Opinion: Museum of Vancouver or Royal BC Museum should take over Vancouver Art Gallery's existing building

Sep 6 2023, 12:35 am

It is finally happening. After more than a decade and a half of planning, construction on the new home of the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) is officially set to begin this month with a “ground awakening” ceremony.

By 2027/2028, on a site six blocks to the east of its current iconic location at the southwest corner of the intersection of West Georgia and Howe Street, the new purpose-built and expanded home of the VAG will open in a brand new landmark building designed by Switzerland’s Herzog & de Meuron and the Vancouver office of Perkins&Will.

This new 10-storey building will have about 300,000 sq ft of floor space, including 80,000 sq ft of dedicated exhibition and gallery space.

In contrast, the existing VAG inside the heritage building is just under 170,000 sq ft, with about 40,000 sq ft being exhibition and gallery space.

But there is a wide assumption, especially amongst younger generations and newer residents, that the heritage building that stands now — framed by West Georgia Street to the north, Howe Street to the east, Robson Street and Robson Square to the south, and Hornby Street to the east — has always been the VAG.

In the past, I’ve even been asked whether the building will be sold and demolished for redevelopment.

However, the building at 750 Hornby Street was in fact originally built as the provincial courthouse in 1906, and it has seen a longer history as a courthouse than its current uses for the art gallery.

The VAG did not open within the courthouse building until 1983 when a $20 million ($63 million in 2023 dollars) renovation of converting the spaces for art gallery uses was completed. Four years earlier, in 1979, the courthouse moved into its new replacement and expanded spaces of the Vancouver Law Courts on the south side of Robson Square.

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The former courthouse building renovated for the Vancouver Art Gallery and the West Georgia Plaza, circa. 1986. (City of Vancouver Archives)

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A preserved heritage courtroom in the former courthouse building, used as an event rental space by the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Vancouver Art Gallery)

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Vancouver Art Gallery at the former courthouse building. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

The renovated courthouse building for the VAG, along with the Law Courts and Robson Square, an integrated complex, are some of the late architect Arthur Erickson’s most celebrated works.

The building is certainly not going anywhere after the VAG vacates the premises later this decade for its new home, especially with its protected A-listed heritage designation in the City of Vancouver’s Heritage Registrar, and its recognition by the federal government as one of National Historic Sites of Canada.

Moreover, the VAG does not own the building — the provincial government has maintained its ownership of the property, and its uses for the VAG over the past four decades are through a 100-year head lease with the City of Vancouver. The VAG’s existence at the building is through a sub-lease with the City.

In an email upon inquiry, the BC Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture, and Sport told Daily Hive Urbanized that the municipal government’s lease of the former courthouse building will not expire for another 56 years.

“The City of Vancouver has not approached Government’s Real Property Division, which is responsible for Government property assets, to discuss either the use of the current VAG building by the City or to terminate the lease which expires February 28, 2079,” the Ministry told Daily Hive Urbanized.

“If the Real Property Division receives notice that the art gallery intends to vacate the property and hand back the property to the Province, discussions about the facility’s future use would then take place.”

A new better home for the Museum of Vancouver

It appears the current Vancouver City Council has a key role before the end of its term in determining the future use of the former courthouse building when its VAG era comes to an end.

The obvious use for the former courthouse building after the VAG leaves is its continued use as a museum.

While the new VAG will certainly be a game changer, there continues to be an overall dearth of major arts and cultural attractions, especially museums, in Metro Vancouver, and particularly where they can be expected — in downtown Vancouver. Earlier this year, Royce Chwin, the CEO of Destination Vancouver (previously known as Tourism Vancouver), lamented the need for new additional attractions and experiences in the region.

Although some capital reinvestments would still be needed for any museum that moves into the former courthouse building, it would be relatively minimal compared to building a brand new purpose-built facility. As the current home of the VAG, the former courthouse building not only already has exhibition spaces, but also climate control and security systems, and other infrastructure.

As well, the continued use of the building as a museum would maintain the public’s ability to access the site, while also continuing its long-running significant arts, cultural, and tourism attraction hub uses, as opposed to an expansion of the University of British Columbia’s satellite Robson Square campus or even additional private office space for the Law Courts, for example.

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Inside the Vancouver Art Gallery at the former courthouse. (Vancouver Art Gallery)

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Inside the Vancouver Art Gallery at the former courthouse. (Vancouver Art Gallery)

The Museum of Vancouver (MOV) should be the obvious frontrunner for the consideration of taking over the existing home of the VAG.

Currently, the civic museum, wholly owned by the City of Vancouver and operated by a non-profit organization, is located at Vanier Park in Kitsilano Point. Since 1967, the MOV has been located in a landmark building with a roof shape inspired by a First Nations woven basket hat.

The idea of moving out of Kitsilano and into the VAG is not a new idea either. In 2013, the MOV began studying options for relocating to a new location in downtown Vancouver, and the former courthouse building was top of mind. This was the same year Vancouver City Council approved the VAG’s relocation plans and a 99-year nominal lease for about half of the City-owned Larwill parking lot for the new purpose-built development.

