Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Some Musings on the Vancouver Art Gallery expansion

As a former trustee of the Art Gallery until 2006, and member of the expansion/relocation committee under the chair of Michael Audain, I have a particular interest in the discussion currently taking place regarding the need for expansion and possible relocation of the Vancouver Art Gallery. As a result of my time on the board, and subsequent discussions with with various individuals, I have an appreciation of the pros and cons of the different proposals.

While my preference has generally been to more fully explore the design and development options to expand on the current site, there are some convincing arguments to relocate to Larwill Park.

Here are a few considerations that have not been fully reported:

1. Some say the gallery could expand underground, like the Louvre. The gallery already has some space underground. While the idea of further underground expansion seems a possibility, I am not aware of any planning studies to assess just how much space could be created. I doubt whether the current expansion program could be accommodated by underground expansion.

2. Another possibility that intrigues me is the concept of enclosing the current building in a glass box to create a more inviting structure, with additional area. However, this would likely result in the loss of the front plaza, which many regard as a cherished open space…(especially if the current fountain could be removed.) In the past, others (including Arthur Erickson and Larry Beasley) have also been concerned how an above grade expansion might compromise the design integrity of Robson Square.3. The proposed expansion program effectively doubles the current facility. This expansion was contemplated to allow the gallery to exhibit much more of its permanent collection, as well as accommodate travelling exhibits. I suspect that if the decision is made not to move, it will be necessary to scale back the program, and/or contemplate a second facility at some time in the future. There are examples of art museums with more than one facility. Most Directors and administrators do not like this approach, but it is another option.

4. Many people in the art world believe that it would be easier to raise private donations for a fabulous new facility, rather than a renovated facility. This is an important consideration that should not be ignored.5. While I was opposed to the relocation to the False Creek waterfront site, I disagree with those who suggest that the Larwill property is too far away….it’s really just a few blocks away, as many of us discovered when we wandered around the city during the Olympics. It is also part of an emerging ‘cultural precinct’ with the renovated theatre, an expanded CBC, the library and other related facilities.6. I can understand why the gallery would like the site for itself. A stand alone building would offer the potential for a truly magnificent structure. (Maybe even designed by some of the city’s own accomplished architects). However, we must acknowledge that the city previously agreed to generate approximately $50 million or more from the sale or lease of the property’s development rights. One option could be a major office tower adjacent to a gallery; another would be an exclusive residential tower (although it should be noted that this site is not zoned for residential since it falls within the area being reserved for commercial development).

I personally would support a significant residential or mixed use ‘Shaw Tower’ model adjacent to to a new gallery, provided the building was allowed to be tall enough…(you’ve got to watch out for those view corridors, you know!) to help generate revenues from the property to support both the theatre renovations and the cost of a new gallery.

7. I appreciate that some will argue that once again, I am trying to accommodate everyone with my opinions, but that’s because in this case there is no one obvious solution (at least not to me). However, before a decision is made, I do think the gallery should revisit the earlier planning studies to determine just how much expansion potential there is on the current site, and whether the earlier concerns re: the loss of the public open space in front of the gallery, and impacts on Robson Square are still valid.7. Finally, I would like to completely disagree with Bing Thom’s claim that relocating the gallery will suck the life out of this part of the city. If the gallery goes, the Vancouver Museum or other museums/public attractions would likely move in. Depending on the design approach, the space in front of the existing building along Georgia will always be a special place. And as we have seen during the Olympics, much can be done with the spaces behind.

All of this will take a lot of public and private money. But when I compare Vancouver with Seattle or other major cities, it is apparent that a lot of money should be spent to bring us up to par in terms of cultural facilities and amenities.


Brenton said...

Interesting thoughts, Michael. I think I'm in agreement, that there doesn't seem to be a clear answer no matter which option you look at or which parameters you set.

I love the current space, but was quite excited when I read about a possible move and a new exciting cultural building in Vancouver.

What do you think of what Geoff Megg's posted, the letter from Darlene Mazari?

Frank Murphy said...

You may be aware of the Hespeler Library in Cambridge On. A glass wrap encasing the original brick Carnegie Library. Kongats Architects.

Neale Adams said...

What I like about the VAG is that it puts art at the heart of the city. It integrates art into the city. A stand-alone building elsewhere, no matter how grand, would not do that. I think the purpose of an art gallery is to engage the public, to help people see. It's not primarily to be a repository or warehouse, in my opinion. Yes, someone else will take over the site, if the VAG leaves, and may do a vital job; but losing the location, it seems to me, will be evidence of a truly missed opportunity for the VAG to continue at the centre of civic consciousness, which is where I want art to be! (And where would you dock the boats???)

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Michael said...

Thanks Brenton, Frank and Neale. In response Brenton, I think Darlene's letter presents a thoughtful point of view shared by a lot of people.

As I said, my preference has always been to stay where we are, but I can see advantages in moving. I suspect we'll hear much more from the gallery about the rationale for moving, in weeks to come.

Jon Petrie said...

Michael writes: >> would be easier to raise private donations for a fabulous new facility, rather than a renovated facility.<<

Almost certainly true but I am not convinced that's positive.

The donations would be coming from people/ institutions who do not have bottomless pockets and who choose to support some aspect of the arts. Other 'worthy' art projects will see less support if competing with 'a fabulous new facility' for funds.