Fall/Winter 2011 Cover
Fall/Winter 2011 Cover
A VIEW FROM THE WEST
On the anniversary of Galleries West, Jeffrey Spalding surveys where we've been, and speculates on where we're headed.
BY: Jeffrey Spalding
Galleries West magazine hit the streets running in 2002. Without institutional pomp it launched right into a program of informing and advocating on behalf of the vibrant art scene in Canada’s western provinces. It didn’t pause to declare an editorial manifesto, define its market niche, or justify its reason for being — it simply weighed in. Looking back over the features and reviews, its unstated agenda is evident, and it’s evolved into a valuable forum giving voice to the contemporary arts and artists in western Canada.
It would be fair to wonder why this was deemed necessary. After all, we do have national periodicals, dailies and electronic media covering the arts. You’d imagine that intriguing art news from across the country would be avidly covered by these vehicles, and accrue extra benefit through the advantage of exposure upon a national stage. But while the nationals might defend that they give representation proportional to population, art patriots in western Canada would observe that far too few of their artists, exhibitions and issues were given adequate attention.
Into this breach stepped Galleries West, as an alternate mechanism, methodically reporting about the bountiful number of key figures, stories and themes. Since some of its readership will consider that the magazine exists, as consequence, to right historical wrongs, to overturn regional slights and pay homage to overlooked areas,Galleries West must itself be extra vigilant not to repeat the same pattern. Each of us might have our personal favourite, thus we might quibble about this inclusion versus that exclusion. However on balance the magazine has done a thorough job highlighting all the usual suspects, both long-established and bright new emerging stars, fine art as well as fine craft, province by province, city by city.
What’s all the more remarkable is that the magazine has chosen to work within a spirit of true pluralism. It’s managed well the difficult task of balancing the attention paid to all its constituents across prairie Canada, B.C. and the north. It is quite a feat to be perceived as ‘local’ and relevant to readers wherever they pick up and read their copy. Galleries West straddles parallel universes reaching out to divergent audiences whose personal preferences span the admiration for traditional pictures, western bronzes, artists of senior achievement to others pushing the envelope, extending from Royal Art Lodge, First Nations to the vivid critique of gender and social politics within the artist-run centres.
The trick is, how to maintain inclusiveness without parochialism, jingoism or pandering? This is the leitmotif for this anniversary issue, and the place we’re collectively situated on the cultural landscape of western Canada. Surveying the pages of its past 29 issues acts as a primer for discussing where we’ve collectively visited. Following are some observations concerning things that I personally consider ten years of highlights — pro and con.
SURVIVAL IS ITS OWN REWARD
The most evident thing to remark upon a tenth anniversary is that the magazine survived (let alone that it seems set to flourish.) Set against the backdrop of a stern economic downturn and dour predictions of doom, the arts, a sector of the economy purportedly the most vulnerable and fragile, seems to have not only weathered the storm but actually gained momentum.
Among the few but lamentable losses were the closures of longstanding contributors such as the Upstairs Gallery (Winnipeg), Susan Whitney Gallery (Regina), Fran Willis Gallery (Victoria), Kensington Fine Art (Calgary), Diane Farris Gallery (Vancouver), and Buschlen Mowatt (Vancouver). However, most noted artists, artist-run centres, alternate, public institutions and commercial galleries that were in operation ten years ago remain unflagging, still thriving. In fact, more have emerged and many are in expansion mode.
This good news is tempered by the sad news relayed through In Memoriam features. This past decade we lost many leading figures who had come to define the standards for so many disciplines, far too many to recount. Among them, Arthur Erickson, whose extraordinary buildings are emblems of civility, intellectual clarity, grace and classical refinement. If this is who we are, then we should be very proud indeed.
