By Paul Gessell
Moments after Ottawa City Council approved the $36.1 million expansion and renovation of Arts Court, Alexandra Badzak said she was “dizzy with excitement.” Badzak is the director of the Ottawa Art Gallery, that cramped art hideout in Arts Court that is about to balloon in size, staff and influence. In an email interview with the Artful Blogger, Badzak discusses the future of art in Ottawa.
What are the benefits for Ottawa-area artists in increasing the size of the Ottawa Art Gallery?
Fundamentally, our artists require and deserve a state-of the-art gallery to exhibit their work. This will allow our artists to stand shoulder to shoulder with other artists across Canada who have benefited from large and significant municipal art galleries in cities like Vancouver, Winnipeg and Saskatoon.
With a larger space, the OAG will be able to feature the work of artists throughout all phases of their career from emerging to senior. We will be able to exhibit and tour our regional artists alongside their national and international colleagues so that they get greater exposure. Some people may ask: Why does Ottawa need a municipal art gallery when it has the National Gallery of Canada? The answer is that the National Gallery simply doesn’t function without a strong network of senior municipal and regional art galleries. The NGC would not have any senior Canadian artists to exhibit or collect without these same artists having been supported and fostered by city art galleries as well as artist-run centres. Daphne Odjig was highly exhibited at the Art Gallery of Sudbury and Kamloops throughout the years, David Hoffos by the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Joe Fafard by the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina. These artists, who all had significant solo exhibitions at the National Gallery recently, would never have reached this pinnacle (or received the exhibition experience, attention and notoriety) if their careers hadn’t first been supported by their municipal art galleries. We are an essential link in that chain. Our artists deserve to be exhibited at and collected by a world class facility so that they can be on par with other world class municipal art galleries that were and are being built throughout Canada.
What is the size of your exhibition space now and how does it compare to the new proposal?
We currently have 3,630 square feet in exhibition space and our entire gallery (including offices and collection storage) occupies about 10,000 square feet. We are one of the smallest municipal art galleries in Canada. The new proposed Ottawa Art Gallery is to be around 30,000 square feet net and include about 10,000 square feet in exhibition space alone not to mention a greatly expanded collection storage space, an educational studio as well as a multipurpose space and a café and gallery shop.
Are there certain kinds of exhibitions or other forms of programming that you can’t do now but could do in the new space?
Oh boy is there ever!! First off, the OAG will finally be able to mount large-scale exhibitions and to bring in significant touring exhibitions from around the world. We will be able to balance these large exhibitions with solo, two-person, and small group exhibitions. We are really dedicated to exposing not only the “product” our artists produce (finished artwork) but also revealing the “process” of art-making. So we will have space dedicated to emerging artforms, community art projects, and art mentorships. We are also very excited about collaborating with the community and of course our Arts Court and media arts colleagues on various interdisciplinary projects and festivals. I am not even touching on the new educational and public programs we are planning! The new OAG along with the redeveloped Arts Court will truly become the hub for Ottawa arts and culture!
Would the new space change your exhibitions and programming involving the Firestone Collection?
Absolutely. We are proposing to create a 3,600 sq ft exhibition space for the Firestone Collection that would also include portions of the original Firestone family home such as the original staircase. This permanent collection display will be interactive and accessible and form a big part of our school and tour program. As you may know, we currently can only exhibit about two per cent of this valuable art collection (worth about $17 million) we hold in trust for the people of Ottawa.
Will a larger space mean you need more staff and a bigger budget? And is the city willing to increase your funds?
Yes, the new Ottawa Art Gallery will require more staff (around eight to 10 new positions) and a bigger budget to produce more programs and exhibitions. The City of Ottawa is willing to increase the level of operational support that they provide us annually which will get us more in line with what other municipal art galleries across Canada receive from their city governments. The new gallery will allow the OAG to become much more entrepreneurial with the addition of five new or significantly increased revenue generators. These elements not only allow the gallery to become more financially stable, they also enhance the visitors’ experience with such things as a café, which will be a lively space where people can come for a light lunch or dinner, sip some wine and talk about art and the new OAG Gallery Shop and Art Rental, which will sell unique and in some cases customized products and artwork for everyone’s price point.