“MOV continues to explore options for moving. Our building and its location are challenging, inhibiting us from creating the type of visitor experience we believe you deserve,” reads MOV’s 2013 annual report.

MOV occupies most of the museum building space at Vanier Park, where it has just over 80,000 sq ft, including approximately 20,000 sq ft of dedicated exhibition space. A relocation to the former courthouse building would effectively double its overall floor area and exhibition space.

At its existing Vanier Park location, MOV shares a main entrance and foyer with the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, which occupies the rest of the building space and is particularly known for its Planetarium Star Theatre.

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Museum of Vancouver and the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vanier Park. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Museum of Vancouver and the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vanier Park. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Museum of Vancouver and the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vanier Park. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Shared main entrance and foyer of the Museum of Vancouver and the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vanier Park. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

MOV’s relocation into the former courthouse building could conceivably be phased, with initial improvements to the VAG’s former home for short-to-medium term uses, enabling a reopening of the building before the end of this decade instead of a prolonged void in the building’s active uses.

To lower startup costs, the MOV could initially retain its existing larger items collections storage facilities co-shared with the Vancouver Maritime Museum at the Vancouver Academy of Music building in Vanier Park.

Further improvements to the former courthouse building through larger capital projects over the longer term, years after the initial opening, could perhaps provide the MOV with even more exhibition space, such as repurposing the VAG’s secure underground storage facility directly beneath the West Georgia Street public plaza.

In 2011, when the VAG’s relocation plans were already in the works, the late architect Bing Thom proposed the idea of transforming the former courthouse building into a concert hall complex.

Thom saw the opportunity to transform the volume of the underground storage facility into a 1,950-seat, purpose-built concert hall with leading-edge acoustic considerations — the new home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The former courthouse’s annex building jutting out towards Robson Street would be gutted for a 450-seat, multi-purpose dance, music, and theatre venue, while the main building would be repurposed into public lobby space for the concert hall and theatre venues, restaurants, boutiques, and other cultural uses. Long sky-lit escalators would link spectators between the lobby and the underground concert hall.

Then in 2015, Thom conceived an additional concept of turning the space on the west side of Robson Square into an Asian art museum, which would have a total floor area of 65,000 sq ft over multiple underground levels, including several galleries, spaces for retail, restaurant, storage, and administration, and a grand entrance atrium accessible from Robson Street. This idea was contingent on repurposing underground office space at Robson Square currently used by the Law Courts, but the provincial government was unable to free up the space. The project’s estimated cost at the time was between $75 million and $100 million.

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Bing Thom’s vision for transforming the former courthouse building into a concert hall complex after the Vancouver Art Gallery’s relocation. (Revery Architecture)

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Bing Thom’s vision for transforming the former courthouse building into a concert hall complex after the Vancouver Art Gallery’s relocation. (Revery Architecture)

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Bing Thom’s vision of the Chinese art museum at Robson Square. (Revery Architecture/China Global)

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Bing Thom’s vision of the Chinese art museum at Robson Square. (Revery Architecture/China Global)

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Bing Thom’s vision of the Chinese art museum at Robson Square. (Revery Architecture/China Global)

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Bing Thom’s vision of the Chinese art museum at Robson Square. (Revery Architecture/China Global)

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Bing Thom’s vision of the Chinese art museum at Robson Square. (Revery Architecture/China Global)

Thom’s concepts illustrate just how much potential space there is to work within the combined Robson Square and former courthouse precinct.

While there is significant potential for the long-term growth of MOV at the former courthouse building, the main immediate benefit would be its highly central and accessible location — departing from its existing location that is out of sight and mind.

Potential of Vancouver’s great museum reshuffle

The VAG’s relocation to its new purpose-built home and the subsequent relocation of MOV to the former courthouse building could theoretically trigger a wider reshuffle of Vancouver’s museum attractions. It could enable more opportunities for new and improved museum attractions in the city.

H.R. MacMillan Space Centre could conceivably take over MOV’s space, becoming the sole tenant of the museum building at Vanier Park — enabling a major expansion of its very cramped exhibition space to showcase more about the universe, our planet, and space exploration, including Canada’s contributions.

Alternatively, the MOV’s existing space could be repurposed into a First Nations history museum, which takes advantage of the synergies with the adjacent Senakw development on reserve. Vanier Park and its existing museum buildings could be reframed as an Indigenous cultural precinct of the Squamish First Nation, which would provide a meaningful measure for reconciliation while also adding to the City’s attraction offerings.

As a further measure to establish an Indigenous cultural precinct, a relocation of the Space Centre to a significant expansion of Science World would provide a win-win for both of these science museum non-profit organizations, given the obvious synergies. Perhaps even a merger is not out of the question.

The co-located Space Centre and planetarium could be built on the footprint of Science World’s Ken Spencer Science Park, which is closed for much of each year — only open seasonally between March and October. A replacement outdoor science park could be built on the rooftop of Science World’s Space Centre building expansion, making much better use of the limited land area.

