Canada's largest donation to an art gallery slated for Vancouver Art Gallery's new building

Nov 3 2021, 9:18 pm

A monumental donation to the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) towards covering the cost of building its new home at Larwill Park in downtown Vancouver will be announced in under 24 hours.

VAG states it will be holding an event Thursday to announce the details and conduct the “signing of the official gift agreement,” which has been billed by art gallery officials as the “single largest cash gift to an art gallery in Canadian history.”

Additionally, tomorrow’s event will include the unveiling of a “new design.”

There are very few details available at this moment.

The to-be-announced donation will be more significant than Christian Chan’s family’s $40 million gift to the new VAG building announced in January 2019, which at the time put the VAG’s combined private and public fundraising efforts to a total of $135 million.

The total sum includes $50 million from a 2008 provincial government commitment and $45 million from the private sector and other personal sources.

For its contribution, the City of Vancouver has donated the land required, roughly two-thirds of the Larwill Park city block, through a 99-year nominal lease. The remaining one-third of the block is temporarily used as modular housing, but the city intends to develop it into commercial office towers as a revenue-generating mechanism. The VAG’s available Larwill Park footprint is at the northeast corner of Cambie Street and West Georgia Street.

Larwill Park is subdivided into two lots: coloured in red for the new Vancouver Art Gallery, and coloured in blue for office towers. (City of Vancouver)

Vancouver Art Gallery

Artistic rendering of the final January 2019 design of the new Vancouver Art Gallery building. (Herzog & de Meuron/Vancouver Art Gallery)

Vancouver Art Gallery

Artistic rendering of the final January 2019 design of the new Vancouver Art Gallery building. (Herzog & de Meuron/Vancouver Art Gallery)

Based on the description, the VAG’s incoming donation would be north of the Thomson family’s $70 million cash gift — known for its ownership of Reuters — towards Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario’s major expansion designed by Frank Gehry.

This 2002 contribution by the Thomson family was paired with their $300 million in-kind donation from the value of 2,000 pieces of privately-owned art, bringing their initial offering to $370 million. They later topped up their initial gift with a further $30 million in cash, which increased their total contribution to a final tally of $400 million cash and in-kind value combined. The contribution was a legacy move by Kenneth Roy Thomson II, who died two years before the expansion opened.

There are deep pockets in British Columbia, too, for such a gift — mainly those who have been making big waves in local real estate.

Westbank’s Ian Gillespie is front of mind, given his very public affinity for art and unique architecture, made evident by his firm’s works — everything from Vancouver House and its Spinning Chandelier to the skyline of towers that will form Senakw to the transformation of Oakridge Centre (recently rebranded as Oakridge Park).

Gillespie’s firm also has significant assets in the immediate area of the new VAG site, with the nearly-complete Deloitte Summit office tower just to the North and the Creative Energy steam plant just kitty-corner from the future art gallery. Approved plans for a modernized steam plant include a new office tower that complements BC Place Stadium.

A unique partnership that covers a substantial portion of the construction cost while allowing Gillespie to design and build the new art gallery is not out of the question. Perhaps it could be tied in with developing the City of Vancouver’s planned office towers on the northern end of the Larwill Park site.

deloitte summit 400 west georgia street

Construction progress of Westbank’s Deloitte Summit office tower at 400 West Georgia Street, as of January 15, 2021. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

720 Beatty Street Vancouver Creative Energy

Artistic rendering of Westbank’s future office tower 720 Beatty Street, Vancouver. Perspective from Larwill Park. (Bjarke Ingels Group/HCMA Architecture & Design/Westbank)

Michael Audain of Polygon Homes was a longtime supporter and board member of the VAG. As an avid art collector and philanthropist, through his namesake foundation, he has supported numerous museums, art galleries, and arts-based institutions and organizations across the province. His foundation opened the $44-million, 56,000 sq ft Audain Art Museum in Whistler Village in 2016, which permanently houses some of his most valuable collections. And both his foundation and development firm donated a combined $4 million to the 2017-built, $18-million Presentation House Gallery on the Lonsdale waterfront in North Vancouver, now named the Polygon Gallery.

Chip Wilson has also shown an interest in art and has been making sizeable real estate plays in the region ever since leaving Lululemon.

Vancouver is also home to two families that each own an NHL team.

The Aquilini family, owner of the Vancouver Canucks, have an expanding real estate business under their umbrella company of the Aquilini Investment Group.

The Dallas Stars are owned by the Gaglardi family, whose assets are under Northland Properties, including dining chains Denny’s Canada, Moxie’s Bar & Grill, Shark Club, Chop, and CRAFT Beer Market, as well as the Sandman Hotel chain, Grouse Mountain Resort, and Revelstoke Mountain Resort.

Concord Pacific’s Terry Hui can be considered a possibility, as well.

Jim Pattison’s conglomerate empire has funded some of the largest private donations ever made in British Columbia. Still, his gifts primarily relate to healthcare projects, including $75 million towards the new St. Paul’s Hospital in the False Creek Flats.

Vancouver Art Gallery

Artistic rendering of the final January 2019 design of the new Vancouver Art Gallery building. (Herzog & de Meuron / Vancouver Art Gallery)

Vancouver Art Gallery

Artistic rendering of the final January 2019 design of the new Vancouver Art Gallery building. (Herzog & de Meuron / Vancouver Art Gallery)

Vancouver Art Gallery

Artistic rendering of the final January 2019 design of the new Vancouver Art Gallery building. (Herzog & de Meuron / Vancouver Art Gallery)

While a substantial donation is forthcoming, the new VAG building has likely faced construction cost increases, based on the recent market price escalation in materials and labour prices.

In 2015, the VAG unveiled a 230-ft-tall concept of stacked wooden boxes, designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron and Vancouver architect of record Perkins + Will, with 310,000 sq ft of floor area, including 85,000 sq ft of exhibition space. As well, there would be significant accessible public spaces on the ground level.

Six years ago, the construction cost was estimated at $330 million, and a further $50 million was targeted as an endowment for long-term operational and maintenance costs. This was based on construction beginning in 2019 for completion in 2023.

For years, the VAG has been hopeful that it would receive an additional $50 million from the provincial government and a $100 million contribution from the federal government. However, Ottawa’s contribution depends on Victoria’s approval.

The critical reception on Herzog & de Meuron’s design has been generally mixed. Some previously suggested that it does not stimulate inspiration for the support needed from the general public to assist with fundraising efforts.

In early 2021, it was reported by Business In Vancouver that plans for the new building were scaled down to reduce construction costs, with the floor area downsized from 310,000 to 270,000 sq ft, and other changes such as reducing ceiling heights and removing the sunken public garden. It will be clear on Thursday whether these changes represent the “new design” or if the design has been scrapped for an entirely new concept.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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