Opinion: $1 billion for new Royal BC Museum, but what about Vancouver Art Gallery?

May 25 2022, 1:21 am

While the provincial government is prepared to spend over $1 billion on not one, but two brand new purpose-built facilities for the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) in the Greater Victoria area, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) only needs a small fraction of that amount to go full steam ahead with its plans to build a new home in downtown Vancouver.

As of November 2021, following real estate developer and art philanthropist Michael Audain’s historic donation of $100 million, the VAG has raised a total of $240 million to build the new and expanded replacement art gallery facility at the surface parking lot at the 668 Cambie Street, just across from Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

VAG still needs $160 million to cover the full $400-million updated cost of the project, which is up from the previous design estimate of $350 million (including a $50-million operating endowment) in 2015.

At the time of Audain’s announcement, which was attended by BC tourism minister Melanie Mark, it was stated by VAG officials they were looking to fill the $160 million hole by receiving $80 million from the federal government and other “community partners,” and an additional $80 million from philanthropy.

Aside from Audain’s contribution, other sources secured by VAG to date include $40 million by the Chan Family Foundation, and $50 million from various individual donors and other foundations.

Another $50 million in secured funding is from the provincial government, dating all the way back to 2008 from Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals government.

vancouver art gallery new design 2021

Revised 2021 design of the new building for the Vancouver Art Gallery at Larwill Park. (Vancouver Art Gallery)

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Site of the future home of the Vancouver Art Gallery at 668 Cambie Street. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

A decade and a half after a new home for the VAG was first envisioned, there are still no shovels in the ground, never mind a newly completed facility. It begs the question: should it really take this long to build a new art gallery/museum in a so-called world-class city?

But if the provincial government is willing to spend more than $1 billion to cover the 100% cost of renewing the Royal BC Museum, clearly it can and should also be in the position to finally allow the VAG to proceed by filling the comparatively smaller $160 million budget hole — instead of extending the prolonged uncertainty from depending on further contributions from the federal government and private donors.

And allowing the VAG project to linger in a fundraising stage without starting construction puts it at a greater risk of cost escalation, with inflation in construction materials and labour costs currently remarkably high — and expected to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Not only would further delays put the new VAG at a greater risk of cost escalation and having to seek even more private donors, but the design by Herzog de Meuron, theoretically, also risks encountering further value engineering to reduce costs — an outcome of paying more for less, just from waiting longer.

vancouver art gallery design 2021

2021 design of the new Vancouver Art Gallery. (Herzog & de Meuron/Perkins + Will)

vancouver art gallery design 2021

2021 design of the new Vancouver Art Gallery. (Herzog & de Meuron/Perkins + Will)

At this stage of planning, the new VAG is also essentially a shovel-ready project. The development permit application for the new facility was submitted to the City of Vancouver in early 2022. It was stated late last year by the VAG that they were aiming to begin construction in 2022 for an opening in 2026.

Upon completion, it is expected the VAG will see its annual attendance double to over one million visitors. As the result of its tourism spinoffs, it would add $38 million to GDP and generate $21.5 million in new tax revenue each year.

There would also be a relatively short downtime (closure) to achieve the move from VAG’s existing home at the old courthouse at Robson Square to the new home.

Contrast this with the Royal BC Museum renewal.

Yes, the provincial government does have a big, direct stake in the RBCM as it owns the institution, and operates it as a crown corporation.

It is also very true that the existing RBCM facility in downtown Victoria is far from adequate for some of BC’s most precious artifacts and collections, even for the reason of the building’s poor seismic performance alone.

And there is history of grossly underfunding major cultural institutions and museums in the province, especially in Metro Vancouver, which enormously contributes to a cultural deficit in BC. There has long been an over-reliance in natural attractions and recreational opportunities, as opposed to the potential of having the best of both worlds — both natural/recreational activities and a strong cultural scene.

royal bc museum victoria

Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria (Google Earth)

But the provincial government has not started the design process for the new replacement main museum facility in Victoria, nor has it even selected an architect. It is budgeted at $789 million, which would make it Canada’s most expensive museum.

The figure of a budget in excess of $1 billion is arrived at when RBCM’s new satellite collections and storage facility in the Victoria suburb of Colwood is also accounted for. Construction on the Colwood facility at a cost of $224 million is expected to begin this year for an opening in 2025. For a provincial budget allocation that is under the cost of the Colwood facility alone, downtown Vancouver could finally gain a world-class art gallery/museum building for the VAG.

Curiously, the existing Victoria museum would also close in September 2022 — four years before construction is set to begin in 2026 for a completion in 2030. As a result, Victoria would be without one of its largest tourist attractions for nearly a decade.

There is also not much room for the provincial government to backtrack on this planned closure, given the museum’s decision last fall to shutter and demolish its most popular exhibits on the third floor in the name of “decolonization.” Now largely gutted, the museum experience is merely a shadow of its former self, and this is reflected by its ultra-low admission of only $5.00 for all ages — down from $27 for adults, $19 for adults/seniors, and $17 for youth in 2021.

The permanent closure of the First PeoplesOur Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in BC exhibition, and Becoming BC galleries went ahead in January 2022, even after much public criticism over the complete lack of public consultation, and calls for museum officials to put their gallery closure plans on pause.

And once again earlier this month, there was a complete lack of public consultation prior to the announcement of a new $789 million museum and the protracted closure through 2030.

royal bc museum third floor exhibits removal

Exhibits on the third floor of Royal BC Museum that will be removed for “decolonization.” (Royal BC Museum)

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The existing Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria. (Royal BC Museum)

Cultural institutions require immense public buy-in to both the concept and associated public costs, but other than a 2019 consultation on the broad concept of a “modernization” there was zero engagement on taking the RBCM renewal towards its big leap of closing a cherished provincial institution and building new facilities and exhibits from scratch.

At this stage, one would expect the provincial government and crown corporation would at least have a comprehensive public communications strategy ready, including visuals of a conceptual design that inspires the masses, providing the required fuel for public buy-in (this was a key step for the VAG in 2015). Merely slapping on the “reconciliation” banner with few project details, and asking the public to accept and believe this plan to be the logical approach and most economically sound is just nowhere near enough to pass the smell test.

The highly avoidable controversy also puts at risk other art gallery/museum renewal projects elsewhere in BC, especially those that could greatly benefit from provincial funding in order to proceed.


Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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