SPAO launches gallery with a different take on Canadiana

Jonathan Hobin inside the new SPAO Centre Gallery. Photo: Peter Robb

The evolution of the School of Photographic Arts in its new location in the Preston Street area near Dow’s Lake has been nothing short of breathtaking in speed and in activity.

The next step in that evolution happens Friday evening with the opening the SPAO Centre Gallery with an exhibition of nine photographs by well-known Canadian artists.

This Canadiana show is set to become an annual event says SPAO’s executive director Jonathan Hobin. And there is another annual element of the big reveal: an on-going relationship with the Tulip Festival. The festival was founded by the well-known Ottawa photographer Malak Karsh in 1952. Malak’s eye was captured by the thousands of blooms that flowered each year as a result of a gift by The Netherlands following the Second World War.

For Hobin, the connection to the Tulip Festival, then, is a natural one.

“We had a plan to do an annual Canadian exhibition once a year. This is the one we chose to celebrate this new gallery. So this is the official launch” of the space.

The works are selections from the Canada Council Art Bank, made by curator Johanna Mizgala, who is also the curator with the House of Commons.

“The Tulip Festival is a partner of ours on this launch. The connection between the Tulip Festival and photography is an obvious one. With our proximity to the festival the relationship made perfect sense,” Hobin said. This relationship will repeat every spring, he added.

The first show, Hobin says, is about “sense of place.” It is a look at the country through a different prism and “one thing that was really important to the curator and to us at SPAO was to present unexpected versions of Canadiana.”

There are some darker approaches to our country, he said. For example, there is a pairing of an urban scene by Ottawa’s Lorraine Gilbert with a more natural environment by Edward Burtynsky. Nearby there is a stark Prairie scene showing some run down shacks and an apparently abandoned red vehicle by Chris Gergley.

There is also a striking view of Niagara Falls by Angela Grauerholz which is an unexpected look through the mist in black and white. And a fascinating linticular by the Indigenous photographer Mary Longman.

“One thing that is really important for us here at SPAO was there are so many different ideas and versions of what Canada means to people living here.” These are representations of those diverse views, he said.

The space is small, but it is a public gallery space that is, he says, the only independent and critical photo-specific gallery in the region — independent being the key word. There is the photography institute in the National Gallery, for example.

“There is an important part of the regional conversation (in photography) that is captured here.”

As the gallery goes forward, the question of a collection is emerging. Hobin says that is under discussion.

“We have just started to collect the work of our students. That’s an obvious place to state. Once we a proper way to receive work we would start a collection.”

Going forward the gallery will offer four exhibitions a year that pay CARFAC fees to regional, national and international artists, along with exhibitions showing the works of graduating students. And there will be shows featuring the work of international resident photographers. More details to come on that, he says, when contracts are finalized.

Also SPAO has a new tiny garden space being designed by uOttawa visual arts faculty member Deborah Margo to create an Artist’s Garden on site, starting on Friday too. It will grow and develop over a six month period as a part of a new Garden Promenade in the city.

For those interested, the opening is May 11 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the SPAO Centre, 77 Pamilla St. Remarks at 7 p.m. with music by Raphael Weinroth-Browne. The Canadiana show runs until July 1. More information:

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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.