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The seasonal Ken Spencer Outdoor Science Park at Science World. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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The seasonal Ken Spencer Outdoor Science Park at Science World. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Aerial of the Ken Spencer Outdoor Science Park at Science World. The seasonal-only area is part of Science World’s ticketed experience. (Science World)

According to a 2015 internal audit by the City of Vancouver on its three major exhibiting institutions, the MOV has about 70,000 artifacts with a total collection value of about $35 million, the VAG has about 12,000 works worth $260 million, and the Vancouver Maritime Museum owns about 15,000 artifacts and 125,000 photographs worth almost $20 million. Due to limited exhibition space, nearly all of these collections at all three attractions are in storage, with only a tiny percentage exhibited at any given time.

In its last pre-pandemic fiscal year of 2018/2019, in its annual report, the VAG recorded over 365,000 visitors.

In 2019, based on their respective annual reports, MOV saw 85,000 visitors, and the Space Centre saw nearly 143,000 visitors.

In the 2018/2019 fiscal year, Science World recorded 1.05 million visitors, including nearly 74,000 visitors during Spring Break and 58,000 visitors during the winter break.

A decade ago, the VAG’s business case study for constructing a new facility estimated its annual attendance would increase to 450,000 in the first year of the opening of its new building, before stabilizing to 380,000 after the second year. These figures, based on a 2020 opening, were deemed to be “conservative” and a significant increase from the “base attendance” of 260,000 at the time.

New major satellite location of the Royal BC Museum at the former courthouse

Alternatively, instead of the MOV relocating to the former courthouse building, the provincial government should consider establishing an additional Royal BC Museum location — a new major permanent satellite location in downtown Vancouver for the provincially-owned and operated museum.

This would depend on the City of Vancouver’s decision to end its lease on the former courthouse building decades early.

And it would be in addition to retaining and upgrading the existing main home of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria Inner Harbour, and the plan to build a new $270 million satellite facility for collections storage and research in the Victoria area suburban community of Colwood, which is scheduled to begin construction before the end of this year.

Needless to say, the Royal BC Museum was the subject of much controversy in 2022, when the provincial government suddenly announced plans to push forward with an $800 million redevelopment of the main museum site in downtown Victoria. The complete demolition of the existing building for a brand new purpose-built museum would have necessitated a full closure of the Victoria-based attraction for eight long years between September 2022 and 2030. After a public and media backlash over the cost, lengthy closure, and relatively limited public consultation, the provincial government sent the project back to the drawing board just weeks after its May 2022 project announcement and a new in-depth public consultation process on the museum’s future restarted in early 2023.

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Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria (Google Earth)

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Preparations for the July 2023 permanent reopening of Old Town at the Royal BC Museum. (Royal BC Museum)

The Royal BC Museum has a vast collection of about seven million objects, including a national history collection of 750,000 specimens. This specifically includes specimens in botany, entomology, paleontology, and zoology.

But less than 1% of this impressive collection is exhibited at any given time at the museum’s only and only location in downtown Victoria.

By opening a secondary museum location in downtown Vancouver, a significantly greater proportion of BC’s population will have access to the Royal BC Museum, enabling the museum to further expand its reach and education mandate.

And by establishing different focuses and themes for the existing Victoria museum location and the new Vancouver museum location, both attractions would co-exist as complementary locations of the Royal BC Museum — they would not compete. Given its location in the provincial capital, the Victoria museum could double down on its focus on BC’s human history, including First Nations, while the Vancouver museum could centre on natural history, for example.

There is no question that such a high-quality museum in Vancouver would pull in not only families, who are desperate for a greater number and variety of kid-friendly attractions, especially during the cold and rainy season, but also tourists. It would also preserve the ability to attract major temporary exhibitions to the very heart of the city.

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Cancelled preliminary concept of the new Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria. (Government of BC)

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Cancelled preliminary concept of the new Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria. (Government of BC)

As a provincial crown corporation, the Royal BC Museum also enjoys more financial security and capacity, given that it has the backstop of the provincial government, compared to a non-profit organization that is loosely supported by the municipal government. This was particularly made evident at the peak of the pandemic when major attractions operated by non-profit organizations were on the brink of bankruptcy and permanent closure.

Currently, the existing Royal BC Museum campus in downtown Victoria has a total floor area of about 250,000 sq ft, with 20% or about 50,000 sq ft as dedicated exhibition and gallery space, 70% or about 175,000 sq ft as archival, curatorial, conservation, and collections storage spaces, and 10% or 25,000 sq ft as administration, gift shop, and lobby spaces.

The second Royal BC Museum location at downtown Vancouver’s former courthouse building could follow the same phased growth as the MOV as described above.

Whether it be used as the new home of the Museum of Vancouver or a second attraction of the Royal BC Museum, the historic landmark building in the core of Vancouver’s Central Business District should see maintained operations for major cultural and educational uses that add to the community in a significant way, both socially and economically.

Economic, business, and tourism interests in Metro Vancouver should strongly advocate the municipal and provincial governments to “think big” for the building’s next museum life, and as a means of diversifying and intensifying the components of what makes for a vibrant Vancouver city centre.

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Royal Alberta Museum in downtown Edmonton. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Royal Alberta Museum in downtown Edmonton. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Royal Alberta Museum in downtown Edmonton. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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Royal Alberta Museum in downtown Edmonton. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

 

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