Within the family of buildings in Edmonton’s downtown core, the city’s public art gallery has long been the plain, neglected stepchild. An unadorned box in a drab cement shell, the building struggles to draw visitors in.
People have come to expect the Edmonton Art Gallery, renamed the Art Gallery of Alberta last year, to serve as the unobtrusive backdrop to the more glamorous structures surrounding it. It lacks the wow factor of the recently revamped and hotly debated Churchill Square, with its sweeping spaces and illuminated architectural details. It doesn’t have the state- of-the-art facilities of the neighbouring Winspear Centre, the concert hall with the stellar acoustics that was unveiled in 1997. It is dwarfed by City Hall and its striking glass pyramid roof, built across the street from the gallery in the early 1990s. But a transformation is afoot.
The gallery has a new name, a new building project and a new vision of its role in the community, and it’s about to change what you thought you knew about art in Alberta.
THE ART GALLERY OF ALBERTA WILL ONLY SERVE EDMONTONIANS.
On October 13, 2005, the Edmonton Art Gallery announced the winning design in the architectural competition to radically revamp its existing building. It was a rare instance of the EAG catching the attention of both local and national media, and the announcement went beyond a flashy new building. On that day, the EAG was also reborn—or rebranded, to use the corporate-speak creeping into most public institutions—as the Art Gallery of Alberta.
“Galleries have to have a monumental expression of civic derring-do. Having a building that has doodads and a ‘Holy thundering mother of all lizards!’ expression when you see it is really quite important.” – Gilbert Bouchard
If you live outside of Edmonton, you may doubt that the name change will actually result in the former EAG becoming a gallery for all Albertans—how will it make the leap from local to provincial? But the fact is, name change aside, this gallery already is Alberta’s gallery.
“It’s not so much that we’re changing our mandate,” says AGA executive director Tony Luppino about the gallery’s name change and new vision. “It’s actually recognizing what’s been happening.” From a collecting perspective, the gallery’s focus has always been on art from Alberta and the rest of Western Canada. But its commitment to Albertans goes beyond its collection.
For years, the AGA has been one of four arts institutions in Alberta that participate in the innovative Travelling Exhibition Program (TREX), initiated by the provincial government’s Alberta Foundation for the Arts in 1986. The idea behind TREX is that Albertans throughout the province, from High Level in the north to Milk River in the south, should have the opportunity to experience actual works of art in their communities.
This is arts outreach at a truly grassroots level: every year, the AGA curates four exhibitions for TREX that travel to 35 communities in northern Alberta, bringing the work of diverse Alberta artists to over 90,000 visitors a year. For an administrative fee of $50, a school, hospital, library or small community gallery can play host to an AGA-curated travelling exhibition.
The AGA can also claim the title of “Alberta’s art gallery” because it’s the only major institution in the province solely dedicated to collecting and exhibiting art. Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, usually cited as “the other art gallery” in the province, is primarily a natural history museum, with collections that encompass artifacts, art and archival materials.
One might also argue that the gallery’s new name serves to acknowledge and reinforce Edmonton’s role as Alberta’s capital city. After all, if you go looking for the Art Gallery of Ontario, you’ll find it in Toronto, not Hamilton.
THE AGA’S NEW BUILDING PROJECT IS AN UNNECESSARY EXTRAVAGANCE.
Few would claim that the old AGA is an attractive building, but should Albertans pay the $48-million price tag for its facelift? In truth, the gallery’s need for redevelopment and expansion goes far beyond cosmetics.
Designed by Edmonton architect Don Bittorf in the brutalist style of architecture and completed in 1968, the current building is no longer functional. The gallery has run out of storage space for the approximately 6,000 artworks in its collection, and larger pieces must be stored off-site. For years, the gallery has had a tough time securing travelling art exhibitions from major institutions like the National Gallery of Canada because its gallery spaces haven’t always met museum standards for temperature and humidity control. Some of these problems have been addressed with temporary fixes, but just a few years ago the gallery roof would occasionally leak when it rained, and during harsh Edmonton winters frost would sometimes form on the walls inside the building’s entrance. For a gallery that aspires to draw national and international artists and attention, this is a problem.
Increasingly, contemporary artists are working less with traditional media and more with audio, video and other technology-dependent media, and the current building lacks the facilities to keep up. Gilbert Bouchard, an Edmonton-based freelance writer and the visual-arts critic for the Edmonton Journal, says the AGA must have an “open and workable space to meet 21st century needs. The gallery was built in a monolithic, modernist period, and while it’s perfectly functional for large metal hunks of sculpture and blobby paintings that take up big chunks of blank wall, it’s not so good for installations, it’s not so good for sound shows.”
