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SPAO Photographic Arts Centre at 77 Pamilla St in Little Italy.

Future of Ottawa: Photographic Arts with Olivia Johnston

By Apartment613 on March 30, 2021

This week in the Future of Ottawa series, we’re taking a deep dive into Ottawa’s art scene—what it’s like now and where it’s headed. Read on for a guest post from Olivia Johnston on photographic arts in Ottawa, or read posts from Carrie Colton on art galleries, Marisa Gallemit on visual art, or Thomas Cumberbatch and Tegan Smith on studio spaces.

Olivia Johnston is an Ottawa-based artist whose work probes gender, beauty, the self, memory, art history, and the photographic image itself. Johnston holds a B.A. Honours in Art History and is the Operations Manager and an instructor at the SPAO Centre.

Olivia Johnston is an artist and instructor at the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO). Photo: Olivia Johnston.

What is the current state of the photographic arts scene in Ottawa?

Olivia Johnston: Ottawa is such an interesting place to be right now as a photo-based artist. I really can’t separate my experience of Ottawa’s photographic arts community from the SPAO Centre, because I’ve been involved in SPAO since I was a teenager. In 2016, when I started working in the office and teaching in the full-time program, we’ve really seen major changes in the organization, including the development and construction of our new space in Little Italy. Alongside my personal practice and SPAO’s continual growth, Ottawa has seen some major growth in the photographic arts.

For starters, the New Generation Photography Award, presented by the National Gallery, has seen several winners and nominees from Ottawa (including myself!). The Project X Award presented by the Ottawa Arts Council has recently been transformed with new support from SPAO, the Ottawa Art Gallery, and DAÏMÔN. Over the course of the last few years, photo-based artists have swept the prizes of Figureworks, the international exhibition and competition of art representing the human form, based here in Ottawa. We’re also seeing a record number of photo-based exhibitions supported by the City of Ottawa at Karsh-Masson Gallery. I think this is all indicative of how hard photo-based artists in Ottawa are working, and how we’re actually staying here and building the Ottawa community rather than leaving for the bigger cities. I know lots of people who leave Ottawa and end up coming back because it’s such a unique arts community.

I know lots of people who leave Ottawa and end up coming back because it’s such a unique arts community.

I’m obviously biased, but I do think SPAO is absolutely a hub for photographic arts in Ottawa, given the range and accessibility of our programming; we have everything from free gallery programming and artist/curatorial talks open to the public, to an intensive full-time Portfolio Arts and Production diploma. The SPAO Gallery is dedicated to showing photo-based and lens-based art from renowned artists from all over the world, which is rare to find here in Canada. It’s even rarer when you consider that emerging artists, including the members of our full-time and part-time communities, have the opportunity to show their own work in the space, which really elevates the work of those emerging artists to new heights. SPAO is a very tight-knit but open and supportive community and I like to think that we are the heart and soul of photographic arts in Ottawa!

Ottawa has a long history of being a city for photographers—Sparks street used to be littered with photo studios, and of course there’s the history of Yousuf Karsh and his brother Malak. I think that Ottawa’s relationship to photography is kind of seen as a historical one, but in fact, we’re in a real renaissance for photographic arts in this city and I can’t wait to see how things will evolve over the next few years.

If you care to make a prediction… Where are the photographic arts going in Ottawa in 2021?

Because Ottawa has that funny blend of small-town vibe with big-city amenities, every single year seems to feel like a banner year for the arts in this city. Especially as someone who grew up here and has been involved in the arts since childhood, it’s been really lovely to watch the city come into its own as I develop my own arts career. In 2019, I had my biggest show to date at the Carleton University Art Gallery called Saints and Madonnas, and the opening really hammered home for me how much the arts and photographic communities of Ottawa have intertwined and become a critical mass that is moving Ottawa towards being a really important place for the photographic arts.

I really see SPAO as being a big part of what’s made the city into the blossoming arts centre that it is. The organization has existed since 2005 but it’s really only been since 2017—when we moved from the ByWard Market to our beautiful new space, that we’ve been able to push the envelope and start thinking about what it means to be a photographic arts hub for Ottawa and beyond. That being said, 2020 really pushed us to rethink how we wanted to function in order to provide what our community needed from us. We had a ton of amazing stuff on the horizon when the pandemic hit, but honestly, things are even more exciting now that we are hitting our stride in terms of online programming, outdoor exhibitions, and sharing what we’re up to with more folks in Ottawa, in Canada, and on the international stage.

An artist talk delivered at SPAO, prior to the pandemic.

I definitely think that 2021, and the next five or so years, will be really interesting for visual arts in Ottawa. There are just so many artists who have been quietly working away over the course of the pandemic, who will find new ways to share their work while we remain under quarantine, whether sharing their work via social media and grassroots digital platforms, or who are going to wait until they can exhibit their work in public and we can all gather together in person! We are absolutely poised to experience another round of the roaring 20’s. Personally, I’m working on a couple of things, including an exhibition, a podcast about art, and a book project that I hope to produce in 2021 with an in-person launch maybe sometime next year. I’m also a DJ and I can tell you that the dance parties that happen once we can gather in person again are going to be exceptional!

