Art Gallery of Alberta
2010 - Edmonton was the first major city in Western Canada to open a new building – the eye-popping Art Gallery of Alberta. Its price tag? About $88 million.
It’s an odd irony: grand new art galleries are opening across the west just as the digital age ushers in unprecedented access to art from the comfort of our sofas. those are just two changes to hit the Western Canadian art scene since Galleries West began publishing in 2002.
Blame it on Bilbao. Veteran Edmonton art dealer Douglas Udell says the spectacular, costly art museums in various stages of completion across Western Canada these days are driven by Bilbao-envy, a recurring condition in the art world since 1997, when the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in Spain and jaws dropped around the world. The daring building designed by Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry is like an abstract sculpture from outer space. Tourists from around the globe have descended on Bilbao to commune with the building, which did not even have its own art collection when it opened. But who needs art, the skeptics say, when you have fabulous architecture? “Museums aren’t really about art,” Udell says of the Bilbao wannabes. “They’re about architecture.”
The push to build new galleries is just one phenomenon to surface in the 15 years since Galleries West was launched in 2002, shortly after the world was forever changed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. To mark the anniversary, we’re taking a look back at how the Western Canadian arts landscape has changed since then. Bold new art museums are the most visible development, but plenty more has shifted. Both public and private galleries, for instance, have increasingly turned to social media to woo visitors. Indigenous art has become a more powerful force. The cycle of economic boom and bust played havoc with the fortunes of many galleries and artists.
And while some people in the art community notice a confident new swagger in the Western art scene, others fear the growing influence of big museums and blockbuster shows, along with the need to court wealthy donors, has decreased the public’s engagement with art, and made galleries, whether public or private, more cautious. “Gone are any exhibitions that involve risk taking,” Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft says of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, echoing comments by other artists about their dominant hometown institutions. “I actually think every gallery in Winnipeg is afraid to take any risks, including most of the alternative space galleries, where that kind of thing used to be the norm.”
2017 - The $85-million Remai Modern, along the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon, will replace the beloved but more modest Mendel Art Gallery.
Edmonton was first out of the gate in 2010 with the Gehry-like $88-million Art Gallery of Alberta. Next among the major Western cities was Saskatoon with the $85-million Remai Modern along the South Saskatchewan River. It’s replacing, with some controversy, the beloved but more modest Mendel Art Gallery. The Remai is slated to open next year, just as ground will be broken for a new $350-million Vancouver Art Gallery after years of fractious public debate. And in Winnipeg, a $65-million Inuit Art Centre is to open by 2020 as an extension of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, whose 1970’s architecture was once Canada’s most eye-popping public space for art. The gallery now finds itself both competing for donations and doing joint projects with the $351-million Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which opened across town in 2014. And these are just the signature institutions. In recent years, smaller art galleries, some new and some in repurposed or shared buildings, have opened elsewhere. Alberta alone has new public galleries in Red Deer, Medicine Hat and Grande Prairie.
Inuit Art Centre - Winnipeg Art Gallery
2020 - The $65-million Inuit Art Centre, an extension of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, will house a collection of some 13,000 pieces of Inuit art and provide programming and exhibition space.
Supporters see big museums as vehicles to increase interest generally in art, with economic spinoffs such as more tourism and better sales figures at commercial galleries. “Bilbao had a huge effect on tourism,” says Serena Keshavjee, an art history professor at the University of Winnipeg. “It had a huge effect on the economy of Spain and it drew in all the people interested in art. So, it’s a positive thing.” Howard Gurevich of the commercial Winnipeg gallery Gurevich Fine Art says destination museums “help bring a focus to the small-C conservative constituency who want to support the arts and help make it accessible.” However, he adds, playing to that constituency can also mean fewer daring exhibitions. As well, expensive architecture can mean less money for acquisitions.
Critics of the big, expensive spaces see few trickle-down effects. The kind of people who attend a Monet show, says Vancouver artist Jayce Salloum, are not likely to patronize a neighbourhood artist-run gallery and, in Vancouver’s case, money spent on expensive architecture could, instead, be used to alleviate the city’s affordable housing crisis. Lindsey Sharman, a curator with the University of Calgary, suggests dollars lavished on architecture instead could be used to encourage artists “to try something new or experiment.” The Guggenheim Bilbao, she says, brings tourists to the city but does not really help local artists.
