow / BIV files

The Vancouver Art Gallery’s (VAG) longtime plan to build a $300 million gallery on the eastern side of downtown Vancouver is being questioned with executive director Kathleen Bartels’ sudden and unexpected departure.

Former city hall insiders from opposite sides of the political spectrum say the city should re-examine its 2013 commitment to provide the VAG with a 99-year lease on its desired site, the southern two-thirds of the block bounded by Cambie, Dunsmuir, Beatty and West Georgia streets.

The city has given the gallery several extensions to a deadline to comply with terms of that commitment.

The calls came a day after the VAG’s board chair, David Calabrigo, on May 28, praised Bartels’ record and said she left “to pursue other professional and personal interests.”  It remains unclear whether the gallery’s interim executive director, Daina Augaitis, or its yet-to-be-named future executive director will be as passionate about the VAG’s expansion plan.

Former two-term city councillor George Affleck told Business in Vancouver that Bartels’ departure could affect the fate of the VAG because she was “the big champion” of moving the gallery to the new site, which is known as Larwill Park even though it is now a single-level parking lot.

“Why are we not working more closely with the VAG, and using that land beside it?” Affleck asked, referring to the northern one-third of the site that is also city owned.

He wants the city to look at the site as a whole and perhaps build office space where the city could move staff from leased spaces across the city.

Former mayor Gregor Robertson’s chief of staff, Mike Magee, tweeted his agreement with Affleck’s idea to re-examine the plan, saying, “Definitely time for the city and the VAG to rethink the approach to the Larwill Park site. Much has changed since council set aside that land for a new VAG, and a more creative approach now is in order.”

Affleck and Magee’s agreement is notable because they are longtime partisan rivals. Affleck served with the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) while Magee was working with NPA’s nemesis, Vision Vancouver.

“That is interesting,” Green Party of Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry said of Affleck and Magee agreeing on the value of having the city give a fresh look to the entire Larwill Park site.

“This is the kind of thing that we would want to request a briefing from staff and to have an in-camera conversation as a council and figure out what might be [appropriate].”

Fry said he did not want to hurt VAG’s fundraising efforts, which include securing a $40 million donation in January from developer Christian Chan and his family.

Private fundraising stands at $85 million, or $65 million short of the $150 million goal required by senior governments in order to provide VAG with more public funding.

B.C.’s Gordon Campbell government kicked off the VAG’s fundraising efforts in 2008 with a $50 million contribution. B.C. Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Lisa Beare told BIV last year that for the gallery to get a further $50 million from the province, it would need to “demonstrate greater private-donation support.”

The gallery also needs the province’s blessing for the project because the federal government earmarks infrastructure funding, such as the $100 million that VAG has requested, based on provincial priorities.

The VAG has not adjusted its expansion project’s estimated $300 million price tag in more than a decade. The project includes a separate $50 million endowment fund, so it is sometimes referred to as a $350 million project.

The VAG continues to have some supporters on city council. One of them, NPA Coun. Sarah Kirby--Yung, told BIV that the city should give the gallery more time to raise private funding, and that the northern one-third of the site should be used by the city for arts and culture purposes, such as artist studios, artist live-work spaces or a public plaza. •