For years, Canada’s capital region had a reputation as a nice but not exactly exciting travel destination. A slow but steady cultural evolution, however, has meant that Ottawa’s “boring” status—never entirely deserved—is now truly misapplied.
The visual arts have played a significant role in the city’s resurgence, led by the museums and public galleries that reflect Canadian culture and creativity back to increasingly astute audiences. The National Gallery of Canada is exemplary in this regard: This June marked the opening of its newly transformed Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, which boast nearly 800 works from the NGC’s vast Canadian and Indigenous art collections, alongside historical Indigenous sculptures and pieces by Inuit, Métis, and First Nation artists. The space’s premiere exhibition tracks our artistic heritage from time immemorial through to Canada’s centenary, while a sister show looks at contemporary creators—with works by Joyce Wieland, Brian Jungen, Shary Boyle and many others.
Likewise, though it’s not officially an art institution, the Canadian Museum of History frequently curates visually compelling shows, including a current pair of archival photography displays, illuminating life as it was 150 years ago, as well as unforgettable moments in this country’s history.
At the municipal level, the City of Ottawa’s public art program has played an important role in beautifying the city and encouraging creative contemplation—by commissioning and displaying artworks on streets, in parks and in civic buildings. Just wandering through City Hall yields the chance to inspect nearly a dozen large-scale sculptures and installations—by lauded Canadian artists including David Ruben Piqtoukun, Carole Sabiston and Paula Murray—while the Karsh-Masson Gallery (also at City Hall) presents a varied slate of exhibitions by leading Ottawa-based contemporary artists. Connoisseurs of the contemporary can also seek out the new, much larger home the Ottawa Art Gallery, which is slated to open in the fall.
Or you can simply stroll around town, spotting installations as you go. Grandiose, centrally located monuments like the National War Memorial, National Aboriginal Veterans Monument and soon-to-be-completed National Holocaust Monument make for memorable viewing, but keep your eyes peeled for unique, smaller-scale sculptures throughout downtown. Even the bike racks lining Bank Street are eye-catching works of art. Venturing (slightly) off the tourist track also presents visual rewards—numerous quaint murals depicting historical scenes can be spied in the Vanier, Westboro and Corso Italia neighbourhoods, while the upscale Glebe offers modern perspectives through its sizeable set of street art–style wall works.
Of course, if you’re looking for art to take home, Ottawa’s commercial galleries are more than able to oblige. Just outside the downtown core, Wall Space Gallery represents more than four-dozen artists working in figurative and abstract painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass and jewellery, while Cube Gallery’s roster is similarly diverse—and highlighted by the likes of First Nations artist Daphne Odjig and sculptor Joe Fafard. And return in 2018 to visit the artist-run SAW Gallery, whose expanded facilities will continue to highlight leading-edge creators while also featuring a dedicated space for Inuit artists.