I hope that the pandemic has helped Ottawans realize how absolutely crucial the arts are to our collective and individual well-being, and that this motivates them to buy work from local artists and galleries, to pay artists who do work for them, and to put their money, energy and time towards local arts organizations who help make Ottawa an amazing place to live.

Where in your wildest dreams could SPAO go in your lifetime?

One of my favourite things about working at SPAO is my amazing colleagues. Anytime the grind is getting me down, taking five minutes to chat with my colleagues to just consider the incredible potential of SPAO gets me right back on track. We’ve already partnered with so many amazing local institutions including the National Gallery, the National Arts Centre, the Tulip Festival, the Ottawa Art Gallery, and DAÏMÔN. At this point, the sky’s the limit in terms of engaging more people, locally, nationally and globally. Already we’ve received international attention and collaborated with embassies and other international folks, like Alma Haser and the German Embassy, American filmmaker Michael Benson and the Slovenian Embassy, Chilean director Jésus Castro-Ortega and the French embassy, and Roger Ballen in South Africa. The more attention SPAO gets, the more Ottawa can be thought of as more than just a government town, as a city that has its own specific flavour of arts and culture.

Our vision is to be an internationally recognized photographic school of thought, and I really see that as being possible in my lifetime. Our goal is for SPAO to be considered one of the leading photographic arts centres in the world, with Ottawa as a destination for photographic artists the same way Banff has become a destination for artists of all kinds. We’re particularly excited about the fact that we’re now able to accept international students into our Portfolio Arts and Production program, as well as our 6-month long artist residency, which opens us up further to the global community.

In the coming years, it would be amazing for us to be able to host artists-in-residence and possibly even full-time students in a physical capacity, with some kind of housing nearby to SPAO. I’d also love to see greater corporate and organizational support that would allow us to introduce new bursaries for students and artists-in-residence, so that SPAO’s programming is accessible to a wider range of folks, no matter their financial situation.

What is the best innovation to take place in photographic arts since the pandemic started affecting Ottawa?

I know everyone has Zoom fatigue right now but honestly, Zoom has totally changed the way we understand communication and intellectual exchange, as well as just collapsed time and space completely. Just this week, I taught a class to the second-year students in SPAO’s diploma program and then hopped off the call and into a webinar with Grace Coddington, Jefferson Hack, and Antwaun Sargent. One minute I was working with up-and-coming emerging artists in Ottawa, the next I was typing a question to the former creative director of Vogue magazine into a chatbox. The idea that you have to move to a giant city to make interesting work and interact with interesting people is totally out of the window because of the paradigm shift that Zoom has caused. While I miss the chance encounters that can happen as a result of in-person events, and of course the energy of an in-person event can’t be matched, I do hope that since we’re now all so familiar and comfortable with online webinars, talks and events, that they can continue to be a part of arts programming.

Friends of mine who have had exhibits during COVID have also expressed to me how it’s been a really interesting and different kind of experience to have an exhibition right now. When galleries are willing and have the resources to embrace the situation we’re in, artists can really get creative with how they show the work, whether it means extensive video or photographic documentation, interactive online components, unique forms of social media engagement, and (when possible) smaller, more intimate in-person gallery visits, allowing more in-depth dialogue and critical discussions between the artists and their viewers. What the pandemic has allowed in terms of innovation is really the release of physical space, and what virtual and limited physical spaces still allow us to do.

2019 artist-in-residence exhibition at SPAO, featuring 2019 Artist-in-Residence show, featuring John Healey, Lucia Mugica, Rajeev Nath and Eugenie Rasche.

Who is the future of photographic arts in Ottawa?

This is a super tough question for me because there are so many incredible people in Ottawa making thoughtful, beautiful, inventive, imaginative work that I couldn’t possibly name just one person! That being said, there are absolutely some qualities that a person has to have in order for them to go far as an artist in Ottawa, or anywhere, honestly. I think the people who will make up the future of photographic arts in Ottawa are organized, hard workers, have a thick skin and are willing to put in the time—that is, they don’t expect to become “famous” or successful right away. They also will have to be able to evolve and adapt quickly, and find opportunities that aren’t immediately available to them, even creating their own opportunities as much as possible.

I also think that the people who comprise the future of photographic arts in Ottawa absolutely must be community-oriented. They have to be a part of helping to build this community as much as they are building their own careers, because the two go hand-in-hand. A great example of this are the grassroots curation projects that are popping up in Ottawa, like OPAL magazine, PACE magazine, Do It For The Grain and others. Places like the Carleton University Art Gallery and Possible Worlds are also amazing hubs for emerging artists to engage with the local arts community. I couldn’t possibly name one person as representing the future of photographic arts in this town, because I know from experience how community-building is so much a part of what makes a city’s arts culture vibrant, living, intelligent, and critical. It takes a village to raise an artist!

Back in 2015, Apartment613 took a look at the future of Ottawa across several different sectors. In 2021, we’re bringing the series back, asking experts, artists, and community leaders to shed some light on their local field or industry, as it stands now and where they think—or dream—it will go over the next few years. Every week we’ll profile a different cultural sector in Ottawa, leaving no niche unexplored—from social justice to theatre, bars to sports, to the future of the municipality and its natural environs. Keep an eye out for a new batch of posts every Tuesday on