Calgary, despite its history of petro-dollars and flashy real estate, has no one dominant structure with real wow. Still, the Esker Foundation, housed on the top floor of a new multi-purpose building erected in 2012 by oilman Jim Hill, has enriched the scene. That same year the Nickle Galleries moved into a large space on the main floor of the new Taylor Family Digital Library at the University of Calgary. And Contemporary Calgary, a collaborative effort by three arts organizations, is to move by 2018 into the city’s former Centennial Planetarium. Helen Zenith, director of Calgary’s 24-year-old Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art, is on the board of Contemporary Calgary and believes the renovated planetarium plus the Esker will give the city the signature spaces it needs to promote contemporary art. “It will be fabulous and wonderful,” she says. Some synergy is already happening. In 2015, for instance, four Calgary galleries teamed up to jointly host the blockbuster American show, Oh, Canada, in its only stop in Western Canada.
The National Gallery of Canada, which was designed by Moshe Safdie, had a definite wow factor when it opened in Ottawa in 1988. It tends to offer solo exhibitions by leading artists; the only Westerners this year are Albertans Chris Cran and Alex Janvier. The gallery says its choices are guided by “excellence” and not regional representation. That can rile Westerners who feel they deserve more recognition. And it begs the question: Who decides what is excellent?
An examination of National Gallery programming suggests Western Canada is getting its fair share. Since 2001, there have been 40 solo shows by Canadian artists, dead or alive, at the gallery and its subsidiary, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. About one-third, or 13, were by Western Canadians. They included Saskatchewan’s Joe Fafard, Alberta’s David Hoffos, B.C.’s Daphne Odjig and Manitoba’s Wanda Koop. Western artists also fare well in the gallery’s national biennials of work added to the permanent collection, and B.C.’s Geoffrey Farmer, Canada’s pick for next year’s Venice Biennale, is definitely a reigning golden boy. Marc Mayer, the gallery’s director, says Vancouver “still maintains the highest profile in the international art world of any Canadian city, but Winnipeg continues to grow in strength with increasing numbers of its artists showing regularly around the world.”
Public galleries in the Western provinces exhibit a more balanced mix of stars and up-and-comers. Such shows can be a stamp of approval for artists. For instance, Edmonton’s Dana Holst, a mid-career artist known for paintings of menacing little girls, had a solo show at the Art Gallery of Alberta this year and was thrilled with the exposure. She does not have an Alberta dealer. But after the show, Holst contacted collectors who have patronized her 20-year career and sold most of the work. “I can live now for a year and a half,” she says.
Holst says she was not affected by the latest economic downturn. But other artists, including Saskatoon’s Adrian Stimson, tell a different story. A mixed media and performance artist, Stimson has been pummelled by both boom and bust. “When I first moved to Saskatoon to do my Masters at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon was a pretty good place economically for artists. That was back in 2003. I was able to purchase a house and make a reasonably good living. When ‘Saskaboom’ happened, the city exploded.” That meant higher housing costs, which didn’t sink during the subsequent downturn. Stimson’s income dropped. To pare costs, he is returning to his roots, the Siksika First Nation in southern Alberta.
Many commercial galleries have noticed a drop in sales. “There’s not as many people buying,” says Vancouver gallerist Matt Petley-Jones, who, unlike many in the traditional South Granville arts corridor, has not moved to a new lower-rent gallery district in The Flats, an industrial area east of the Olympic Village. “It seems like quite a significant difference.” He attributes part of the decline to the city’s high housing costs: People simply have less money to decorate their homes. Douglas Udell in Edmonton reckons it’s the fourth downturn he’s experienced. Still, he does not appear worried. He recently closed the Calgary and Vancouver branches of his gallery, saying that after half a century of dealing, managing all three was simply too time consuming. “People are always going to collect no matter what,” he says.
The recent drop in the value of the Canadian dollar has been positive for some dealers. That’s certainly the talk at the Slate Gallery in Regina, the three-year-old base for many of Saskatchewan’s leading artists. Slate’s managers, Gina Fafard and Kimberley Fyfe, say a low dollar means Canadians spend more at home, rather than abroad, and Americans spend more here. Slate emits an optimistic vibe and is picking up impressive young Saskatchewan artists, including rising star Zachari Logan.