As Bouchard sees it, the 1960s-era building that now languishes next to its more attractive neighbours “became obsolete virtually before the building had settled into its foundation.”
Small surprise, then, that when it came time to choose the winning design for the AGA’s redevelopment (which is expected to build on the existing structure), the selection jury went with L.A.-based architect Randall Stout. The youngest on the gallery’s shortlist of four internationally renowned architects, Stout has a reputation for designing sexy, curvaceous buildings known for their state-of-the-art technology, environmental sustainability, and functionality. Because Stout spent seven years working with architectural giant Frank Gehry, the design for the new AGA—all sinuous forms and undulating ribbons of steel—is drawing obvious comparisons to Gehry’s work. But, frankly, when the only thing your building has been known for before is its brutalist ugliness, getting saddled with the “Gehry-esque” label is a step in the right direction.
“Historically speaking, galleries, museums and theatres have to have a monumental expression of civic derring-do,” Bouchard says. “Having a building that has doodads and a ‘Holy thundering mother of all lizards!’ expression when you see it is really quite important.”
And the AGA is not alone in its pursuit of this expression. It is part of a building boom happening among art institutions across Canada, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Royal Alberta Museum.
Groundbreaking for the AGA expansion is scheduled for the fall of 2007, and the building should be completed by the fall of 2009. When all is said and done, the size of the building should increase from 50,000 to 80,000 square feet, with exhibition space growing from 16,000 to 35,000 square feet. Other improvements include more space for the AGA’s popular educational programming, more retail space and restaurants, and new outdoor sculpture terraces and rooftop gardens meant to extend the gallery to the streets of downtown Edmonton.
And, contrary to the popular perception that arts organizations are always in dire financial straits, Luppino emphasizes that the gallery is well on its way to meeting, if not exceeding, its fundraising goal of $48-million. So far, it has raised $40-million for its building project, with $15-million coming from the province, $10-million from Ottawa, $6-million from the City of Edmonton and another $9-million from private donors. “Too often, arts organizations have a habit of only asking for funding to be bailed out,” Luppino says. “We don’t need to be bailed out. We need partners to move forward.”
ALBERTA IS AN ARTISTIC BACKWATER.
Shortly after the AGA announced the winning design for its expansion, the Toronto-centric Globe and Mail ran a story about it titled “A Gehry knock-off, but still needed.” In it, writer Lisa Rochon did a bang-up job of perpetuating the idea that Edmonton—and by extension all of Alberta—is an artistic backwater. While she criticized the Randall Stout design for lacking “original thought,” Rochon hastened to add, “Without this and more interventions that reach for the sublime, Edmonton dies.”
What Rochon may not know is that the AGA has been building a solid reputation as a site for innovative contemporary art exhibitions and public programming since the early 1990s, when it took a decisive step away from its modernist past. “I think right now we see a gallery that actually is not afraid to be at the very cutting edge when it comes to post-structural, post- modern and even some of the post-post-modern stuff. This is not a gallery that’s afraid to take artistic risks,” says Bouchard.
In 1996 the gallery initiated the Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art to shine a spotlight on the eclectic art coming out of this province. To this day, Alberta and Québec are the only provinces that maintain contemporary art biennials—take note, Ontario and BC In the past decade, the AGA has also devoted numerous exhibitions to artists working within the newer artistic vocabularies of installation, large- scale photography, audio, video and film. It has showcased internationally celebrated Canadian artists such as Stan Douglas, Janet Cardiff and, most recently, photographer Ed Burtynsky (dubbed “the Bono of photo” by one of Edmonton’s free weeklies).
When it comes to its public programming, the AGA is also taking productive risks. For several years, it has run art classes for adults with disabilities. In the late 1990s, the gallery was home to a summer art camp of sorts in which inner city youth, many of them from First Nations, worked with an established First Nations artist to create and then present art in the gallery. In 2004, the gallery partnered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to train the gallery’s tour guides to give descriptive tours for the visually impaired of an exhibition titled “Sense.” #e collaboration was so successful that Luppino plans to implement the lessons learned from “Sense” in the new building, creating spaces that are more accessible to visitors with disabilities.
Having lived in New York, Rome and Toronto, Luppino is eager to debunk the twin myths that Edmonton is nothing but a hockey town with a giant mall and that Albertans are conservatives with no interest in art. “This is a very supportive community and quite a sophisticated art community. I absolutely don’t buy that this is not an art town…I think for its size, it’s much more savvy and more sophisticated about art than Toronto is,” he says.
THE GENERAL PUBLIC ISN’T INTERESTED IN ART, ESPECIALLY CONTEMPORARY ART.
