Ottawa Art Gallery: Massive new book begins countdown to opening of new building

A big hint at what the citizens of Bytown and beyond can expect when the new Ottawa Art Gallery opens has just been published.

Pulled together by four curators, Rebecca Basciano, Jim Burant, Michelle Gewurtz and Catherine Sinclair, the OAG’s senior curator, the book Adisokamagan/Nous Connaitre Un Peu Nous-Memes/We’ll All Become Stories (Figure 1) is the companion piece to what will be the gallery’s first exhibition in its new space early in the new year. The book is by far the largest publication the OAG has ever produced. The exhibition too will be the biggest the OAG has ever put on since its founding in 1988.

The title is in three languages, Algonquin, French and English, and the exhibition it represents encompasses art and artworks created in this region for thousands of years as described in its subtitle: A Survey of Art Produced in the Ottawa-Gatineau Region. The book, which is 331 pages long, features essays by people such as Carleton University’s Ruth Phillips, a leading expert on Indigenous art in Canada, Penny McCann, the director of SAW Video and Wanda Nanibush, an assistant curator of Canadian and Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“This project began four years ago. Our director (Alexandra Badzak) wanted something amazing to launch our new building,” Sinclair said in an interview.

Both book and show feature the work of 191 artists and works made from hundreds and hundreds of years ago to today. It is an impressive lineup.

“Originally we were thinking we would be launching this within the Confederation year and were thinking of sticking to 150 years of production. But we decided we needed to go beyond that.”

Catherine Sinclair. Photo: D. Barbour

The OAG is not alone in this. Both the National Gallery of Canada in its new Indigenous and Canadian galleries and the Canadian Museum of History with its new History Hall have expanded the scope of time and works they now encompass.

That meant, for the OAG curators, working with Indigenous peoples in this region. So they started meeting with the  Anishinaabe communities of Kitigan Zibi and Pikwakanagan.

“We wanted to reach out to them to bring to their attention that we wanted to include some ancient artifacts.” In the show the oldest work displayed is a copper socketed arrow head dating to about 4,500 BCE on loan from the Museum of History.

The inclusion of arrowheads and needlepoint cushions (another object on view) raises the ‘What is art’ question and Sinclair has a ready answer.

“Basically we are looking at craftsmanship … something that was taken and made. This is something that was transformed by a creator. It is a hugely broad thing.” And … “Why not? Essentially, we decided we needed to look at this region, to map it out and look at what is here, what has been here and what is continually going on.”

Three of the curators named above work at the OAG. The gallery invited Burant, who is a former head of the photography division at Library and Archives Canada, to take part because he has an extensive knowledge of Ottawa’s art history, Sinclair says. He did done a series of shows about 25 years ago for the gallery that were the first attempts at an art history for the region. He is also a member of the Pikwakanagan First Nation.

The issue of expanding the definition of artwork means that there is so much more to choose from.

“It got bigger and bigger. We realized what we would need to show to encompass whole area (through time) and be very difficult to pare down because there are so many creators, especially today. We now have an embarrassment of riches in contemporary practice.”

The OAG will begin a countdown toward opening on Dec. 15 with the public unveiling of two of the 11 commissions they have issued for the opening exhibition. (For more details on Light it Up,

One of the commissions involves the well-known Ottawa-based DJ and artist Bear Witness, whose work, Of Buffalo, Bears, and Indian Scouts, will be projected on the OAG Cube and an interactive light installation by The Latest Artists called Ascension which will soon be mounted on the Mackenzie King Bridge wall.

Delays in the completion of the new OAG complex located at the Arts Court site downtown have forced the curators to be creative. Sinclair said it made sense to launch the book now as an incentive to get people to start thinking about what they will see in the new gallery when it does open.

“The book holds its own as an art resource book. That’s why we are comfortable launching it early. In a way it would be really cool if people had read the book and then come to the show.

The curatorial journey has given Sinclair’s team a unique perspective on Ottawa’s art history.

“There have been creators here from the beginning” as the book demonstrates.

“It started for contemporary artists in the 1960s when artists were making moves towards establishing a local scene in a bigger and different way.”

The University of Ottawa had a lot to do with it, she says. With the opening of the school’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program teachers like Kenneth Lochhead and Leslie Reid into town and kept them here. Others followed such as Evergon and Lynne Cohen. People who were known on the national scene were in the uOttawa faculty and in National Gallery, Sinclair added.

Also in the 1960s, artists started banding together. By the mid-1970s a major art show called the Visual Arts Survey No. 1 in 1975 put it on display. There were 2,000 submissions and out of that 250 artists were chosen. That led to the groundswell that created the Ottawa Art Gallery in 1988, Sinclair said. A few years later in 1992 the Carleton University Art Gallery was founded. Suddenly galleries were popping up everywhere from SAW Gallery to Gallery 101 and many others.

Today artists stay in Ottawa. They no longer leave town in pursuit of a career, she says.

“When a scene starts getting bigger it gets exponential,” Sinclair says.

The relationship with the Algonquin First Nations led almost immediately to an interesting debate that spoke to the issue of what to include in the book and exhibition, Sinclair says.

“We had a couple of watercolours from the 18th century that showed the Chaudiere Falls area with Indigenous people in the paintings. They were done by a European artist who had been hired by the British military to create a record.

“There was some debate about accuracy of the representations and there was no way of checking that. We ended up keeping art in the Algonquins agreed after a debate that they should be included because they are the only visual record we have.”

Picking 191 pieces out of hundreds, thousands, was a careful process. In the end, Sinclair said, the curators were looking for representation.

“We were looking at all creative forms. We were looking at gender diversity and maker diversity. …You also want to break the boundaries of what you consider professional.”

Nor could it be weighted too heavily on one medium over others.

“These things can become controversial. It’s always the most difficult part. What I tend to want to call it is a sample of the art produced in the region over hundreds if not thousands of years.”

In the end, Sinclair is pleased with the result.

“I feel it’s a good distribution of all of that. We didn’t have room to include everybody but we think it’s a good representation.”

The works are drawn from about 25 galleries and institutions and from 10 private collections in Canada. The furthest piece of art comes from the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina. They contributed a sculpture by late Ron Noganosh, who was well-known in this region and across the country.

While Sinclair is pleased with her catalogue, it’s unlikely the OAG will attempt another of this size for some time.

“I think a catalogue like this is will be done only once in a while. This is a momentous book for us because of the scope it is covering.”

There is a fair bit riding on these next few weeks, Sinclair admits.

“Everything we are doing is new now, so of course that comes with a certain level of stress. You hope you get it right.”

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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.