One of the first things Anthony Kiendl , the new CEO and director of the Vancouver Art Gallery , said during an interview was that he’s “optimistic” about moving ahead with the new building for the gallery.
Coming from Kiendl, the word didn’t sound like a sales job. It sounded completely genuine.
Maybe he really will deliver on a building that Vancouverites have waited for more than 12 years to take shape downtown across from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
It was way back in 2008 when the provincial government announced it was contributing $50 million to start the fundraising campaign. At the time, a new building seemed only a few years away.
But even with a site donated by the city and a design by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, the project has stalled.
Kiendl, however, said building a new gallery is one of reasons he was hired.
“Vancouver certainly not only deserves but demands a major centre for visual arts that reflects its standing in the visual arts world internationally,” Kiendl said.
A big funding nut the VAG has been unable to crack over the years is convincing the federal government to invest at least $100 million in the project.
Kiendl reframed the project as a green initiative to fit into the federal government’s spending priorities on climate change.
The new building, he said, is designed to have passive house standards, which use up to 90 per cent less heating and cooling energy.
“It would be — I believe — the only art museum in North America built to that standard.”
There is still a lot work to be done before construction starts on the 15-storey building, said Kiendl. As an example, he’s looking to add more escalators to move people through the building now that the pandemic has reduced the capacity of elevators.
Kiendl takes over from Kathleen Bartels, who was director for 18 years until May, 2019.
He said Bartels not only had an “unmistakable impact” on the gallery but was instrumental in choosing the building design and securing a $40 million donation from the Chan family.
“I think it’s a matter of honouring and building on good work that has been done but also responding and moving forward,” he said.
Before the VAG, Kiendl has had a series of successes running art galleries in Western Canada.
Raised in Winnipeg, Kiendl took over the reins at the city’s Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in 2006.
At the time, the gallery still felt “proud and accomplished” that such a small institution had organized Canada’s participation at the 2001 Venice Biennale when Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller were co-winners of the International Prize — a first for the country.
“(Plug In was) definitely internationally known in contemporary art but probably not with everyday people in suburban Winnipeg,” he said.
“They wanted to grow and take that next step.”
Kiendl realized the best way for Plug In to do that was to approach the University of Winnipeg and create a joint venture partnership.
“That’s what gave us the gasoline and critical mass to make the project happen,” he said.
In a four-year capital campaign, Kiendl raised $4 million as Plug In’s share for the $15 million building at 460 Portage Avenue, across from Hudson’s Bay and next to the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Plug In’s attendance increased ten-fold.
In Regina, he took over as CEO and executive director of the MacKenzie Art Gallery in 2014. The gallery began to struggle financially when it was hit with major funding cuts, including $100,000 from an annual grant on its $2 million operating budget.
One area he targeted was free admission. When the MacKenzie started charging $10 for adults it was offset by several measures to ensure community access such as free admission for anyone under 17 and free days covered by a corporate donor.
The public voted with their feet: attendance over three years increased by almost 40 per cent. With the addition of a café, earned revenue jumped by 247 per cent.
“It is kind of sad but I did come to believe if something has a value attached to it, people value it,” he said.
“If it’s free, I think at a certain level, people are thinking, ‘Maybe it’s not that good.’”
In 2018, the MAG made headlines when it received a $25 million anonymous donation — the biggest by far in the gallery’s history.
Kiendl said that he initially saw a “financial transaction published in the newspaper” and went after the parties involved. It took him three years, a period that included setting up an endowment managed by the South Saskatchewan Community Foundation. Proceeds are expected to pay for about 25 per cent of the gallery’s annual operating budget.
“Overall, my goal is to diversify funding,” he said. “It’s definitely important not to rely on a single benefactor or a single government.”
At the VAG , Kiendl’s first official day at work was Friday, Aug. 21. It’s a sign of a new direction at the gallery, and his own interests in Indigenous art, that his first official meeting was with the Musqueam at the Musqueam Cultural Centre Gallery . He’s planning similar meetings with the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh .
He wants to do a lot of listening to Indigenous communities about the Vancouver Art Gallery.
“I don’t want to come in and just say that this is what we’re going to do,” he said.
“We have a responsibility as uninvited guests on unceded territory to listen and try to understand that world view and include that vision.”
Art galleries and museums, he said, reflect back to the community “who we are as a culture.” He acknowledged that the gallery has historically excluded and not appreciated local Indigenous cultures which exist here and nowhere else in the world.
“When we talk about something like building a new building, I want to think through the implications of that history and what we can do to make society better and be more relevant not only to local Indigenous communities but to everyone.
“I’ve said to staff and the board, ‘If we close tomorrow, who would care?’
“If we don’t know the answer to that, we have work to do.”
By the Numbers
• The project value for the new Vancouver Art Gallery is $490 million. This includes $100 million for the site, the first time a price has been put on the estimate on the cost of the land contributed by the City of Vancouver.
• The capital fundraising campaign is $390 million: $330 million for construction, $60 million for the endowment.
• Total raised: private sector, $86.5 million; Province of B.C., $50 million.
Source: Vancouver Art Gallery