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Nanaimo Art Gallery asks for city’s help to find site for new building

Gallery hoping for 18-25,000-square-foot building close to downtown core
City staff have been directed to help Nanaimo Art Gallery find a site for a new building in or near downtown Nanaimo. (File photo)

City staff will help narrow down potential sites for a new Nanaimo Art Gallery.

The gallery has been looking for a site to construct a new facility to expand its operations and increase exhibition space. Estimated cost for a new gallery, built from scratch, is about $20 million.

The city’s assistance was asked for at the Monday, Dec. 4, council meeting, when Carolyn Holmes, Nanaimo Art Gallery executive director, and Louisa Plant, manager of Nordicity consulting firm, gave an update on the gallery’s operations and expansion plans.

Holmes said that since 2020, the gallery has increased its core operating funding, developed a five-year strategic plan, and hired staff for new positions. It has also improved its online media presence and created a new interactive website to better engage with the public.

“While many cultural organizations have struggled to regain audiences, we’ve doubled our pre-pandemic numbers,” Holmes said. “In the 2022-23 fiscal year, the gallery served an audience just shy of 20,000.”

The gallery is celebrating seven years hosting Hul’q’umi’num classes, and developed other programs including a weekly teen drop-in.

Plant said a feasibility study was conducted to look at re-developing its current facility at 150 Commercial St., constructing a new building at that site, or building a new facility close to the downtown core.

“There are major challenges with the current building,” Plant said. “It’s not accessible to people with mobility issues, for example, and there is insufficient climate and humidity controls.”

The study found re-developing the existing building, originally a bank constructed in the 1960s, would necessitate new foundations, posts and sheer walls, making it difficult to retrofit and more expensive than replacing it with a new building. Rebuilding at the current site is estimated at $21 million, whereas building at an undeveloped site that doesn’t require demolition would cost about $19.5 million.

Nordicity’s public engagements efforts gleaned information from 700 survey participants on what they like most about the gallery. Of those, 36 per cent said they visit Nanaimo Art Gallery every few months, 33 per cent said they like the gallery’s downtown location, 32 per cent like the gallery’s support for local artists and 26 per cent said they most like the Art Lab or other learning and engagement programs.

Of the 279 respondents who visited the gallery, 46 per cent want to see new exhibition and rental spaces, and/or a café with outdoor spaces.

Plant said the gallery has also been working for the past several years to develop its relationship with Snuneymuxw First Nation.

“Snuneymuxw staff have stated that they’re interested in working together with a future gallery project becoming one of their key special projects,” she said.

The gallery has also worked with the city’s real estate team to identify suitable downtown sites for an 18-25,000-square-foot building with parking and loading access. Fourteen sites have been short-listed.

The study also looked at funding sources including private donations as part of a fundraising program, and federal and provincial investment.

Holmes said the gallery has funding in place to create a detailed business plan and a case for support, but needs help from the city to nail down a site for the new gallery.

“This is not a financial ask … We’re just asking for your support to move forward,” she said. “Our request is that council direct city staff to work with us to identify two to three sites, so that we can develop a business plan and a case for support and a test case for a capital campaign.”

Coun. Erin Hemmens, who put forward a motion to have city staff help work on siting the gallery, asked about comments she’s heard that Nanaimo Art Gallery is “oppositional” to local artists.

Holmes reiterated that the gallery has exhibited works of 26 local artists since 2020.

“They teach in our artists-in-the-schools program in three districts, they teach in our programs in Art Lab and gallery workshops, classes. They’re our staff. They are in our retail store, so if you come by to our holiday market, Friday, Saturday or Sunday, you’ll see so many of them featured there,” Holmes said.

Council voted unanimously in favour of the the motion to have city staff work with Nanaimo Art Gallery to identify two to three sites for a potential new gallery.

READ ALSO: Nanaimo Art Gallery envisions new location with potential $20-million price tag

Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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