Free, open and accessible the Ottawa Art Gallery enters a new era

With architect Mitch Hall, Alexandra Badzak gestures at some of the art on display in the Ottawa Art Gallery's new special exhibition space the Spencerville Gallery, while Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson inspects the space. Photo: Peter Robb

When the new Ottawa Art Gallery opens officially on Saturday it will be free, open and accessible, says the director of the $34 million institution.

Alexandra Badzak told a small gathering of media and dignitaries on Friday morning that the “new Ottawa Art Gallery is a dream long in the making but it is also a true game changer for the arts community.”

The notion of “interconnectivity” is central to the idea of this new building which is a dream 30 years in the making.

“We are a stacked gallery. We have two main entrances, one from the Mackenzie King Bridge and the other off Daly Street. The gallery is also connected to its old home in Arts Court on four different levels and a hotel on another level. On three of those levels there is a connection to the University of Ottawa’s theatre department.”

But more than that, the new gallery wants to be connected to the public, she said.

“We rose to that challenge in two main ways. First entry is free. That was a big moment when we realized we were going to embrace that.

“No. 2, longer hours of operation: We want to be open when you need us to be. We will have university art students coming through, theatre students coming through, hotel guests, condo dwellers and patrons at late night performances in Arts Court. We are the nexus for all that activity so we are  going to have embrace longer hours.” The new OAG will be open  9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week and the OAG’s Jackson Cafe will be open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

“We want the space to be a place where people come to look at the exhibits, meet friends, have a glass of wine and talk about the good things in life, art, philosophy, shoes,” she said.


From left: Jim Watson, Jérôme Côté of Régis Côté et associes, Alexandra Badzak, Mitch Hall, of KPMB Architects, OAG board chair Lawson Hunter and Christiane Germain of Group Germain Hotels. Photo: Peter Robb

The gallery has, she emphasized, made a major investment in accessibility. It is accessible to wheelchairs. There are genderless bathrooms. There will be free child care every Wednesday and on special event days. They are also partnering with other organizations such as the Canadian Film Institute and the Ottawa International Animation Festival along with the Ottawa Mission, St. Jude’s and the Ottawa Public Library.

One of the key design features of the new space is the natural light that permeates every floor. This was a key feature pushed by the architects, Mitch Hall of KPMB Architects and Jérôme Côté of Régis Côté et associes.

“When you enter this space you will feel at home in a place that is full of light and deeply rooted in the urban core,” Badzak said.

She said the gallery team looked at a lot of light studies to discover what they could do in terms of natural light without damaging sensitive works.

“The architects were very clever,” she said. “They never put windows near the art work. In certain areas we will be careful especially about photography or any sensitive paper, but the natural light will be key to breaking down the kind of visitor fatigue that you see in so many museums.”

In terms of the art on display, the gallery is opening with a major exhibition on Saturday that will feature the work of 6,500 years of creation from arrowheads to video. There will be works from 181 artists including 11 commissioned pieces.

“The goal for us is to tell a story that has never been told before,” she said. “If people can come here and be transformed and inspired by their visit and having a feeling of belonging” it will be a success, Badzak said.

The Mayor of Ottawa was on hand Friday morning and called this past week “one of my most proud weeks as mayor for three reasons. I had the opportunity to be one of the first civilians to ride the LRT from Tremblay station to the University of Ottawa. Then we had the official opening of the Innovation Centre at Bayview Yards. And last, but not least, is the official opening of this beautiful Ottawa Art Gallery and the rejuvenated and renovated Arts Court.”

For Jim Watson, the expansion of the OAG fulfills a campaign commitment he made in 2010. It is part of a $100 million redevelopment project that includes a theatre space and classes for uOttawa, a hotel and condominiums.

It also has seen the rejuvenation of Arts Court itself with new spaces for SAW Gallery, SAW Video, Club SAW, IFCO, artengine, and the Arts Court theatre and studio. By November the Waller Street LRT station will have opened literally transforming this part of downtown, he said.

“This area has become where it is happening in the city of Ottawa,” Watson said.

Later in an interview Watson listed off some of the cultural  projects that have come to fruition in his past two terms in office.

“There has been a lot of talk about what we should do to support the arts. I’m proud of the fact that in the last two terms of council we saw La Nouvelle Scene open on King Edward. GCTC opened and we helped them financially. This project was the No. 1 priority of the community for at least a decade.

The Firestone staircase leads into the gallery holding the treasures of the Firestone collection. Photo: Peter Robb

“This is going to be one of those great anchors so that 50 years down the road people will still be mesmerized by this spectacular municipal art gallery. As you know we are often overshadowed by the federal institutions.” There are two Ottawas, the federal and the local, the mayor said. The new gallery gives the local a chance to shine.

“We are spending more on arts and culture in the city of Ottawa than ever before. Secondly the LRT project is a massive boost for the arts because we are spending $20 million on public art.”

Going forward, Watson says he continues to push for a National Portrait Gallery, even though that is not a city project. And on the horizon is a new main municipal library that he hopes will exceed the Halifax public library which is considered the gold standard in the country.

He was non-committal about increasing per capita funding for the arts.

“We have been increasing grants with the rate of inflation, which I believe the arts groups appreciate. There is always a desire for more but we have many priorities to balance and the bulk of our capital dollars over the next 10 years will be going to LRT. The next phase is $3.3 billion. That does mean another $30 million for public art,” he noted.

One of the key features of the new gallery is its acknowledgement of the Firestone collection and the family behind the all that Canadian art.

Mitch Hall noted that there is a picture of O.J. Firestone in the family’s home in Rockcliffe with a teak wall behind him along with a brass and marble staircase. The new gallery is full of teak and that original staircase greets visitors going through the main entrance on Mackenzie King Bridge.

“It is the original staircase. It was in many pieces and it took a lot of work and energy to make it fit,” Hall said. But it is now almost like another sculpture on display.

Badzak noted that the Firestone family always encouraged people into their home to look at the art and that welcoming spirit has informed the OAG’s thinking about openness.

After a gala reception Friday evening, the gallery will open to the public on Saturday. A full list of weekend activities is on the gallery website 

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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.