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Future of Ottawa: Painting our city’s portrait

By Apartment613 on April 24, 2015

This is part five in our week-long series The Future of Ottawa (arts and culture edition).  In this comprehensive post, Jason St-Laurent, the curator at Galerie SAW Gallery, writes about the present state and future direction of  the visual arts community in Ottawa-Gatineau.  Twitter users: use hashtag #futott if you want to discuss this series on Twitter.

In the past year, I’ve found myself using the term “cultural renaissance” to describe the energy of Ottawa-Gatineau’s visual arts sector, particularly in reference to the many cultural infrastructure projects on the horizon, but also in reference to the international attention recently received by many artists hailing from the region, such as Ciara Phillips, who was recently nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize in the UK.

Artist sketch of the north facade of the new proposed Arts Court building. Photo from the City of Ottawa website.

Artist sketch of the north facade of the new proposed Arts Court building. Photo from the City of Ottawa website.

There are currently two major infrastructure projects that are coming into form: the $41 million Arts Court Redevelopment Project in downtown Ottawa and the Quartier des spectacles plan for the Hull district of Gatineau.  The first project will see some of Ottawa’s key visual arts organizations dramatically expand into long-awaited new facilities. The Ottawa Art Gallery will move into a more than 50,000 square-foot purpose-built facility next door to Arts Court with an adjoining boutique hotel by Montréal’s Groupe Germain.

Galerie SAW Gallery will expand to more than 10,000 square feet and triple its gallery spaces, build a residency and research lab, quadruple the size of its multidisciplinary presentation venue, Club SAW, and redesign its courtyard to better accommodate summer festivals.  SAW Video and Artengine will form a media arts hub of almost 5,000 square feet that will include a gallery, educational facilities, a community hub space and state-of-the-art production facilities for independent film, video and digital media artists.

On the other side of the river, the City of Gatineau’s cultural plans include the formation of an arts district anchored by La Filature, home to the artist-run centre AXENÉO7 and video production centre Daïmon.  La Filature has long-term plans to build live-work spaces for artists and to redesign its outdoor park which sits on the banks of the Ruisseau de la Brasserie, which the City of Gatineau is revitalizing to great effect.

Photo taken from La Filature web site

Photo taken from La Filature web site.

Adding to this constellation are the nearby venues Point Rouge, a brand-new commercial gallery for emerging Outaouais artists, and the rough-and-tumble performance and studio space Le Temporaire.  With many of the region’s artists and musicians finding affordable homes in Vieux Hull, this new plan is a promising boost for Gatineau, which seems poised to become the capital’s equivalent to New York’s trendy Brooklyn.

On the national-institution front, the recent publication of the National Gallery of Canada’s nose-diving attendance figures is alarming.  The gallery’s recent exhibitions have been blamed by some as the reason for the declining number of visitors, but we could just as easily point to institutional misfires such as the decimation of the gallery’s educational department and a continued lack of engagement with the local community.

The latest edition of the Canadian Biennial was universally celebrated as the best since its inception and Sakahàn was seen as a seminal moment for international Indigenous art practice, but neither received the same institutional push as the disastrous (and somewhat kitsch) Gustave Doré exhibition this past summer, an expensive and unpopular proposition.

The gallery should actively seek to reach local art patrons and develop new audiences locally, keeping in mind that younger generations desire experiential ways of engaging with art.  Maybe late-night openings with local bands and DJs, affordable drinks and diverse programming could spark renewed interest.  The gallery’s auditorium would only benefit from becoming a full-time evening venue for cinema and performance.

The Canadian Film Institute, which is being squeezed out of the auditorium at Library and Archives Canada, would seem like a perfect fit.  Its many international film series and festivals attract the cultured and curious local demographic that the gallery should connect with.  The NGC should also do something about its cafeteria, especially in light of Ottawa’s foodie explosion.  Grilled cheeses and boiled eggs are fine, but I prefer to have them in trashy bars like the punk/art hangout Dominion Tavern.

Photo of National Gallery of Canada by Amy Rose courtesy of Apartment613 Flickr gorup

Photo of National Gallery of Canada by Amy Rose courtesy of Apartment613 Flickr group

A few blocks from the National Gallery, there has been depressing news from La Petite Mort Gallery, which has been a rambunctious hub for the local arts community for many solid years.  Owner Guy Bérubé recently announced that he will shutter his gallery later this year, which is a serious blow to Ottawa’s big-city aspirations.

