Darlene Marzari adds her voice to Vancouver Art Gallery debate

Perhaps the best news for the Vancouver Art Gallery board less than two weeks after the release of its relocation plan is that public opinion is unanimous: no one is opposed to expansion for one of the city’s premier cultural institutions.

But opinions diverge sharply on everything else: the size of expansion required, the best location for that expansion and the future of the existing site at Robson Square. The plan has even been attacked from beyond the grave in a posthumous editorial by Abraham Rogatnick.

Until council receives a staff report on discussions between the city and VAG for its proposed move to Larwill Park, the old bus depot site next to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, I will be doing some careful listening.

One view that has not been previously released, beyond her own e-mail network, is this open letter from long-time city councillor and former VAG member Darlene Marzari, who provides a unique historical perspective on the possibilities for expansion at the current site:

Dear friends,
I am no longer accustomed to throwing in my two cents on civic issues except around dinner tables and in canoes on distant lakes.  But I am ready to join those who are concerned about the Art Gallery’s decision to move to Larwill Park (a.k.a. the old bus station site).
Frances Bula, Abe Rogatnick (before he died), Bing Thom, Cornelia Oberlander, Lisa Rochon and a few others have already aired their thoughts on the matter and have been eloquent in doing so.
They have clearly outlined the reasons and benefits for keeping the Gallery on its present site: these reasons having to do with the location being the very heart of the city, the place where art should be, and the building being purpose-designed and renovated for the use by Arthur Erickson in the ’80s.
I would add to these reasons that,  if the intent is  to hold an international competition and strive for an architectural statement of Bilbao proportions, then I suspect that excavating under the Georgia Street  public area and  moving into the adjacent quarters in Robson Square (now rented by UBC) might be the  cheaper alternative.
My main point is to inform you all that twelve years ago, a committee designated by the VAG Board brought forward a comprehensive plan for a potential expansion of the gallery. The committee was co-chaired by Michael Heeney, an architect and partner with Bing Thom, and myself.
We contracted with Michael Lundholm, an architectural planner with remarkable credentials and museum planning experience – and a Canadian, I may add – who spent a year studying the capacity and shortcomings of the existing site and reported to the Board with a proposed building program and a number of options for expansion.
The proposed program would have increased the floor space of the gallery and its storage area by 50 percent.  He illustrated that there were a number of different approaches that could be taken on the site to accommodate this additional space. No grand architectural plan was drawn – simply an assessment of need and what might be feasible with a few drawings to demonstrate the possibilities.
These ideas were run by Arthur Erickson who saw the possibilities and did not object to our final presentation.  The Board endorsed the concept.
Pre-2000 was not the time, however, for huge capital fundraising in the city and the City itself had other cultural issues to deal with and was not on side for a protracted exercise which would have raised significant long standing city-provincial questions about whose authority the building and lands came under and who might be left holding the bag if major excavations were considered.
The ideas were left hanging, the committee disbanded and the materials remain in Michael Heeney’s files and probably at the Gallery for anyone to peruse.
I exhume the story now because the material might well be worth looking at again should the Board reconsider its plans.   There is a Plan B in other words, a decade old but worth a reread.
I have huge respect for Michael Audain and I can understand why he might be taking such a strong position on Larwill Park.  It has many claimants and has been studied over five years as a possible home for a variety of cultural uses.  Nothing conclusive has emerged, however, so now is an ideal time for him to stake a claim at Larwill.
It’s as if there is nothing for the VAG to lose by engaging in this strategy.  But to risk losing the Georgia Robson site  in the process and to delay looking at the possible alternative in a timely way could well be a huge loss for the city as a whole.   And if it is true  that heritage considerations are limiting any meaningful expansion possibilities on the present site, then perhaps it is time for some compromises to be made by and with the appropriate agencies.
I’m writing this to a few friends knowing that you might be in the position of influencing decisions on this matter.  In a few cases, you will be making decisions.
I would rather write this letter than go to an op-ed piece because I think the situation calls for some leadership and getting the relevant bodies around a table somewhere to work it out before positions are completely entrenched with somebody winning and somebody losing.
Of course, as always, I am concerned how such major decisions can be made in the first place without a decent public involvement.  The City Planning Commission used to be the place where issues like this would be discussed and communities canvassed for opinions, sometimes formally, and sometimes informally.  Think City would be another agency that could put this on its agenda for a symposium or even a debate.
The School of Planning at UBC has always had an interest in the downtown core and might well have ideas here.   There are ways to canvas opinion by including citizens in the process rather than forcing reactions in the press. But I am capable of digressing onto old familiar themes here.
Thanks for reading this.  Please recognize yourself in the informal list of tasks that might be taken on that are implicit in this piece and make a difference if you can on this issue!