AFTER years of hovering in the hearts and minds of the arts community, the idea of a West Vancouver Arts Centre is finally moving forward.
In May, District of West Vancouver council voted unanimously to support in principle the designation of the municipally owned parking lot in the 1600-block of Bellevue Avenue (behind the Safeway site) for a proposed new visual arts centre. An early concept design suggests a three-storey, 28,000-square-foot building with space for an art museum, an art gallery and arts education.
"That was a giant milestone for us," says Merla Beckerman of the council's vote. "We're riding a momentum right now because everybody likes the idea of replacing a parking lot with a community amenity."
Beckerman was chairwoman of the Arts Facilities Advisory Committee that worked for 18 months with community arts groups and staff to determine space needs and site options. The 1600 Bellevue location was chosen after a site at the foot of 14th Street was rejected when it met with a negative reaction from the public.
The new centre would essentially bring together the programs of the West Vancouver Museum and the Ferry Building Gallery under one roof. But Beckerman notes it won't replace all arts programs in West Vancouver, which also include the Silk Purse Gallery and the Music Box art instruction programs.
"Certainly it will be the mother ship. It will be the centrepoint because of the wonderful location that we've secured and because it does most of the programming. But there will still be other facilities that will be in use because you do need education space, you do need some of what we call 'messy space' for kids and lifelong learners to do their drawings and printmaking and everything else that's involved with art production," she says.
Darrin Morrison, curator of the West Vancouver Museum, is excited about the proposed centre. "It would definitely allow us to grow our programming and meet current programming needs because our current facility is really beyond capacity," he says. The museum is currently located in the Gertrude Lawson House, a heritage house on 17th Street. In 2006, the museum established a growing art collection and they don't have adequate storage for it in the current facility, says Morrison. "So a new facility would allow us to grow the collection as well as manage it."
Ruth Payne, visual arts co-ordinator at the Ferry Building Gallery, says the new space is much needed.
"Things right now are what I would call bursting at the seams as far as exhibition and program venues that we have," she says. The Ferry Building Gallery is located in the Ferry Building on 14th Street, which is a municipally designated heritage property built in 1913.
"Heritage buildings are lovely but they're not purpose-built for art exhibition, collection, (and) program and public interaction meeting space," says Payne. "This community deserves this at this time."
Although their programs would move to the new centre, both the Ferry Building and Gertrude Lawson House would remain in use as satellite art spaces, or for some other community purpose.
Beckerman, who was a professional art adviser for more than 20 years, is a member of the B.C. Arts Council, and is the former chairwoman of the Vancouver Art Gallery Board and vice-chairperson of the National Gallery of Canada. She is now co-chairing the art centre project's development committee along with former West Vancouver councillor Michael Evison, who served as council liaison on the advisory committee.
"We're really at the beginning of the process," says Evison, adding the project got to a certain point last year before the initiatives started to wither on the vine.
"It was really at the beginning of this year that we put some life back into it and I think we've come a long way," he notes. "This is a citizen, community-driven project which has full support of council."
For the past four months, Beckerman and Evison have interviewed various residents and community leaders as part of a feasibility study. Evison calls the process so far "semi-public," but notes there will be a full public process. Beckerman says the response from the feasibility study was overwhelmingly positive, and she is optimistic the committee will be able to move forward with a business plan and determine construction and operational costs. She and Evison are scheduled to present their survey results to council Monday evening in-camera.
At that time, Brent Leigh, the municipality's deputy chief administrative officer, is expected to make recommendations for the project's next steps, including appointments to the development board. Leigh is the district's lead on the project, and was a nonvoting participant of the advisory committee. If the project's business plan, funding and construction plan were in place within a year, Leigh says it is possible they could break ground on the centre in a couple of years.
The art centre is not a done deal, however. The final decision to go ahead with the project will depend on funding and the business plan. The centre would be a district asset, and the plan is for the estimated $25-million construction cost to be covered largely by donations and some grants. The actual building costs will be determined in conjunction with design studies.
The district would be looking at a plan that covered the operating expenses through private funding models. Ultimately, district assets are supported by the district, but the intention is that there would be minimal district support for ongoing operation of the facility, says Leigh. He added that the district is keen to develop an endowment fund and bring long-term financial sustainability to the project.
The arts centre is part of a campaign toward revitalization of Ambleside that has been four or five years in the making, says Leigh. "You can see it could be a very effective hub for the vibrancy of the Ambleside revitalization efforts," Leigh says of the centre.
Although the idea of a consolidated art centre reaches back as far as 1960, with artist Jack Shadbolt said to be an early supporter of the idea, the current proposal is the furthest the project has come, says Beckerman.
Information from the district notes that planning for the visual arts facility has its roots in two studies: the Aldrich Pears Study in June 2006 and West Vancouver Museum: A Vision for Ambleside in 2009 by Urban Arts Architecture. Both studies were received by council and focused on support for enhanced cultural arts spaces. One looked for distributed facilities along Argyle and the other focused on a more substantial building to replace the museum.
Both Beckerman and Evison point to the initiative of the current council and past councils to develop Ambleside as a significant factor in the centre's continued momentum.
In 2010, council supported permissive zoning that designated the entire waterfront from the 1300-block to 1800-block of Argyle Avenue as a "cultural precinct." The idea of a cultural precinct is part of a broader initiative to revitalize Ambleside through redevelopment of the 1300-block of Marine Drive; relocation of the police station to a new public safety building; redevelopment of municipally owned land on Fulton Avenue for housing stock; and a master plan to consolidate arts facilities in Ambleside.
"Everything sort of moved in the right direction at the right time," says Beckerman.
Glenn Madsen, the district's cultural program co-ordinator who oversees programs at the Music Box, says the idea of a cultural precinct on the waterfront meshed with the parks is an attractive and driving force for the centre. Although the new visual arts centre would not be on park land or on waterfront land, it would be a geographic connecting point between the waterfront and the Ambleside business district.
"It would really act like a bridge," he says. "As much as it's an art centre, it's also a community-based gathering place."
Madsen calls plans for the new centre a natural evolution. "There's been a real eye on progressive development and change in this area over the past few years so it's part of that initiative and this is the arts piece. There's an appetite to develop and change things for the better."
He adds that the various arts programs will retain their individual identities.
"It's not a question of homogenizing anything or putting it all in one place, it's part of a diverse framework of cultural assets available to the community," he says.
Evison says the new visual arts centre will fill a big gap in the community.
"Our capacity as a community to have more and greater and perhaps even better exhibits just doesn't exist. We don't have the capacity to exhibit some of the art that we have in the community. We don't have the capacity to accept art from donors in the community, and there's an awful lot. The performing arts are now well served with the Kay Meek and the visual arts are not."
Beckerman agrees: "We have a beautiful community centre, we have a beautiful seniors centre, we have fabulous recreation facilities, and it was just time that the arts had their turn."