Renewed SAW Gallery opens up to a new future in Arts Court

SAW Gallery Curator Jason St-Laurent and Gallery Director Tam-Ca Vo-Van stand inside the expanded and expansive new space. Photo: Peter Simpson

The last part of the redeveloped Arts Court opens July 19 with new and big spaces, and the ambition to fill them.

SAW Gallery will launch with a three-pronged party to give the public a first look at its renovated rooms, and its inaugural year of international and provocative programming.

“At our grand opening, we will be unveiling our new galleries, courtyard, portico and Club SAW, our expanded multidisciplinary venue and the heart of our new centre,” said curator Jason St. Laurent.

The new Club SAW is, like its predecessor, on the lower level of Arts Court, but the similarities stop there. What was a windowless and nondescript space now glows with natural light. Windows abound, and one wall includes a long glass facade can be opened during favourable weather to let in fresh air.

A temporary light illuminates the enlarged space in SAW’s exhibition galleries. credit: Photo Stephanie Larche, SAW Gallery

Everything else about Club SAW is also improved. A 12 foot-by-22-foot stage is serviced by a tech hub that will produce better sound and lighting, and a projection system. Behind the tech hub and sound board is a wraparound bar and a raised area that will give guests a clear view of the stage. There are also better backstage facilities for artists and performers, and a coat check that can be used as a box office by local arts groups or festivals.

The outdoor courtyard has also been transformed, and what was a grotty space is now purpose-built for performances, with a permanent stage that’s craftily designed to blend in with the landscaped terraces of the yard. Seen from most angles the stage practically disappears into the stone and greenery.

Upstairs, what used to be the main exhibition spaces  of the Ottawa Art Gallery are now unrecognizable. One was converted to modest offices for St. Laurent, director Tam-Ca Vo-Van and other staff. The two other spaces now feel bigger and warmer, with the old drop ceilings gone, thereby adding several feet of vertical space, and the floors now covered in boards salvaged from the Ottawa River.

It all officially opens to the public at Friday’s party, which begins at 7 p.m. and goes well into the early morning. There’ll be concerts outdoors on the courtyard with performances by LAL, Syrus Marcus Ware, Matt Miwa, Perdu, and Ziibiwan.

At 11 p.m. the main party moves inside for Transformer, a new, monthly queer performance series, with Maylee Todd, Kim Dymond, Adrianna Exposée, Aimee Yonce Shennel, and local DJs FRUIT, STAR, CANDY BAR. There’ll also be a video by Ottawa artists Adrian Göllner and Andrew Wright.

Other visual art will include the unveiling of new works commissioned or acquired by SAW, with work by Joi T. Arcand,  PA System, Ningiukulu Teevee and the General Idea.

A view of the terraced courtyard seen through the new doors to SAW Gallery’s Nicholas Street entrance. Photo: Peter Simpson

Visually, the main event will be the first major exhibition in the new SAW, the “ambitious” Sex Life: Homoeroticism in Drawing. Curated by St. Laurent, it features work from around the world, including Ottawa’s Dave Cooper, Toronto’s Kent Monkman and other “contemporary artists, underground cartoonists and art-world outsiders.”

It’s free admission to all events, and the OAG will provide free childcare from 7 to 9 p.m.

Eventually, SAW’s programming “will extend beyond gallery walls,” St. Laurent says.

“In the fall, we will be launching the SAW Art and Protest initiative which will give activist groups in Ottawa the opportunity to work with artists and designers in devising a visual campaign for their protests. Through our new screen printing facilities, we will produce the placards, T-shirts and whatever else is needed to give protest actions more visual impact,” he says. “We’ll also be launching a Triennial of Alternative Architecture which will feature works by artists and outsider architects from Canada and internationally.”

The one space that won’t be opened yet is SAW’s Nordic Lab, including the Annie Pootoogook Studio. It’ll be unveiled in November, St. Laurent says, when SAW will host “an international Inuit tattoo symposium called Inuk Ink.”

Though construction is largely complete and programming in place, St. Laurent is heeding advice from OAG director Alexander Badzak and not planning a vacation any time soon.

“(Badzak) cautioned us about the demands of a new space,” he says. “There is no slowing down once you open a significantly expanded facility and organizational capacity is really tested in your first year of operations. So maybe I’ll get away in 2020, somewhere far, far away.”

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.