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Art gallery director defends proposed design: ‘A gem of a building’

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria director Jon Tupper politely disagrees with Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps’s characterization of the gallery’s proposed addition as “startling.
A sketch showing the proposed addition at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria director Jon Tupper politely disagrees with Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps’s characterization of the gallery’s proposed addition as “startling.”

“It’s more astonishing than startling, in my humble opinion,” Tupper said of the proposed design.

“It’s going to be like an art cloud. That’s what we’ve been calling it,” Tupper said of the proposed three-storey glass and concrete building that will be linked to the historic Spencer Mansion by a glass atrium.

The building at 1040 Moss St. will have a large cantilevered second floor that is to be wrapped in an aluminum skin mesh that will reflect both the sky and the canopy of Garry oak trees around the gallery, softening its presence.

“The city needs a gem of a building — something we can bring our visitors to or families when they come to town, that we can be proud of,” he said.

The new building was designed by Vancouver’s LWPAC Lang Wilson Practice in Architecture Cure Inc. and Victoria’s Moore Architecture Inc.

Victoria council has sent the proposal to public hearing. If approved, the art gallery would formally begin fundraising for the $21-million expansion project likely in September.

In planning the project, the gallery hired a fundraising consultant who examined the market and determined it’s feasible for the gallery to raise one-third or $7 million of the project cost. The gallery hopes the balance would come from various levels of government, Tupper said.

“It’s probably something that’s not going to come in one lump sum, but over many different years and from different programs, both federally and provincially,” he said.

Construction would mark the start of a new phase of the gallery’s life.

For many years, gallery officials sought to relocate to a roomier location in downtown Victoria. That dream died in 2008, when it became clear that an appropriate site could not be found and a move would not be financially possible.

“It became unrealistic to expect that we would be able to raise $60 million to $80 million to move downtown,” Tupper said.

“Downtown land costs are so expensive, we would never be able to afford it. Then, new building costs are really expensive.”

The existing gallery is in desperate need of more space. Only five per cent of its collection of 19,000 art works, valued at more than $160 million, can be displayed, with the balance locked up in storage.

“Nobody ever talks about this, but after the Royal Ontario Museum, it’s got the best Asian collections in Canada and one of the best in the world. It really is phenomenal the material that we have here and it really needs to get out more so that people see some of these treasures that are locked away,” Tupper said.

While some councillors have predicted the lack of parking could be an issue (only 26 spaces are being provided compared to the 159 required under the zoning), Tupper notes that the project has the support of the Rockland Neighbourhood Association and that there is no change of use with the application.

“We’re not doing anything different. We’re not going to be a needle exchange or a medical-marijuana dispensary. We’re going to be an art gallery with a museum. We’re pretty much going to do exactly what we have done,” he said.

The gallery plans to co-ordinate with the nearby Langham Court Theatre to avoid events on the same evenings to lessen congestion on the neighbourhood streets, he said.