They came, they SAW and they renovated: Gallery in Arts Court gets a facelift

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

SAW Gallery is the surprise inside the Kinder Egg, the happy discovery revealed after the exterior shell has been unwrapped and enjoyed.

As the Ottawa Art Gallery opened in 2018 and the city savoured a new arts space it can be proud of, work quietly continued on the other key art part of the Arts Court redevelopment — the new quarters of the much smaller, but no less ambitious, SAW. A walk through the 15,000 square feet of unfinished spaces reveals how big the transformation will be. 

“It’s going to feel a lot different in here,” says curator Jason St-Laurent during a recent tour. Indeed, a walkabout is almost disorientating, as one after another once-familiar space is encountered anew.

SAW is an acronym for Sussex Annex Works, and it was born in 1973 as part of the storied Sussex Drive café Le Hibou. It added SAW Video and Club SAW (“which has become the most important multi-disciplinary space in the region,” the gallery’s website says) in the 1980s, and later moved to Arts Court. SAW Video, which is now an independent collaborator with SAW Gallery, also has new spaces in the new Arts Court, as does Artengine, a technology-focused artists’ collective.

Let there be no doubt as to the ambition behind the construction. “SAW Gallery aims to become a premier artist-run centre in Canada and the world, engaging in innovative programming, outreach and exchange initiatives,” the web site declares. 

Club SAW will be the dancing heart of the centre, the embodiment of SAW’s philosophy as a place of art, diversity and accessibility, and as an essential part of the city’s cultural community. Every aspect of the club, and of the new SAW overall, has been conceived as a community hub. 

The club is on the lower level and is much larger than its previous space, and brighter. Throughout the new gallery are new windows to let the sun shine in, including a glass facade along one wall that, in clement weather, will slide open to link to an outdoor patio. The club will have a 12 foot-by 22-foot stage, “much bigger stage than we had before,” St-Laurent says, on the tour led with gallery director Tam-Ca Vo-Van. There’ll also be an outdoor stage in the courtyard. 

At the centre of the room will be the tech hub for the sound board and such, with a wraparound bar. The back wall will have an elevated area where people can have a clear view of the stage over all the heads on the floor. Like all of the gallery, the club will be fully accessible.

Performances will be enhanced by a new lighting and projection system. There are moveable walls, so “there’s a lot more flexibility with the space.” There’s a green room for performers that includes a shower, “something the musicians are very excited about.” The coat check can double as a rental space for local festivals. “It’s a box office, coat check and summer festival office.”

St-Laurent adds: “We’ll really be able to accommodate big summer festivals that want to take over the whole SAW, whoever wants to come here and use the outdoor courtyard, the pub, the galleries. We really want to become a hub for summer festivals.” 

The club will be full of visual art, including an edition of works by the Canadian collective General Idea, purchased for SAW by local collector and artist Bill Staubi. 

Most prominent will probably be a neon sign with the words “Dance, Dance, Dance,” written in the Cree language. It’s a commission by Joi T. Arcand, a recent finalist for the Sobey Art Prize. (An exhibition of work by Sobey finalists is at the National Gallery to Feb. 10.) Arcand is now employed by SAW Gallery as director of the new Nordic Lab, a 2,500-square-foot space for education, research, production and collaboration by indigenous and non-indigenous artists from north and south, and — another testament to SAW’s ambitions — “with partners in Scandinavia and other circumpolar nations.”

Upstairs are the exhibition spaces, those formerly known as the OAG’s galleries 1, 2 and 3. The smallest, awkwardly L-shaped space has been transformed into SAW’s admin offices. 

Galleries 1 and 2 are being changed top and bottom, literally. 

“Part of our plan is sort of to de-institutionalize the look of these galleries, so we’re demolishing the ceiling and going completely bare, so it’s more a New York warehouse feeling,” St-Laurent says. The stripped ceilings add several feet of vertical space. Meanwhile, the floors are being covered with wood salvaged from the bottom of the Ottawa River, relics from logging days of yore. 

The main entrance to the galleries is on what was formerly the back wall of Gallery 1, where a new, large door has been installed.

Everything is brighter, due to the opening of windows that were long ago covered over. The SAW offices are modest, but they seem bright and posh compared to the borderline utility closet that was formerly the curator’s lair. Even the main hallway is much changed, as a new window’s been added and the “portico’s been liberated,” as St-Laurent notes drily. The portico, overlooking the courtyard and Nicholas Street, will be available to employees and visitors. 

The target opening date is June, and SAW recently launched a fundraising campaign with a clever spin. Donors can put their names on the “signature wall.” The bigger the donation, the bigger the signature. Where’s John Hancock when you need him?

For more on SAW’s fundraising, visit saw-centre.com.

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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.