Even nationally, there was no equivalent to the in-your-face ethos of his provoking and community-focused program. He has announced a possible foray into the non-profit art world and I can only hope that he doesn’t abandon the region.

On a more celebratory note, influential gallerist Patrick Mikhail’s recent expansion to Montréal and his continued presence in international art fairs are the sort of boosts that Ottawa’s art scene needs.  Being so far off the international art circuit means that Ottawa institutions must connect with the outside world if they are to have any meaningful impact. Mikhail is rethinking his Ottawa space, which may become a more experimental and event-oriented venue, in contrast to his newly opened exhibition-focused Montréal gallery.

Successive public art disasters have had many of us face-palming, but with a multimillion-dollar fiasco on the horizon, things are not looking up.  The widely mocked Bambini sculpture in Little Italy and the Jack Purcell Park tennis rackets might even soon be forgotten due to the planned controversial Memorial to Victims of Communism, a brutalist nightmare that the Conservative Party is pushing for electioneering purposes.

If there is a brink of hope, it comes from the future Confederation Line transit stations for which a national competition was held that includes contributions by heavy-hitters Douglas Coupland, Geneviève Cadieux and many other accomplished artists.  It is time for the City of Ottawa to join the big leagues and open itself up to national and international public art competitions.

The National Gallery of Canada’s outdoor acquisitions, which include Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, Roxy Pain’s One Hundred Foot Line and Michel de Broin’s Majestic, should be held up as inspirations. Imagine these scultptures dotting our cityscape instead of the functional decorations disguised as public art that litter Bank Street.  We should stop asking artists to design bike racks and benches and consider alternative approaches such as engaging the talented designers coming out of Carleton’s School of Industrial Design.

Photo of Nuit Blance 2014 by Mike Taylor courtesy of Apartment613 Flickr group

Photo of Nuit Blanche 2014 by Mike Taylor courtesy of Apartment613 Flickr group

Now at its fourth edition, Nuit Blanche Ottawa + Gatineau finds itself in a do-or-die situation.  There is no question that the people involved in the event work hard for very little, but they need to start listening to the event’s numerous critics in the city.

The paltry funding that it receives from the City of Ottawa cannot be underestimated as a major cause of its problems, but it has lost a lot of its focus by spreading itself too thin by occupying too many disparate neighbourhoods, and shuttering at the stroke of midnight despite billing itself as an all-nighter, frustrating its audiences.  And with most artists producing works out of their own pocket, the event needs to find a solution for a way of operating that will prove to be unsustainable in the long term.

Many great initiatives that have recently come (or are coming) to the fore in the region need to be mentioned:

•   The Centre d’exposition L’Imagier in Aylmer will be undergoing a major transformation;

•  PDA Projects and the Canada Council for the Arts’ new street-front digs have enlivened Elgin Street;

•  The new MFA program at the University of Ottawa has sparked new life into our art scene;

•  The impossibly cool shop Possible Worlds recently opened on Somerset; and

•  A media art event called Mirror Mountain Film Festival has been announced for later this year and will hopefully shoo out the dreadful Ottawa International Film Festival, held in a discount cinema in the basement of the St. Laurent Centre shopping mall.

Photo by veganbackpacker courtesy of Apartment613 Flickr pool

Photo by veganbackpacker courtesy of Apartment613 Flickr pool

Lastly, I want to bring up the much-talked about Windmill Development Group project that is meant to revive the abandoned Domtar Lands on the banks of the Ottawa River.  For hundreds of years, this area was an Indigenous centre of convergence for trade and spiritual and cultural exchange and was named Asinabka (Place of Glare Rock).  It would be symbolically and morally important to make Indigenous culture a central component of this redevelopment.  It will also be interesting see how a lawsuit on behalf of the Amikwabi Nation and Algonquins in Ontario and Quebec to block the development will play out.

Although the developers claim to be working in collaboration with Algonquin community leaders, it remains to be seen if it will be for show.  Many exciting ideas have already been brought forward for the neighbouring Victoria Island, including an out-of-this-world proposal by local starchitect Douglas Cardinal.

Toronto’s bourgeois Distillery District , a lily-white playground for the upper-class, is being held up as a model for the Windmill project.  I am deeply skeptical of this approach, but I’ll wait and see if Aboriginal culture will truly find the place it deserves in our capital.

Jason St-Laurent is the curator at Galerie SAW Gallery.