Game-changer: The Ottawa Art Gallery set to open a new era with a big, beautiful bang

Alexandra Badzak stands in the new Firestone Gallery inside the new OAG. Photo: Peter Robb

Alexandra Badzak just can’t help it. She loves building things, but this time the director of the Ottawa Art Gallery has outdone herself.

She has overseen a massive expansion of the gallery that is set to open to the public on April 28. The new $34 million OAG, located next to Arts Court, a few metres from Rideau Street, will now be more than 55,000 square feet.

It has moved out of the old courthouse and into a shiny new building that includes the theatre department of the University of Ottawa and a private hotel and condos.

“That technically makes us the first public-private visual arts project in Canada. There are a whole lot of firsts there. We have expanded our gallery space by four times the size and our storage space has quadrupled. We have never had a visitor amenity space. We now have the Jackson Cafe.”

The OAG also has a gallery shop, studio space and a public programming space, not to mention some wonderful terraces that will be a boon on a warm sunny day.

The view of the Ottawa Art Gallery and the John Ruddy Cube from the Mackenzie King Bridge entrance. Photo: Peter Robb

They also have two new galleries, one that will hold the OAG’s treasured Firestone Collection of Canadian paintings and sculptures and the larger Spencerville gallery which will host large shows such as the major retrospective of regional art works which will open the gallery this weekend.

“This is a game changer. It allows us now to truly fulfill our mandate which is to reflect the creative output of this region.”

The gallery staff has played a lot with what that region is, she says.

“We have looked deeply into the history of the visual arts community here and realized it has never really defined itself as Ottawa vs Gatineau. There was always a (back-and-forth) flow across the Ottawa River.

“That’s why, for the inaugural exhibition, we have reflected that back and are showing works from 6,500 years ago to today.”

To further formalize this cross-border relationship, the OAG is looking at doing a triennial exhibition of work from the region starting in 2020.

“Every three years we will do a deep dive in contemporary art,” which, Badzak says, means living, practicing artists whose work is recent.

“I really believe that in these days of globalism, the need to have an institution that reflects its moment in time and its particular space is important. My background is in the regional arts. I believe in it. I believe in its purpose.”

Badzak is a self-described prairie girl from Regina, Saskatchewan. She graduated from the University of Saskatchewan where she trained as a  visual artist. She did study in Vancouver at the Emily Carr School of Art and Design in Vancouver. But the cost of living soon had her back home where she worked at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon for many years.

“I really cut my teeth at the Mendel. I had a great grounding in its community and really believed in a lot of the things it was doing. And I wanted to bring a lot of that thinking forward to this institution.”

Alexandra Badzak in the Spencerville Gallery as it is being readied for opening day. Photo: Peter Robb

Badzak knows that having a public art gallery that serves a city, especially when there are larger national institutions nearby, is a profound development.

It’s one of the reasons there are so many community spaces within the gallery, such as the cafe that will stay open late, public areas for workshops and genderless bathrooms, all of which are intended to encourage people to come inside. You have to unpack what community means in this incredibly complex city.

A lot of this will evolve over time, she says.

“We don’t have all of that built in yet. We haven’t just built a building; we are building an institution at the same time. It is a different kind of pressure.”

And the OAG, because it is still a lean operation, needs to avoid the kinds of perceptions that can accompany public galleries and museums, she says.

“We don’t want to be elitist. We can’t afford to be elitist. We have to open ourselves up as much as possible. That means we are not going to charge an entrance fee. We are going to keep operations sustainable other ways. We will break down accessibility barriers and economic barriers.”

The gallery has worked hard to build up its funding base, both public and private, so that it can do these sorts of things, she says. She knows you can get a building built but then have to operate it.

“That’s when institutions fail, when they haven’t kept up and they get swamped” by the cost of living and the price of doing business.

The new space will open up room to increase the gallery’s collection, which now stands at about 3,000 pieces. It also means some ability to commission more.

The OAG does acquire new work every year, she says. Meanwhile the city has its own collection which circulates through existing city buildings.

“It was part an effort that artists did in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s to form an art gallery and to have a city art collection. At that time the two weren’t toggled together.”

They still aren’t. It’s a little odd, Badzak admits. “But we want artists to get their work purchased.” She says there have been some discussions about storing more sensitive works in the city’s collection in the OAG’s new storage space, where there is room.

The OAG’s collection has grown slowly over time because of space and funding constraints. The focus has been on adding works from the 1920s to the 1970s. That has meant working with families of deceased artists who did not know what to do about the works.

This kind of effort is an example of how the OAG has been a community connector. The community is all through the space with rooms named after people such as the NFB animator Alma Duncan, Jackson, Lawson Hunter and the Stonecroft Foundation for the Arts. The gallery has also incorporated the dramatic brass and teak staircase that was in the Firestone home in Rockcliffe, which was built to house the collection of art. It was torn down a decade ago.

The new OAG has been designed to “bring in light and see the city, so that it isn’t an introverted vault that museums and galleries often are. It wants to open as much as it can to the community.”

This is reflected in rooms such as the multi-purpose Alma Duncan space. It has seating for 250 for films and talks, but the seats can be rolled back to accommodate an installation such as one by Douglas Coupland that is coming in July.

Badzak describes the Firestone Gallery as a more  modestly scaled gallery clad in teak. The room cantilevers over the main lobby area as a reflection of the family home, their legacy and philosophy, Badzak said.

These features weave their way through the entire space.

The large Spencerville Gallery is another game-changer for the OAG, she said. It will allow the gallery to have bigger shows such as, for example, the first-ever retrospective of the work of designer Karim Rashid in Canada coming in the fall.

“He is known throughout the universe as this superstar designer but Canada does not know him well, even though he is ours. He was trained at Carleton University.

“This show will move us into design which is terrain we haven’t explored very much but we will in the future.”

Ottawa doesn’t have architectural museum, or a design, or a craft museum, she says. So expect the OAG to fill this void. This is very much a reflection of her vision of art-making,

She is also not locked into local only.

“We can’t be without a larger perspective.”

In the end though, she said it is important to show what is going on here “through time in this space. Ottawa has always been, maybe until recently, a space that artists have flowed through and not necessarily put down roots.”

It had been hoped that the gallery would open last fall because it was billed as a Canada 150 legacy project.

“It was substantially completed by then but (the timing) really came from the complexity of this build. You are hooking into a heritage building.” The old courthouse posed some issues. Add onto that a private build with many partners and you end up opening on April 28.

“There have many sleepless nights and a lot of discussions but (in the end) we didn’t want to phase in the opening. We wanted to do it with a bang.”

That said, Badzak loves what she’s doing.

“I love building things. I’m not bad with power tools. I know how to weld. I like building institutions. I am more concerned I will have a period of ‘What am I doing with myself?’ after it all is done and dusted.”

After the opening comes the future.

For Badzak, the direction is clear.

“I want this place to be bustling with activity. I want people to be able to sit and think and look at art and have a glass of wine. I want it grounded within its community in terms of partnerships and programming. That’s all part of the sustainable model.

“I want it to be a destination, that it continues to reflect the community and also bring in works that people here are not going to be able to see at the National Gallery” or at other institutions.

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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.