FROM THE OUTSET: VOL 1 NO 1
Contemporary art predominated in the magazine and in gallery exhibitions. It embraced the current and the progressive, while keeping at bay more traditional practitioners (perennial favourites of the corporate, oil-patch world were little in evidence). Historical art was barely visible. In latter issues of the magazine, the back page began addressing one select historical topic. It was a scant number of column inches, yet greatly appreciated given the scarce opportunities to see exhibitions of historical art in western Canada. Our arts agencies had come to believe that audiences preferred an emphasis on the present, rather than sharing attention paid to achievements of our past.
I still long to see firsthand the works of many figures from British Columbia’s auspicious recent past, among them: B.C. Binning, Lawren Harris, F. H. Varley, and Jock MacDonald. Surely affection can be offered to more than Emily Carr, Northwest Coast art and photo conceptualism? Galleries West filled part of this void with articles on mid-career and senior figures, including Gordon Smith, Ann Kipling and Gathie Falk. And our public art museums have recently displayed a number of significant historical exhibitions as counterbalance — Takao Tanabe (Vancouver Art Gallery), William Perehudoff (Mendel), Nicholas de Grandmaison (University of Lethbridge / Art Gallery of Alberta), William Brymner (Winnipeg Art Gallery).
Viewed from the opposite side of the same question, articles, reviews and exhibitions reveal a culture returning over and over to embrace a recurring cadre of artists in mid-career. Certainly we witnessed many bright new faces. Among them, Ron Terada, David Hoffos, Shelley Ouellet, Chris Dorosz, K.C. Adams, and recurring contributions by artists like Marie Lannoo, John Noestheden, Terence Houle and Diana Thorneycroft.
FLOCKING TO FAFARD
Do the math. Joe Fafard was the artist most often mentioned in articles, cover stories, ads, commissions and awards throughout the decade. His works were seen perennially in commercial and public gallery exhibitions throughout the west and across Canada, not the least of which included a National Gallery of Canada retrospective tour. The magazine’s first issue discussed a sculpture commission, an event often repeated for other works he developed for Edmonton and across Canada. This past July, the Calgary Stampede unveiled another large-scale work (a companion work was also sited at Quebec City).
It would appear that Fafard has the lock on public commissions combining the right mix of popular recognizable subject matter, modernist flair and socio-historical references. While we all would applaud their considerable qualities, it leads me to wonder if we can ever truly move past this as a formula for satisfying the demands for public art? The 2002 announcement of Calgary’s 1 per cent for public art program was greeted with great optimism, but ten years on, do we have much to show for it? It’s produced few memorable works. Much of the excitement has been fuelled by initiatives like the Vancouver Sculpture Biennial, private companies and individuals.
WHERE THE WORLD MEETS THE WEST
Articles celebrated prominent regional artists, while tipping a hat towards national and international exhibitions. The magazine showcased the art of the west, moreso than providing a venue to discuss art on view in the west. This situation is shifting, part of a new dynamic born of self-confidence. In the 1970s and 1980s, western artists had to battle for a place at the table. Some might proclaim that recently the west ran the table.
Principal among these changes, national as well as international powerhouses (including the Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian, the Guggenheim and Documenta) collected and showcased, to acclaim, the works of many western-based artists including the Vancouver School of photo-conceptualism, Brian Jungen, Annie Pootogook, Sarah Anne Johnson.
For much of the 1970s through the 1990s the action in the Alberta visual arts community swirled around Calgary, with its vibrant and hip commercial galleries. In 2002, the sale of the Encana Art Collection signalled a collapse in corporate collecting, and though it now seems to have been a momentary retraction, it was nevertheless a serious blow.
The Art Gallery of Calgary revealed its plans for expansion in the first issue of Galleries West in 2002. While providing considerable, much-needed improvement, even with further renovation it has never fully served the bill. The Gallery will announce another capital campaign this year, the most recent instalment of a three-decade-long Calgary quest to secure a more appropriately-scaled contemporary art museum. The AGC is not the only contender for this crown, which may be part of the problem — partisan non-cooperation keeps Calgary from moving forward.
