Arts & Culture

The untold story of how OAG’s new building came to be + a peek at their upcoming exhibitions

From atop a filing cabinet in a cramped, windowless office in Arts Court, Ottawa Art Gallery director Alexandra Badzak grabs a book filled with demonic pictures inspired by wuxia, an ancient Chinese genre of martial-arts literature. The book is actually a catalogue of an exhibition, Retainers of Anarchy, by Howie Tsui, an Ottawa artist who moved a few years ago to Vancouver, landed a much-praised exhibition this year at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and next year brings the work to the new downtown OAG.

The OAG is moving this fall from a 10,000-square-foot maze of small, drab rooms in Arts Court to a spacious building next door offering 55,000 square feet. That means the OAG can finally partner with big institutions such as the Vancouver Art Gallery to create and display large exhibitions like Tsui’s, which includes a 25-metre-long scroll-like video installation. The new building will allow the OAG finally “to play in the same sandbox” as the big boys, says Badzak. “Howie Tsui’s exhibition is an indicator we’re finally there.”

OAG's new entrance on Daly Avenue is modern and striking and its location between the University of Ottawa and the Rideau Centre will undoubtedly attract visitors. Photo: courtesy of OAG
OAG’s new entrance on Daly Avenue is modern and striking and its location between the University of Ottawa and the Rideau Centre will undoubtedly attract visitors. Photo: courtesy of OAG

It’s been a long time coming for this municipal gallery born in 1993 in the old Daly Street courthouse. Mayor Jim Watson recalls his first OAG visit while a city councillor in the 1990s: “I realized this was an inadequate facility.” But it would take until 2012 for Watson to become firmly committed to a new building.

However, the OAG board went to work much earlier planning a larger space. An architect-designed proposal was unveiled at a gala held in 2008 among the totem poles in the Great Hall of the building we now call the Canadian Museum of History. It was a turning point.

“That’s when the city woke up,” says Badzak, who was hired in 2010 from the Diefenbunker with a specific mandate to spearhead a new gallery. The gala showed the municipal government we were serious about getting a new space, she says. It turned the city’s cultural-services sector, including top bureaucrats Debbie Hill and Nicole Zuger, into champions of the project. Those bureaucrats, Badzak continues, were definitely way ahead of the politicians.

Such great heights: Alexandra Badzak, OAG director, was hired to spearhead the renovated gallery. Photo: Jamie Kronick
Such great heights: Alexandra Badzak, OAG director, was hired to spearhead the renovated gallery. Photo: Jamie Kronick

That 2008 milestone gala was chaired by Lawson Hunter, a former OAG board chairman whose resumé includes head of competition policy for the federal government, vice-president of Bell Canada, and a lawyer with the blue-chip firm Stikeman Elliott. Hunter travels comfortably in Ottawa’s most powerful circles.

In 2009, Hunter returned as OAG board chairman and became the arm-twister-in-chief, negotiating a new OAG with the city and forming what became fruitful “relationships” with such key figures as Kent Kirkpatrick, then city manager;

Kirkpatrick’s deputy and later replacement, Steve Kanellakos; and Serge Arpin, long-time chief of staff to Mayor Jim Watson.

Hunter applauds these bureaucrats, along with Hill and Zuger. “Never, ever underestimate the importance of bureaucrats,” says Hunter. “I always try to single out these people. I think my own background in a bureaucracy helped. I know how this thing works.”

OAG under construction. Photo: courtesy of OAG
OAG under construction. Photo: courtesy of OAG

At OAG public functions, Hunter is often the quietest man in the room. He seems unobtrusive and shy. Behind the scenes, he can be formidable. He managed to convince John Ruddy, — a land developer, co-owner of the Redblacks football team, and an avid art collector — to donate $1.5 million to the OAG. Upon learning of the donation, Hunter says, Kanellakos sent him an email saying, “You’re the real deal.”

Hunter believes his commitment to the project gave the city “confidence” to make it happen. “I think they felt they have somebody who knows how to do it and they could count on.”

Mayor Watson agrees. “[Hunter] is very persistent and very passionate,” Watson said in an interview. “We’re on the same page.” And, he notes, Hunter puts his money where his mouth is, having donated $100,000 to the project.

According to Badzak, she and Hunter played “good cop, bad cop” with city bureaucrats to bring them onside. Badzak is the flamboyant artistic type; Hunter looks deadly serious. “He would be the strong arm,” says Badzak, “and I’d try to bring the vision piece to the table, which kind of worked, and frankly, we still do it.”

Rendering of what the OAG's new lobby will look like. Photo: courtesy of OAG
Rendering of what the OAG’s new lobby will look like. Photo: courtesy of OAG

There were various options on the table over the years for a new OAG location: a redesigned Arts Court, the former Mill Restaurant near Chaudière Falls, the former Canada and the World Pavilion, and Lansdowne Park. That latter proposal was championed during the years Larry O’Brien was mayor. Then Jim Watson became mayor again in 2010, after a 10-year hiatus. He opposed the Lansdowne site, and by 2012, an Arts Court expansion resurfaced.

