By PAUL GESSELL
Back in 2004, Bob Chiarelli offered to turn his office, and that of the city manager in City Hall, into an art gallery showcasing the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art: 1,600 paintings and drawings by major 20th century Canadian artists.
The city has owned the Firestone collection since 1992 but only exhibits a tiny percentage of the works at one time in a hard-to-find room at the Ottawa Art Gallery. The bulk of the works remain hidden in the gallery’s basement vault.
Chiarelli’s art venue was to have been called the Firestone Group of Seven Gallery. It would have been located in the Heritage Building, the century-old former Ottawa Teachers College on Elgin Street that is now part of Ottawa City Hall and houses the city’s chief executives.
The proposal by Chiarelli does not appear to have been all that serious. But now, a decade later, and a few mayors later, some paintings from the Firestone Collection by the Group of Seven and other prominent artists are finally hanging in City Hall. And they bring some class to the building.
What used to be called the City Hall Art Gallery is now temporarily housing a gallery called the Ottawa Art Gallery Annex. Half of the space is devoted to Firestone works and the other half to contemporary art exhibitions organized by the Ottawa Art Gallery’s sales and rental division.
The OAG Annex officially opens March 19 at a public event from 5 to 7 p.m. But the public can view the space already. Along with the art, there are architect’s drawings of the proposed highrise tower to be added to Arts Court. That addition includes a new home for the Ottawa Art Gallery — 40,000 square feet of space spread over five floors. Once that building opens in two years or so, the OAG Annex in City Hall is scheduled to disappear.
The Firestone portion of the Annex now contains nine paintings, including masterpieces by Group of Seven artists A.Y. Jackson, A.J. Casson, and Arthur Lismer. Other gems are by the likes of Jack Shadbolt, Henri Masson, Marion Scott, and Gitta Caisserman. The exhibition is titled Good Company, reflecting the personal relationship the Firestones had with many artists.
The family used to have one room in their house devoted solely to Jackson and another to Casson. There are 250 Jacksons in the collection and at least one Casson for every year he painted from 1918 to 1977. The family believed collections should show as much as possible an artist’s evolution.
The other half of the Annex has an exhibition called Dear Aberration … A Correspondence Through Drawing. This is a collaboration between two artists, Kristin Bjornerud of Ottawa and Erik Jerezano of Toronto. The artists would send one another incomplete drawings. The recipient would then complete the drawing in whatever way he or she felt.
The idea has great potential. But this one didn’t quite work out. Jerezano summed up the collaboration nicely by saying, in a text panel, that the two have created art in which “the raw meets the elegant.”
Jerezano’s remark was meant to be positive. In fact, he has identified the problem. His “raw” work superimposed on Bjornerud’s “elegant” drawings is like graffiti on fine art. The result is jarring and confusing. That’s a pity. Bjornerud, who recently moved to England, is a major talent deserving of a solo exhibition. This show does not do her justice.
Dear Aberration is on until June 15, while The Firestone collection is on view until January 2015 — and they’re free! While you’re there, visit the new Karsh-Masson Gallery, also on the ground floor of City Hall. A new exhibition opens March 21 called Alisdair MacRae and Patrick Lacasse: Perfect Music.