In Winnipeg, commercial galleries say they’re in better shape than many other places because Manitoba tends to avoid boom-and-bust cycles. Still, one of Winnipeg’s contemporary galleries, Actual, closed this summer for financial reasons. But other new spaces, including Lisa Kehler Art + Projects, help keep the scene lively. In Edmonton, some artists say the relatively new dc3 Art Projects has helped reinvigorate the city’s contemporary scene.
Generally, provincial governments have not been cutting visual arts funding. But officials with the Saskatchewan Arts Board fear decreases may be coming because the once-booming province has returned to deficits. In Edmonton, Catherine Crowston, the director of the Art Gallery of Alberta, notes the economic downturn has reduced attendance at her institution and may result in lower corporate donations in coming years. A plea last year to Edmonton city council for more funding so the gallery could eliminate admission fees was rejected.
During the last 15 years, the art world has benefited from the explosive growth of the Internet and social media, increasing interaction between galleries, artists and their publics. Once social media simply told the public a particular exhibition was happening. Now, more context is being communicated about artists and their shows. Some commercial galleries have communications assistants who spend considerable time on social media. “We’re talking about what is going on in the art world,” says Gurevich. “We use it as an educational opportunity and a conversational opportunity.” Does it help sales? “No question,” he says. “We get inquiries from around the world from our website and social media.” Calgary’s Zenith tells a similar story, saying the clients she has built up nationally and internationally through the Internet have helped her weather the recent economic slump.
Another noticeable change over the last 15 years is the increased profile of indigenous art in mainstream galleries, which often compete to exhibit celebrated artists like B.C.’s Brian Jungen or Kent Monkman, originally from Winnipeg. “I certainly think that indigenous art is treated better by institutions today in Western Canada,” says Lee-Ann Martin, former curator of the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina and former curator of contemporary aboriginal art at what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. Such sentiments are echoed by Michelle LaVallee, a curator specializing in indigenous exhibitions at the MacKenzie. Both LaVallee and Martin say the preoccupations of indigenous artists have changed over the years. “For the most part,” says Martin, “artists today are coming from a place of cultural sovereignty rather than the largely colonial critiques from 15 or 20 years ago.”
Despite some positive changes, LaVallee says much still needs to be done. Aboriginal artist Adrian Stimson agrees. “I still see a lot of racism out there and preconceived ideas of what indigenous art is or should be, and this comes from both sides,” he says. While awareness of indigenous art has increased, he says debates continue over “indigenous inclusion” or “indigenizing institutions.” For aboriginal art to be fully included in the Western art canon more indigenous people have to be given prominent positions in galleries and art schools, he says.
Audain Art Museum
2016 - Art collector and businessman Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, pictured above, opened the $43.5 million Audain Art Museum earlier this year in Whistler, B.C.
One of Canada’s great champions of indigenous art is Michael Audain, a prominent West Coast collector and businessman. The Audain Art Museum opened this year in Whistler, B.C., to exhibit, among other things, the family’s collection. In Vancouver, the Rennie Museum opened in 009 following $10 million in renovations to the oldest structure in Chinatown, the Wing Sang building. Like Audain, Bob Rennie is a wealthy developer and created a museum primarily to show his own collection. Both buildings have added panache to the West Coast art scene although the new Vancouver Art Gallery will ultimately dominate.
But will people come to see the art or the architecture? Calgary’s Zenith says her gallery, which includes an outdoor sculpture garden and a glass meeting room, prompts some visitors to say they would like to live there. “It does not matter whether they come for the art or the architecture; as long as they come,” she says.
That also seems to be the attitude of Stephen Borys, the director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. He says institutions like his must use any available tool, including architecture, to attract visitors. “Sometimes we have one chance to convince someone to come back,” Borys says. “So, whether they’re coming to the WAG for a lecture, an art exhibition, to go to our shop, to the restaurant or a wedding or school tour, we have one chance to say: ‘They’ve had a good enough experience and they’ll come back.’ Ultimately, my goal is to get them to engage with the art.”