When the Hamilton Art Gallery was crusading for a huge addition several years ago, gallery director Louise Dompierre said she personally wined and dined every member of city council to ensure they were all on board. Things work differently in Watson’s Ottawa.

“Watson’s not the kind of guy who likes you to circumvent,” says Badzak. “He doesn’t like the approach of going to councillors. We picked that up quite soon when he came on board and that this was a conversation we were going to be having with him directly.” Hunter says it more succinctly: “The mayor whipped council.”

Watson says he “pitched” the new OAG to councillors as a cultural investment, an economic driver, and a 2017 sesquicentennial legacy project. They supported him.

In 2014, city council agreed to a $100-million project involving a new OAG, a 22-storey hotel and condominium tower, and classrooms for the University of Ottawa. Together, the OAG and the university portions were about $38.9 million. Financing came from all levels of government and the private sector. The OAG itself was asked to raise $2.5 million. It secured $5.1 million, thanks to Ruddy and other major donors.

We’ll All Become Stories

The new OAG, with a front door on Mackenzie King Bridge, will have four times the exhibition space it did at Arts Court. There will be a special gallery for showing works from the 1,600-strong Firestone Collection, a permanent gallery to display examples of the OAG’s collection of 1,000 artworks, a large space for temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, and three small galleries to showcase small exhibitions or projects.

For the opening, there will be one super-sized exhibition with 195 works. A team of curators headed by the OAG’s Catherine Sinclair assembled the art. They were aided by Jim Burant, one of the leading experts on early Ottawa art. The exhibition is titled We’ll All Become Stories. The title is a quotation from a Margaret Atwood character in the book of short stories, Moral Disorder. There are similar, but not identical, names in both French and Anishinabe.

Rendering of what one of the OAG's new galleries will look like. Photo: courtesy of OAG
Rendering of what one of the OAG’s new galleries will look like. Photo: courtesy of OAG

“The intertwining concepts of the titles of this exhibition encapsulate our goals: to present a sampling of the arts and creative output of peoples of the Ottawa Valley and the Outaouais in an attempt to map the overlapping stories that ultimately form a profile of the region, its stories, and its peoples,” according to an internal OAG document.

The exhibition includes Anishinabe archaeological artifacts from pre-contact days, early settler art, and many contemporary works, including 10 special commissions. Two of those commissions will, at least initially, be seen outside. One is Of Buffalo, Bears and Indian Scouts (The Legend of Little Tommy Tomas, 2017), a multi-channel video by Bear Witness of A Tribe Called Red paying tribute to his role as muse for his artist father, Jeff Thomas. Inside the building, the commissions include a photo mosaic of the Rockcliffe Air Station by Leslie Reid and a Shelley Niro video of dancing by Ottawa performance artist Barry Ace.

Non-commissioned artworks in the opening exhibition are either by Ottawa-area artists or about this region. They comprise a veritable who’s who of local artists and include the 1936 painting by Jean-Philippe Dallaire, The Man From Hull; a 1944 untitled painting of female soldiers by Pegi Nicol MacLeod; the 1946 painting Alexandra Bridge by Wilfrid Flood; a 1968 portrait of Pierre Trudeau by Yousuf Karsh; a 1985 Mechanicsville street scene by photographer Tony Fouhse; a 2002 Cape Dorset drawing by Annie Pootoogook, Coming Home; and a jaw-dropping 2009 self-portrait by photo-artist Evergon, Crossing the Equator, Going South, Pacific Rim #03.

That initial show is to run about four months and will be followed by the solo exhibitions of Tsui, Gatineau artist Michèle Provost, and New York designer Karim Rashid, a former Ottawan who has been described by Time magazine as the “most famous industrial designer in all the Americas.” An exhibition by a designer is something new for the OAG. That’s only the beginning of firsts for the gallery. There will be bigger and more diverse exhibitions, more integration of technology, longer opening hours stretching into the evening — and even permission for visitors to enter galleries with a drink in hand.

Alexandra Badzak. Photo: Jamie Kronick
Alexandra Badzak. Photo: Jamie Kronick

The city’s artists are certainly excited about the new building, seeing the venue as a better place to introduce their work to local and national audiences. “This is the kind of project that artists need in Ottawa,” says painter and actor Blair Paul. Painter Karen Bailey agrees. “Once the new facility is fully in operation, the Ottawa art scene will be the richer for it, and it will certainly help to put Ottawa artists on the map.” Sculptor Anna Frlan says it would be “amazing” if careers can now be “launched” at the new OAG.

Tsui hit the big time after he left Ottawa. The National Gallery started collecting his work. Now he has a nationally touring show. Maybe the next Howie Tsui will be able to stay in Ottawa, with its new OAG, and still find that success.