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Vancouver family donates $40 million to build new art gallery

Donation is largest-ever single private donation to a B.C. arts and culture organization

A Vancouver family whose fortunes were made in real estate development and investments has contributed the largest-ever single private donation to an arts and culture organization in B.C. in donating $40 million to help build a new $350-million Vancouver Art Gallery.

The Chan family, whose name graces the building that houses the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of B.C., was represented by 36-year-old Christian Chan at a news conference Wednesday to announce the donation.

“My mother started bringing me to the Vancouver Art Gallery from a very young age, and it was formative for me—the inspiration, the programming, the perspective that it gives you is undeniable,” Chan told the Courier after the news conference at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia. “That’s something that everyone should enjoy and people should have a purpose-built venue to do so.”

In his speech to an audience that included family members and friends, along with fellow donors, artists and politicians, Chan emphasized the importance of the arts in a world “that seems increasingly divided.”

“The need for healthy social dialogue, broader cultural understanding and enlightened critical thinking is as crucial now as it has ever been,” said Chan, the executive vice-president of the Burrard Group, who received a standing ovation before he spoke. “The importance of opportunities to unite with each other and celebrate diversity is paramount. The arts have this power.”

Chan was born in San Francisco and came with his family to Vancouver in 1987 when he was five years old. His mother’s side of the family is from California and his father’s from Hong Kong. Chan said the family has charitable entities around the world, noting some of the trustees live in Hong Kong and other cities.

“Their approval and belief in this project was absolutely integral to us being able to make this commitment,” he said. “But first and foremost, we absolutely consider ourselves proud Vancouverites and Canadians.”

The new Vancouver Art Gallery will be built on city property adjacent to Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Image courtesy Herzog & de Meuron

The $40 million donation increases the gallery’s private portion of the money for the project to $85 million. Overall, when including a previous $50 million donation from the provincial government, total funds raised equals $135 million. The estimated cost of the new gallery, which is to be built on a city property known as Larwill Park adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, is $350 million.

The gallery’s funding model requires $150 million to be raised privately while another $50 million is expected from the provincial government and $100 million from the federal government. Both governments have signaled interest in helping fund the new gallery.

B.C.’s Tourism Minister Lisa Beare attended the news conference but made no promises about contributing another $50 million on top of a previous $50 million delivered by government a decade ago.

“As we’ve indicated before, once the art gallery made progress on their private donation funding, we would take a look at their renewed application, so we’re very happy to do that,” Beare told reporters. “Today’s the day to celebrate the Chan family donation.”

Hedy Fry, the Liberal MP for Vancouver-Centre, also attended the news conference, where Mayor Kennedy Stewart noted in his remarks that he would be in Ottawa next week to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The former Burnaby MP received applause after he said that he and Fry could “wander around the halls and see if we can kick up some more interest—in an election year—of getting some money for this.”

Fry told the Courier she will continue to lobby her government about the need for federal funding to build the new gallery. Fry said Trudeau is well aware of the project.

“One of the things that the federal government is very careful not to do is step with infrastructure money on the toes of the provincial government,” Fry said. “We’ve always said that if we’re giving infrastructure money, the province has to say, ‘this is a priority for us.’”

Kathleen Bartels, the gallery’s director, said she was confident funding will come this year from the provincial and federal governments.

“They’ve been very encouraging and very supportive,” said Bartels, who is optimistic the project could break ground by the end of the year. “I would really hope so. It just really depends when we get those confirmations from government.”

Bartels said the Chan family’s donation will likely inspire more private donors to contribute to the project. A number of other donors were announced at the news conference, including David Aisenstat, The Diamond Foundation, Brian Hill and Andrea Thomas Hill and Phil Lind, who all committed to $5 million each.

“We’ve really been working behind the scenes quietly and this is really a public moment for us,” she said of the Chan family’s donation. “So I think there’s been many people waiting to see what’s going to happen and this is a big moment to push that forward and continue that momentum.”

The new Vancouver Art Gallery will be built on city property adjacent to Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Image courtesy Herzog & de Meuron

Christine Binswanger of Swiss-based architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron was at the news conference and revealed the final design of the gallery, which now includes a “glass skin” on the outside of the 300,000 sq. foot building that will predominantly be made of wood but include concrete and steel.

Binswanger described the building as “almost like a vertical city,” featuring galleries, classrooms, a 350-seat theatre, library, a café and restaurant. Some observers have compared the building’s stacked-box design to an inukshuk.

Bartels has argued the current gallery at Robson Square has outgrown its space and has no room for school programs. Realtor Bob Rennie, who owns a private gallery in Chinatown and is involved with international arts organizations, and David Baxter of Urban Futures Institute, have said the better move would be to build a number of smaller, cheaper specialized galleries across the city.