While Calgary fragmented, the Edmonton Art Gallery jumped in. The Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art was initially a co-production equally shared with the Glenbow Museum. When Glenbow pulled itself out of the mix, EAG reinforced a well-earned position at the head of this signature project, inheriting the mantle as de facto regional leader for contemporary art. Soon they upped the ante. They abandoned their city-state art gallery status, and re-branded as the Art Gallery of Alberta, extending bragging rights to a new territorial mandate. The completion of the new AGA building sealed the deal. Funding agencies could now channel support to Alberta through the AGA, with the intention that they provide outreach services province-wide.
WHERE’S THE BEEF?
Calgary still hasn’t recovered, re-grouped or re-thought the situation in light of the AGA’s ascendancy. Finding a resolution to secure a new contemporary art facility seems as problematic as it did ten or even 30 years ago. Perhaps as consequence, belatedly, certain factions seem to have concluded that they need to sue for peace. Rumours abound of Calgary groups in private discussions to forge long-term service arrangements with the AGA as well as the National Gallery of Canada, (so much for fierce western independence — welcome back to the 1970s model of a national exhibition centre.)
It might work but it’s a risky gambit, and a high price is extracted when you offer to plea bargain away the artistic autonomy, voice and unique personality of a community in order to secure bricks and mortar. To be sure, we need buildings, exquisite structures to facilitate the delivery of superlative art services, but buildings are solely the boxes that hold the contents. Better be sure it also leaves plenty of room for the soul.
BUILD IT AND (IDEALLY) THEY WILL COME
From the first issue of the magazine certain topics sprung to the forefront, reflective of the reality shared in the galleries and the chatter on the streets. Many communities and institutions lamented that they needed more space to deliver better services, while some wanted entirely new spaces. Even the alternate galleries are looking in the same direction. Winnipeg’s Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art has received high commendations for the elegant, clever architectural design of its new location, though the jury is still out on whether new capacity was added. Let’s hope that in any of these places, changes in physical scale and building type don’t result in escalated annual operating costs that can’t be moderated in times of revenue retractions. This continues to be the Achilles heel of many not-for-profits. Certain costs, such as building and staffing, are fixed and difficult to trim; budget directors have little choice but make cuts to program budgets to balance the shortfall, and too often we are left with attractive physical plants sitting on low idle.
Meanwhile in many smaller centres, a mini building boom has given us new exhibition gems such as the Esplanade in Medicine Hat, the Kelowna Art Gallery, the Reach Gallery in Abbotsford, the (newly renamed) Mann Gallery in Prince Albert, while others including Kamloops Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Calgary and Okotoks Art Gallery have benefited from upgraded climate controls. A few, notably the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge and the Prairie Art Gallery in Grande Prairie, have refurbished and expanded existing structures.
WHERE THE WEST MEETS THE WORLD
This summer, the world gathered for the 54th Venice Biennale. After 100 years in operation, it’ s still housed in some pretty rudimentary, run-down buildings. Forget environmental controls, chic refurbishing or retrofitting — the Biennale is held in rough and ready raw spaces. Nevertheless, it’s a premier influential international event, and the same might be said for Art Basel and Documenta, which cobbles together the use of borrowed space offered within existing museum buildings throughout Kassel, Germany. But the main exhibitions are housed in massive temporary tent-like structures. The hundreds of thousands of international visitors seem not to take special notice of these less-than-perfect architectural surroundings. They’re too busy experiencing the best contemporary art the world can offer.
For western Canada, building bigger and bigger palaces, left under-funded and scantily programmed doesn’t seem an attractive alternative. We need a new plan. If we can afford both: outstanding exhibitions plus fabulous inspiring new buildings, then great. If not, then show me the most moving pertinent art that can be assembled under the big top.
We’ve seen some phenomenal international exhibitions at public as well as commercial galleries. The Vancouver Art Gallery presented Andrea Zittel, Glenbow hosted the National Gallery of Canada exhibition Zidane. The Illingworth Kerr Gallery at the Alberta College of Art and Design recently presented a first-rate presentation of Brazilian artist, Iran do Espirito Santo. His work was a highlight at the 2007 Venice Biennale, and the IKG exhibition is in every way the equal if not superior to his Venice display. Last year, the VAG organized an impressive exhibition by African-American artist Kerry James Marshall, whose work stood out at Documenta in 2007.
