Vancouver Art Gallery receives $100M donation from Audain family for new building

·4 min read
The Vancouver Art Gallery is pictured on Thursday. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The Vancouver Art Gallery is pictured on Thursday. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Vancouver's Audain family has donated $100 million toward the construction of the Vancouver Art Gallery's new building, a gift that's billed as the largest ever given to a gallery in Canada.

Michael Audain, the chairman of Polygon Homes Ltd., one of the largest multi-family home builders in B.C., announced his family foundation's donation on Thursday.

"Of all the art galleries that I have visited, this is the one that has taught me the most about art and provided me with many wonderful and inspiring experiences in doing so," said Audain, a longtime art collector who owns his own gallery in Whistler.

"This building will hopefully ensure that Vancouver is second-to-none in honouring the talent of our internationally respected arts community," Audain said during a news conference.

The Vancouver Art Gallery has been raising money for an ambitious new $400-million building project in Larwill Park in downtown Vancouver for more than a decade.

It would feature a 300,000-square foot building designed by Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron in consultation with Coast Salish artists.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Staff have long said its current building, which was once the city's main courthouse, is too small and poorly suited for art collections.

After Audain's donation, the gallery has $160 million left to raise to meet its goal. Its CEO was optimistic that could happen by 2022.

"If all goes as planned, we can break ground a year from now," said Anthony Kiendl.

Budget grows to $400M

The budget for the new building was initially set in 2013 at $350 million, but that cost has grown to $400 million.

The original plan to fund the site was to raise $150 million from private donors and convince the B.C. and federal governments to provide $100 million each.

With the Audain's contribution, the project has exceeded its goal for private funding — but government funding has proven more difficult to secure.

As of 2019, the province had promised $50 million and the federal government had promised nothing.

"Ladies and gentlemen, our federal government needs to come to the party very quickly," said Audain, who has sat on the gallery board for more than 30 years.

"When one considers Ottawa's generous support of our gallery buildings in others parts of Canada, I am frankly puzzled they have not yet indicated support for this project."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The City of Vancouver has donated the land at Larwill Park for the project. Mayor Kennedy Stewart said Thursday the donation was "breathtaking."

"It's moving us toward the next step of getting shovels in the ground and more importantly, art on the walls," he said.

Kiendl, the gallery CEO, said the building could open in 2026 at earliest. He echoed the mayor's remarks, saying the Audain donation was "unprecedented."

The new building will still be named partly for the Chan family, who donated $40 million to the project in 2019.

Audain said the family, which made its wealth in real estate and clothing and has made other major philanthropic donations to the Vancouver arts and cultural scene, inspired him to make his own donation.

'Revitalized' design

Also on Thursday, the gallery announced the design for the new building had been "revitalized" — in part because of influence from Audain.

He said he ultimately decided to go ahead with the donation because the architects were willing to update the design to be more reflective of the First Nations communities on whose land the gallery will sit.

"There's been a great re-evaluation of the design and I think the most important aspect of that ... has been corresponding to the First Nations of this area," Audain said. "For years, one would go into fine art galleries and not see any notion of the art created by the original people of the area."

Supplied by the Vancouver Art Gallery
Supplied by the Vancouver Art Gallery

The design to the building's façade was developed in consultation with the architects and the artists representing the three host First Nations: the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations.

Artists Debra Sparrow, Chepximiya Siyam' Janice George, Skwetsimeltxw Willard "Buddy" Joseph, and Angela George have been consultants on the project since March.

The new gallery will have more than 80,000 square feet of exhibition space as well as a theatre, library, research centre and studios for artists. There will a daycare and preschool, as well as accommodations for artists who visit from out of town.

The building will centre around a 40,000 square-foot courtyard.

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