By Ruth Tecle
A place for the Carleton University Art Gallery is one of the considerations for the university’s board of governors as they deliberate the purchase of the Dominion-Chalmers United Church. The possible acquisition of the Centretown church is the focus of a feasibility study that is to be tabled at the board’s regular meeting on Dec. 5.
The gallery could certainly use more room. It is celebrating its 25th anniversary but it’s in need of space. The majority of the University’s art collection is stored at the gallery, while a small portion is stored in the Maxwell MacOdrum Library’s off-site storage space, located on the Carleton University campus.
The size of the collection relative to the size of CUAG’s staff and available storage space is an ongoing challenge and a significant factor shaping the collection’s future, says the director Sandra Dyck. In an emailed statement in response to questions from ARTSFILE, she said the gallery is keen to help create arts-based public programs which would include the collection.
Due to the lack of space, there is a moratorium on acquiring new works. It was first imposed in 2012 under former director Diana Nemiroff. By 2016, it became the gallery’s official collection policy.
The moratorium will be maintained for the foreseeable future, Dyck said. It is reviewed annually by the gallery’s advisory board. She said that there is also a recognition that for the collection to stay relevant some purchase need to be made. To that end art works are acquired selectively “to build on existing strengths or fill in gaps in the collection.”
For example, Dyck says, the gallery has recently purchased Mary Anne Barkhouse’s sculpture Locavore which is installed on the Carleton quad. And they also picked up Rebecca Belmore’s video March 5, 1819.
The gallery’s opening in 1992 was prompted by a private donation of 57 works by local musician Frances Barwick. It included works by celebrated Canadian artists such as Emily Carr.
Under the gallery’s first director, Michael Bell, the collection grew sharply eventually adding about 29,000 works of mainly mid-20th century contemporary Canadian art, most of these are prints and not framed. The gallery also has collected First Nations and Inuit art and 17th- and 18th-century European prints.
Carleton officially expressed interest in acquiring Dominion-Chalmers earlier this year. Located at the corner of Cooper and O’Connor streets, it has seating for about 1,000 people, high-quality acoustics, and has been an important downtown performance centre for Ottawa’s arts community for many years. Dominion-Chalmers has hosted major events such as Music and Beyond, Chamberfest, and the Ottawa Jazz Festival. It has also been a tour stop for artists coming through town.
Carleton officials have indicated that under university ownership, the church could continue to be made available for current performance events and church services while also providing expanded exhibition space for the Carleton University Art Gallery, a high-profile venue for students enrolled in Carleton’s music program and a central auditorium for major public lectures.
The university has been working with a team of consultants from KPMG to determine that a sound “business case” can be made for the acquisition. Dyck says she’s been in regular contact with Carleton’s dean of Arts and Social Sciences, Wallace Clement, “providing him suggestions about how the gallery can support and enrich the University’s plans.”
Summerlee said in an emailed statement to ARTSFILE that “it is a heritage building and the board has the fiduciary responsibility to ensure that this is a sensible project to pursue.”
In an earlier interview, he said: “The university has already had offers of donor money (for) the purchase of the facility should we decide to proceed.”
The KPMG consultancy team, led by Richard Simms, who has a record of advising Canadian universities on large-scale acquisitions, has submitted a report to the university’s finance committee offering a range of possible management and governance options for Dominion-Chalmers.
Paul Théberge, assistant director of Carleton’s music department, has described the proposed purchase of the church as a potentially “transformative event” for the university’s performance program.
The gallery’s public programs co-ordinator, Fiona Wright, said the current direction is “focused on making the gallery a hub of cultural creativity and community gathering. We are focused on who our community is and responding to the Carleton community and Ottawa generally.”
Expansion into downtown Ottawa would make CUAG more available to the public. It is tucked away on campus at present.
“We look forward to making the church a vital and exciting place to serve and engage diverse communities,” said Dyck.
This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.