Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

New Gallery With Long History

Mar 28, 2024

Construction began last week on a new Vancouver Art Gallery, much discussed but now apparently coming to fruition.

It is almost 100 years since a group of wealthy business types in the city announced they were offering $100,000 towards the creation of a civic art gallery. The person usually associated with this initiative is Harry A. Stone, a dry goods executive, who put up half of the initial donation. Other donors represented a cross-section of the city's corporate community.

The $100,000 was earmarked to buy the art for the new gallery; the building itself required a commitment from the city government, which turned out to be a lot harder to secure. The years passed and the city dithered. Everyone agreed that a gallery was a worthy cause, but no worthier than many other more prosaic demands on the city's budget: sewers, sidewalks, libraries, etc. In 1928 voters were asked to approve a bylaw designating $75,000 to build a gallery. It was one of seven money bylaws put to a vote that year and it failed to pass. Only fifteen percent of the electorate even bothered to vote and those that did put a picture palace far down on the list of things that needed doing.

But the initial benefactors wouldn't let the issue die. In fact they upped their offer to $130,000 and said they would pay for the building as well. Now all the city needed to do was find an appropriate site which it finally did in early 1931, paying $36,000 for a lot on Georgia Street west of Burrard. The city then turned the property over to a non-profit association created by the original donors to build and manage the gallery. Construction started right away and on October 5 the new Vancouver Art Gallery (pictured above, City of Vancouver Archives 9-4061) officially opened.

There was some concern that the gallery might be captured by progressives who would display the kind of modern art that was disturbing so many conservative sensibilities at the time. But Stone and the purchasing committee proved conventional in their tastes.There were no impressionists in the inaugural collection, no cubists, no expressionists or social realists, no nudes descending staircases or melting clocks. Instead the art skewed heavily toward conventional works mainly by landscape painters. "The pictures on the whole are of the type that can be lived with,” admitted the Vancouver Sun.

The gallery remained at its first location for 52 years before moving down the street in 1983 and taking over the old provincial courthouse where it has remained ever since. The new facility is expected to be ready in 2028.