Visual art taking a new pride of place in rejuvenated NAC

Frost will be on view in the rejuvenated NAC. Photo: Ernesto DiStefano

A grand expansion makes the National Arts Centre a public place where visual arts are more important than ever before, says an archivist-curator who’s watched over the centre’s collection during renovations.

“I don’t think it’s any hidden secret that up until this past July, you came to the NAC, for the most part, if you had a ticket to see a show. That was the primary, driving reason to be at the NAC,” says Robert VanderBerg, the manager of patron services and archives. “There’s now a slight tweak to the way the Arts Centre functions in the city.”

Now that the main entrance has been relocated to busy Elgin Street, there should be more drop-in traffic by people who are not attending a performance, VanderBerg says. When “we invite the public in a new way, it changes what the role of visual arts is in the centre, because then it becomes part of programming a space that is open all the time, that people just walk into. . . It’s about creating a space where people want to be, where people have something to engage with.”

People can stroll about or sit indoors and enjoy familiar works from the centre’s collection, including Jesse Oonark’s massive tapestry with its scenes of northern life, or Dempsey Bob’s 10-foot-high, 700-pound Red Cedar Carving.

There’ll also be new works, and an increased focus on temporary and interactive installations — which have been “crowd-pleasers,” as VanderBerg calls them, during Nuit Blanche nights and the centre’s own Scene festivals. One of those installations is now installed  in the Canal Lobby. Frost is a giant, abstracted snowflake that responds to the human touch.

The new NAC, after a $110-million renovation, is much improved as a home for visual art, and, generally, as a space to be in. For the first 48 years of its existence, its appeal/lack of appeal largely hinged on one’s opinion of brutalist architecture, on its slab-like facade and its inexplicable aversion to windows and natural light. Meanwhile, the original placement of the main entrance by the comparatively low-traffic canal left the centre’s back side facing the lively thoroughfare of Elgin Street.

Turning your back on your audience may have worked for Miles Davis, but for a public arts centre it was aesthetically obstinate and unwelcoming.

The new atrium in the NAC is a more amenable location for the centre’s art collection. Photo: Roy Grogan

The renovated performance spaces are roomier and brighter, and other public areas — the corridors, lobbies, etc. — are expanded and more pleasant for both people and art.

For example, consider the Dempsey Bob carving. When it was donated to the NAC a few years ago its 10-foot height limited where it could go, so it ended up comparatively out of the way near the door of the centre’s restaurant, Le Café. Not bad, but not ideal.

“It was important to me to get that work in a more prominent location, and a location that has more context to the outside,” VanderBerg says. Soon, the carving will be at the top of the staircase in the new wing on the north side of the building, surrounded by high glass walls with expansive views to the outdoors and natural light — and, if all goes well, without support wires that detract from its presence.

(Those views are a blessing for more than visual art, as they open the interior of the building to what is Canada’s most unique neighbourhood, including Parliament, the Chateau Laurier and the canal locks. Now, visitors can bask in the historic, architectural beauty of the scene.)

Other works in the collection are trickling in over the next few months, as the final steps in construction are made. The seven-by-nine metres Oonark tapestry, which is sensitive even to dust and was extensively cleaned in time for the NAC’s Northern Scene in 2013, won’t return until renovations are complete.

Though not precisely visual art  — depending on one’s opinions on fine instruments — Glenn Gould’s Steinway is also back in place, after months in storage, though the great pianist’s iconic, threadbare chair won’t be back before March.

Some works of art were too big to be moved, VanderBerg says, most notably the five chandeliers in public, circular stairways. They’re each about 60 feet in height and the NAC “isolated them” in a wrap of protective materials. “My big concern,” VanderBerg says, “was guys walking with scaffolding poles in 10-foot sections swinging around.” Fortunately, the swingers never connected.

One piece that was in place during renovations, and became very popular with visitors, was the lightbulb installation Cloud, by Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett, which was in the main lobby until it left recently for the next stop on its tour.

VanderBerg, who worked for the Luminato festival in Toronto and curated many temporary, interactive installations, is keen to bring in more Cloud-like pieces, a “flexible program of temporary artworks. . . which will be a new approach to programming” for the NAC.

Frost, the first installation, was created by Mitchell F Chan and Brad Hindson, and inspired by snowflakes and “the allure of a freshly frosted-over window pane.” Run a hand along part of its 20-foot lines and the light inside changes at the touch. The interactive becomes performative, and right at home in the nation’s centre of performing arts.

Frost is free to see, and it’s in place until March 13.

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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.