After eight months, the Ottawa Art Gallery is fully on the map and more

Alexandra Badzak stands in front of a painting by Ottawa artist Heidi Conrod. Photo: Peter Robb

It’s probably an understatement to say that the new Ottawa Art Gallery has had a successful start.

Certainly it has succeeded just in terms of the number of visits since opening last April. More than 200,000 patrons, many of them repeat visitors, have walked into the shiny new centre in the heart of downtown.

For Alexandra Badzak, the gallery’s director, the community interest has been, really, beyond her wildest dreams.

“It was as successful a launch as we could have hoped for. It blew away any expectations we had.

“We thought that we would see loosely around 100,000 visits. I’m a practical person and I wanted to keep our expectations achievable. We doubled what I thought we’d bring in. We have blown past 200,000 visits since opening.”

The staff at the Ottawa Art Gallery gathered on the Firestone staircase for this group shot. Photo: Peter Robb

It has been an intense eight months and well worth the wait for the new space to open.

“What the response said to us was that the concept of this mixed environment — with Arts Court and a Hotel/condo in the downtown core — that was convenient, free, providing a place to hang out and with lots of different programming, works.”

In addition to the visits to see the exhibitions on view, the OAG has opened up a brisk rental business and its various available spaces are now fully booked for 2019.

“We didn’t anticipate that interest,” she said.

The building with its brass, teak and marble influences is an attractive piece of contemporary architecture. Ottawa doesn’t have many of those.

But more than that, Badzak said, “we also saw a diversification of the audience. We had hoped for, dreamed for and had planned for that but to see it happen in such numbers was rewarding and gratifying.

“From young to old, we are seeing diverse families, hearing different languages spoken. There are lots of different colours which we never saw before.”

But being the shiny new object eventually fades and Badzak knows that.

“I have had to say to staff and the board that this is a learning curve. We need some time to reflect. We’ll take that time and adjust our policies and procedures so that we are building on a foundation of a lot of great quantitative and qualitative information.

“What we need to do now is learn and listen. I have my ear to the ground quite a bit with frontline staff.”

In the past eight months, gallery has delivered several shows including the major opening exhibition which featured art from this region dating back 6,500 years to today.

They have featured local artists such as Michèle Provost and the first in a series called Firestone Reverb which pairs a contemporary artist with an artist from the Firestone Collection. The initial artists in this compare and contrast are Michael Belmore and A.J. Casson.

Then there is a major retrospective of the designer Karim Rashid, who is originally from Ottawa and is now recognized worldwide for his designs.

To those who wonder why they OAG is featuring Rashid’s work, “we say the Ottawa Art Gallery wants to show the full spectrum of the visual arts. That does include craft, it does include architecture and that does include design.

“It makes sense for us to focus on some of the people who have arisen from here,” Badzak said.

“We will do things differently from time to time. We are going to take risks. It’s not abnormal for a gallery to explore design.”

Being different may rub some people the wrong way, but Badzak said, “I think we need to help people make the connection between design and art. Design is everywhere. It’s prolific.”

Design matters in other words.

“If it is bad design we throw it out, but if it’s good we pass it on.”

The OAG has a wide commitment to represent local artists within its spaces and it draws from a wide regional community that runs across Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec.

That’s a big area and it’s not easy keeping current will all the activity that is taking place.

“Our curators keep their ears to the ground. And the artists do come to us. They want to be in the gallery. It was a promise made to the arts community to show their work, so we have to make good on it.

“That is why we are paying attention to this arts community and will going forward through regular exhibitions of local artists. We have a niche and we know what that is. But we can’t do it in isolation. You can’t just show local artists. They need to be shown in a larger context that is national and international. We mean it. It’s important.”

Notably, the OAG is actively reaching out to the Indigenous community.

“I think it is essential to what the OAG does. It’s what an art gallery needs to be doing in Canada. This is the land upon which we sit. We need to hear from their artists and their leaders.”

Furthermore, Badzak said, “I think Canadian Indigenous artists are doing some of the most spectacular and important work in the world right now. From a straight up conceptual, aesthetic point of view it’s an easy decision. The work is strong.”

One way that the OAG will act upon that commitment to the region it serves will happen in 2020 when they plan to host the first of what she hopes will be regular triennial exhibitions. Planning for the first is underway. It will be contemporary and it will involve curators from Gatineau, she said. The OAG will also bring in an international guest curator who will bring in a larger focus, she added.

In some ways, 2019 is the day after the night before. But Badzak says that the OAG’s party is not over.

The new year will feature two major shows. The first, opening March 9, will highlight the work of the Dutch-born Ottawa artist Juan Geuer, who worked for many years at the Dominion Observatory of the National Research Council as a draftsman. The show, called Carbon + Light: Juan Geuer’s Luminous Precision, will locate him in his artistic context by pairing his work with other artists such as Barry Ace, Doug Back, Darsha Hewitt, Catherine Richards, Daniel Sharp, Michael Snow and Norman White.

The other major show will open in the fall and will feature the photography of Claude Cahun, who was born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob.

This exhibition will offer a way to look at trans artists here and in Canada more broadly, she said, and tell a fuller story.

“These are definitely topics we need to explore. We debate a lot about do we still need to do Indigenous shows or transgendered shows. Or do we do the artist and the art.”

She feels that some groups still do need a specific focus that helps them to see themselves reflected.

This will no doubt challenge some patrons.

“I do think art along a spectrum. In many ways the Firestone Collection becomes a gateway into the gallery. It is a place of comfort. Those paintings still speak to me, I find great solace in them.

“If that’s where you want to stay, that’s great. But there will also be art here that is pushing you. If you don’t want to see it, you don’t have to.”

Successful art, Badzak believes, is posing questions.

“It is opening up eyes to new ways of thinking. I do mean it. It’s not just rhetoric.”

There will be other smaller shows in 2019 including ones featuring Howie Tsui, Cheryl Pagurek and Ottawa percussionist and sound artist Jesse Stewart. The OAG will also bring back the show Wrapped in Culture featuring Indigenous artists from Canada and Australia.

Doing two big shows a year for the time being allows the OAG to put the shows in context and it also opens the door to thinking bigger.

The Claude Cahun show, for example, has the OAG working on an international stage with partners in Britain and in France. The OAG will be responsible for booking the exhibition into Canadian galleries, Badzak said.

“We have done regional touring exhibitions and we have sent shows across Canada, but an international show like this is new.”

Having a new building helps.

“It has put us on the map.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.