ART GALLERY OF ALBERTA BUILDING
By Ross Bradley
Now that the WOW factor has begun to wear off and the crowds have thinned out, we can stand back and assess the new Art Gallery of Alberta as a place to exhibit art. To give credit where credit is due, the architect and planning team have achieved the external impact they were aiming – a structure which commands attention from as far as four blocks away. The use of the abstract sweep of metal that literally moves through the exterior glass façade to dominate the entrance foyer is very appropriate for Edmonton given its internationally recognized abstract metal sculpture and painting communities -Peter Hyde, Al Reynolds, Clay Ellis, Isla Burns, Vesna Makale, Doug Haynes and John King). This exterior/interior flow also allows the visitor to successfully begin their experience of the building from the street, enabling the transition from the busy world outside to the more contemplative atmosphere of the gallery. Once inside however, the experience continues to be about the building with its powerful lines that keep one from making the shift from architectural tourist to gallery visitor.
Standing in the grand hall with the sweeping, metal clad staircase and the glass wall rising three stories over head, there is little that suggests that this is an art gallery. The small exhibition space that might have provided that initial link is hung with beautiful large scale photographs that document the building and again, emphasize the facility rather than the function.
Once past the gift shop and the coat check, one finally gets to the exhibition spaces which consist of five distinct gallery areas on three levels. The main floor offers two galleries including a smaller space that will be programmed in partnership with the National Gallery of Canada for the next three years. Two more exhibition spaces occupy the second level, which with the larger gallery on the main floor, may also offer a home to works from the extensive permanent collection which is not represented at all in the opening suite of exhibitions. Virtually the entire third floor houses a 6000 square foot display space which offers a wide range of exhibition possibilities. A space of this size also offers great challenges. Although there will undoubtedly be temporary partitions to break up the space, exhibitions will have to be carefully curated and designed so as not to get lost in the vast room.
All galleries are accessed through rather intimidating heavy glass doors, which tend to clank shut behind you; a problem the gallery is working to address. The doors are necessary to provide the appropriate climate controls the facility needs to host important exhibitions and something which was a challenge for the gallery in its old facility. No longer will frost coating the walls of the gallery behind the paintings be a problem!
Does the gallery work for art? Will artists be well served by the new space? Only time will tell. Once you get past the imposing structure and find your way to the galleries, there is a lot of potential. Certainly there is a good variety of spaces to address the needs of traditional art forms, as well as the exploration of current and future experiments into new art-making activities. Any new gallery needs to work through a number of exhibition cycles to discover how to use the space to its best advantage. The Alberta Biennial (May 29th to August 29th) the next major show in the space will offer some hints as to how adaptable the various spaces might be. The possibilities are certainly there behind the glass and glitz. Artists and gallery goers alike will be watching closely to see if the new Art Gallery of Alberta lives up to its hype.