The Cultural Precinct’s early days: when the city directed the VAG to Larwill Park

Observers of the controversy over the Vancouver Art Gallery’s proposed move to Larwill Park, or people with time on their hands — I fall into both categories at the moment — will be interested in this 2006 council report setting the city’s direction for what was grandly called the “Cultural Precinct.”

The report, drafted by former city manager Ken Dobell, set out a work plan to deal with a host of urgent and conflicting city priorities for its cultural infrastructure in the run-up to the 2010 Olympic Games. The basic concept was a new “Cultural Precinct” of a concert hall, a new art gallery and related developments in and around the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, all bundled in a way that would attract provincial and federal funding.

The report endorsed the VAG’s view that it needed to double its size and move to a much larger site.  It proposed that the VAG, a concert hall and federal office towers all be considered for the Larwill Park site. This grand design would be driven forward with hands-on involvement by the province.

In fact, the report contemplated an advisory committee including “the Premier, Minister of Tourism, Sports and the Arts, as well as the Mayor and a City Councillor, be established to meet quarterly, receive progress reports and provide advice on the program.”

There are few clearer examples of how the city became a branch of the Premier’s Office during Sam Sullivan’s term as mayor.

Dobell, who had just retired as deputy to the Premier, was retained by the city with funds pooled by Victoria and the city for the purpose, an arrangement that led to charges of conflict of interest.

He was later convicted of violations of the lobbyist’s act for his role in another two-way contract between the city and province, that one involving social housing and the Streetohome Foundation. (Dobell was so indispensable to the hapless mayor that he accompanied Sullivan and former city manager Judy Rogers to Ottawa to lobby the federal government for support on both these projects.)

Did the committee ever meet? I’ll try to find out. We do know, however, that Premier Campbell made a bombshell announcement in May 2008 that the art gallery would move to the Plaza of Nations site, a declaration that caught the city and VAG flat-footed. (The Premier returned to the neighbourhood yesterday to unveil plans for an entertainment complex, two hotels and a major casino.)

Almost two years were lost while the VAG and the city dutifully examined the Premier’s decision and found it flawed. Finally, the province confirmed that it would leave the Premier’s $50 million funding commitment on the table for the Larwill Park site.

So it was that the VAG confirmed last month that it remains committed to a new gallery at the Larwill Park site, although it has raised its sights and hopes to have the three-acre location to itself, without the distraction of office towers and a concert hall. In effect, the VAG is responding to the direction set by council in 2006 — albeit with a much larger demand for space — before the Premier sent everyone off in another direction.

In the meantime, however, the Sullivan council had approved a $50 million investment in upgrades to civic theatres in time for the Games, counting on revenues from the development of Larwill Park to pay back the expenditure. This is a large number, one the current council cannot simply wave away.

One striking feature of the 2006 report is any mention of the future of the VAG’s current site at Robson Square, a key concern of those critical of the proposal to move to Larwill Park. Robson Square, of course, did get an upgrade in time for the Games and reclaimed its status as the city’s major public space.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the three lost years of Sullivan’s Cultural Precinct boondoggle, it is this: backroom, insider decisions seldom win public confidence. The VAG collection belongs to the people of the city. Until they understand all of the issues at play, it may prove hard to win a consensus on the future of one of our most vital public institutions.