All these facilities were equal to the task of showing these works to full advantage, though tellingly the VAG elected to keep the Marshall show on view for nearly nine months — too long a run. It was a practical matter, in response to a lack of adequate staff and funding resources to mount more exhibitions in the same year, but it seems to me that if this is truly the situation, then the VAG should be advocating for a program endowment to help better utilize their current facility rather than seeking capital funds to triple the size of their gallery spaces.
As for Galleries West, how might it exercise its most effective role in its next ten years? In 2002, unquestionably it served a critical purpose as a staunch defender and unabashed booster for western Canadian art. Much has evolved — recognition for the finest of our artists has grown considerably, spreading well beyond our regional and national borders, so advocacy for the local hero may not be the primary purpose to be served by the magazine. Worldwide, artists are engaged in an international dialogue, and the magazine is a forum to extend this discussion, to keep the entire arts community informed, engaged in the debates, and to be a vehicle that welcomes the world to the West.
BLOW THIS HOUSE DOWN!
ASSESSING THE TREND IN BIGGER, SHINIER, NEWER GALLERY SPACES
A new purpose-built structure is not the only museum model. Notable institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Atlanta’s High Museum, with foresight, established themselves on a ‘campus’ property to accommodate inevitable expansion. Whenever opportunity and need arise, they can maintain their accrued value by retaining their existing structures. Then they can either build an addition or a new adjacent stand-alone structure to showcase specialty subjects. The Tate innovatively amended this cumulative notion by establishing the Tate Modern and Tate Britain in two separate London locations. They also opened branches in other UK cities.
I hope that the Vancouver Art Gallery will investigate this concept. I could foresee the use of their current exquisite downtown museum as an exemplary place to primarily showcase their phenomenal public collection, with a new purpose-built contemporary art and special exhibitions centre offsite. It could be phased in as funds permit and with any luck it could be built on a plot of land that permits additions to be made over a 100-year plan.
In western Canada we seem more inclined to bulldoze and start all over again. To be clear, it is not simply the architecture of the old Edmonton Art Gallery that was swept away by levelling its previous building, it was an entire re-brand. The Gallery’s own distinguished collection remains out of view, and the re-formulated AGA sheds its institutional history. Previously, Edmonton had a unified alignment of agencies, the artists in the city, instructors at the University of Alberta and Grant MacEwan, the commercial galleries were all reading off the same page, a dedication to modernist-formalist art. Formalism has been toppled, and undoubtedly, the Edmonton modernist hegemony had to be re-balanced. But what once was united and coherent is now fractured, or at best scattershot.
Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery seems determined to take a page from the AGA playbook. Excitement about the phenomenal Remai gift of capital and operating funds must be tempered by what it may, after all, produce. They’ve announced that they’ll abandon their current facility and riverside location to move to what, from all accounts, is a very constricted footprint with no adjacent properties available for long-term expansion. All of these dynamic agencies, by nature, need to expand, yet physical constraints make growth on these types of sites financially impractical.
The Mendel plans to drop its historical name. Initially it was slated to be rebranded the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, and is now set to be called the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether there will be any net gain in space or capacity — supporters of the AGA expansion insist that they gained ground, but I don’t see it. As a frequenter of the old Edmonton Art Gallery, it seems to me that there is less space for exhibition in the new AGA, and fewer constituencies served. Remai seems headed down the same path, and I worry about what this exercise in re-branding is really about. The Mendel family collections featured outstanding Canadian historical as well as unique holdings of German expressionist art. Where will this stand in the priority rankings of the new Remai?
Recently appointed Artistic Director of the Triangle Gallery in Calgary, Jeffrey Spalding is an artist, curator, former museum director, past President of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art and member of the Order of Canada.