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?