The New Arts Court: Delivering on a commitment decades in the making

The new arts hub in the downtown core is more than the sparkling new Ottawa Art Gallery.

It is also the rejuvenation of the gallery’s old home, Arts Court. The former courthouse was built in 1870. The accompanying Registry building was constructed at the same time. Over the years they were joined together and an addition was made in the 1950s.

It was inaugurated as a home for arts organizations in 1988, but its full potential as a house of culture is finally being realized in 2018.

For Alain Gonthier, the director of Infrastructure Services at the city of Ottawa, the project is one of the most exciting and inspiring with which he’s been associated.

“A good part of the Arts Court has been repurposed. You see it with the tenants dealing with the new space and the new environment. It’s still in a heritage building but basically it is very much a modernized space,” he said in a recent interview.

“Any time you get take an arts facility that had served the community well but had outgrown its use, it’s an exciting thing.

“I’m an engineer and it is not every year, as an engineer, that you get t0 be involved in a world class art gallery. That was quite exciting. In terms of being able to marry the old and the new, I think that was a very interesting feature.” The additional funding the city obtained to repurpose the space added tremendous value to the project, he added.

That’s not to say there weren’t challenges when it came to the old courthouse.

“The challenges were not unlike those in other older buildings. A lot of the inside of the building had to be gutted and redone. That was happening concurrently with the Ottawa Art Gallery construction, which was a new build.”

Construction started in August 2015 and integrating the old with the new Gallery was a design puzzle, he said, but it was also tricky from a construction perspective.

“Once you start to peel off some of the stones you discover some surprises. When you are tapping into an older building especially a heritage building there will be unforeseen situations. We were able to integrate it all successfully,” he said.

To do that the contractors created direct connections into the new OAG from Arts Court at “all levels.”

In another case, a stairwell presented a particularly tricky bit of business.

“We had to attach a stairwell to the existing structure.”

The individual stones themselves were in good shape, he said, but the mortar between each one was not.

“Each stone was repointed, basically taken out, coated with new mortar and put back in place. There were hundreds of stones. It was tricky.”

Looking at the area now, Gonthier sees an island of culture.

“We are very proud of the complex and proud of the public-private partnership (that made it possible).” The project brought together the Ottawa Art Gallery, the University of Ottawa and the city with private partners,of EBC Inc., Dev McGill and Group Germain Hotels.

One thing that the renovation of the old courthouse has delivered on, is more space for the organizations occupying it. In the early days, Arts Court was, charitably, cramped, Gonthier said.

“It wasn’t optimum.” But it was a start.

“This is something that has been decades in the making. There has been a lot of time and effort put into this and you are right, the old Arts Court was a beginning. That beginning allowed us to reach where we are today.”

Gonthier oversees the city’s infrastructure and the design and construction of public facilities.

“This is a unique thing. I can’t recall anything quite like this. We’ve built other community centres but this is a first for city of Ottawa.

“Now we have these great buildings. It’s important to protect and preserve them, but it’s more than just preserving them, it’s injecting them with new life.”

Not a bad deal for the $4.5 million spent on repurposing Arts Court for posterity and the many independent arts organizations inside its walls. These include: Artengine, SAW Gallery, SAW Video, the Independent Filmmakers Co-operative of Ottawa, the Ottawa Dance Directive, the Arts Court Theatre and the Ottawa Arts Council.

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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.