It has to be said that the AGA has found it hard to draw visitors to its exhibitions. Even a show like the “Post-Impressionist Masterworks” exhibition from the National Gallery of Canada, which travelled to the AGA in 2003, received an underwhelming response. And everyone knows that the European masters are supposed to be the gallery equivalent of a Hollywood summer blockbuster. But Luppino doesn’t see such disappointments as a sign that the public doesn’t care about art. He chalks it up to a lack of good old-fashioned marketing on the gallery’s part. He points out that even the venerable Museum of Modern Art in New York will have exhibitions that are duds if they aren’t properly publicized.
“I’ve always said that the problem with the arts is not a problem of interest, it’s a problem of awareness,” says Luppino. “Because I’ve never seen anybody who wasn’t interested in art; they’re simply unaware.”
Since Luppino took over as executive director in the fall of 2003, the gallery has worked hard to raise that awareness. It has stepped up its marketing and redoubled its efforts to strike sponsorship deals with the corporate sector. It has started to forge meaningful partnerships with various community groups. It has also been generating more buzz in the local media. The idea seems to be that if you build an audience for art today, those people will come to the gallery in droves in the future. Cherie Moses, an artist featured in last year’s Alberta Biennial and a fine-art instructor at Grant MacEwan College, has noticed a significant shift in Edmonton’s visual arts community since Luppino’s arrival. “When leadership changes, there’s an opportunity for a paradigm shift. And I believe it has happened,” she says. “He’s the right person at the right time for this particular thing.”
As Alberta’s most prominent art gallery, the AGA has to focus on collecting and exhibiting art from Alberta and the rest of Western Canada. Not only is that its mandate, its responsibility to the citizens of Alberta, it makes good sense from a marketing perspective, Luppino says. “Why would we be monkeying around with other people’s art? It’s important we bring the outside [art world] to Alberta, but it’s really important to bring Alberta to the national and international level. If I were coming from Japan or Germany and I just flew 20 hours to Banff or Jasper, if I’m going to spend another day or two days to come to Edmonton, I’m not coming here to see stuff I can see anywhere else in the world,” Luppino says. “But if I can come here and see First Nations art at the art gallery, and I can see a great First Nations display over at the provincial museum, I’ll make the trip, because it’s unique.”
MISCONCEPTION #5: THE AGA’S NEW BUILDING MUST TRANSFORM EDMONTON INTO AN INTERNATIONAL TOURIST DESTINATION. ANYTHING LESS IS A FAILURE.
Drawing a direct comparison between the AGA’s proposed new building and the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum that lifted the small industrial town of Bilbao, Spain, out of obscurity, Globe and Mail writer Lisa Rochon wrote last fall that architect Randall Stout had to do for Edmonton “what Gehry did for Bilbao.” Maybe it’s the massive metal curves of the AGA’s expansion, or the direct relationship between Stout and Gehry, but some hefty expectations are being placed on the building before construction has even begun. And these expectations, based on superficial similarities, are not only unrealistic, they are unnecessary. Even if it were possible for one building to make a city an international tourist destination, Edmonton doesn’t need it.
“We’re trying not to talk about the ‘new gallery’ so much as the ‘new vision’ and a whole broader programming, because the building only amuses people for six months, and frankly, half of them will only look at it from the outside—or they’ll go in once, and that’s just pointless,” says Luppino. “You know, everyone looks at Bilbao—Bilbao is an exception, and it’s not a model for anybody else’s development. It just doesn’t make any sense to put that in your thinking at all. It’s a distraction, and you set yourself up on all kinds of expectations that are unrealistic. To build an art community and a city that believes in art takes a lot of hard work over a long time.”
In the ongoing effort to make more people aware of Alberta art, the new building is only a small part of a much larger puzzle. It can be a catalyst for more activity, but ultimately it takes more than a building to create a community that is willing to think about contemporary art and support it in a truly meaningful way. Luppino believes that community exists, but it can’t be taken for granted—it needs to be continually cultivated. The new building will simply allow the AGA to deliver its exhibitions and programming with more style and efficiency and to continue on the transformative journey it began years ago. As for the new name, consider it both a recognition of what the gallery’s been doing for years and a necessary break with the past.
“I think [the fact] that it was called the Edmonton Art Gallery and had this huge history was a big weight,” says artist Cherie Moses. “I think the name change is kind of like a woman taking back her name after a divorce. It’s a bit of freedom… There is a history, but they don’t have to be constantly linked in the same way. It’s a bit of a fresh start.”
Isabela C. Varela is an Edmonton writer and editor. She served as the assistant curator at the EAG from 1999 to 2001.