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    January 2010
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Inside the Art Gallery of Alberta

Art Gallery of Alberta

In less than a week’s time, the new Art Gallery of Alberta building opens to the public. Interest is running high. According to Executive Director Gilles Hebert, they were selling around 25-30 memberships online per day last week, and memberships overall are up several-fold (somewhere around 400%). And the 10,000 tickets for free admission on the opening days were snapped up so quickly a third day was added.

This afternoon, the AGA offered an advance tour to local bloggers. A good crowd turned out – I’d guess somewhere around 30 people. With cameras, notepads, and iPhones in hand, we set out on an hour long tour of the facility (minus the exhibit halls), and Q&A with AGA staff.

I won’t comment much on the technical specifications of the new facility, for two reasons. First, they will no doubt be covered at length elsewhere, and second, I left my notepad with all this information at work.

The group is assembled outside the exhibit hall that will be showing the new Goya exhibit.

On my way home, I thought about what I’d like to see out of the new gallery, or really, any facility of this nature (especially in the downtown/city core). My interest falls into three categories:

1. Architecture and Design
2. Programming and Activities
3. Effect on the Urban Form

Examining it according to these three categories, here is my first impression of the new gallery:

1. Architecture and Design

Overall, I enjoy the look of Randall Stout‘s building. Working at City Hall until recently, I saw the work in progress almost every day. I had concerns about it. I’m not a huge fan of Gehry-style architecture. I saw the artist renderings of the final product, and didn’t know what to think. At most stages of construction, what I saw of the building was certainly not encouraging. Approaching the building today, I was impressed by the way it stands out. Elegant, distinct, and certainly not garish. To put it mildly, it’s a huge improvement over the previous “brutish” (to use Gilles Hebert’s word) structure, and stands out in contrast to the adjacent courthouse, a truly unremarkable building.

Second Floor
Looking up at the second floor gallery space.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the interior. There is a lot of open space, but it’s doesn’t induce vertigo, nor compromise functional space the way many open-space designs do. As for materials, the contrast of Douglas fir, glass, steel, and zinc produces an interesting feel as well.

2. Programming and Activities
The new gallery more than doubles the exhibit space of the previous one. It also offers increased space for public and educational purposes. In the lower level of the building, you will find a theatre, in addition to four classrooms (conveniently colour-coded: the blue, yellow, green, and orange rooms).

Theatre, from the Front
A view from the front of the theatre.

The extra space in the gallery, particularly the exhibit space, is important because of what it affords the AGA the opportunity to do. The critical thing is what they do with it.

When thinking about the gallery, I considered a quote from David Byrne‘s blog post, “Art Funding or Arts Funding“, which a friend passed on to me last month:

Simultaneously, a number of museums around the world have scuttled their plans for new buildings or expansions, some of them designed by starchitects. Part of these austerity measures are of course due to the economic downturn, but my guess is that most of these projects were underway well before the crash, and were going to result in a mess anyway — as these insitutions simply thought that, like Bilbao, if they built a wildly impressive new museum in, for example, Milwaukee (Calatrava did the new entranceway and the car garage — the car garage!) or in Indianapolis, that folks from all over the world would come to visit. I was in Indianapolis recently, and would have gone to the art museum, but as we only had one afternoon, we went to the Indy 500 museum instead. Never was there ever any mention of what amazing and innovative shows would go into these future spaces, which were regularly featured in magazine articles with lovely renderings attached — that didn’t seem to be a priority.

Byrne is, of course, spot on. There are encouraging signs from the AGA. The Capital Powered Art partnership, which will bring ten national and international exhibits to the AGA over the next three years, is a good start, and precisely the kind of initiative we need to help realize the Gallery’s potential.

3. Effect on the Urban Form
This is the point I am most concerned with.

I believe the points mentioned in the first two categories will aid in creating a positive effect on the urban form. The building improves the landscape in Churchill Square immensely. More programming and activity options increases the likelihood that more people will visit the gallery.

What I look for in galleries and museum is not something that’s world-renowned, or will be a magnet for tourists (there will always only be a handful of these worldwide). Rather, I think our gallery should always be an interesting outing for locals, and it should be something that we can bring guests from out of town to, or that visitors can add on to their itinerary, and always find to be a worthwhile use of time. I’m optimistic this will happen.

There are other positive things I see. The building’s design creates greater interaction with the surrounding areas at street level. The glass exterior is a nice touch, and a restaurant overlooks Rue Hull (99th St), the road that runs between the Gallery and Churchill Square. One of the (many) things missing from Churchill Square is buildings that interact well with the street (which is all of them except Three Bananas Cafe). The presence of a street-level restaurant will make the area feel more personable.

The restaurant, Zinc, offers a view of Churchill Square and City Hall.

One of my major concerns with the business district downtown, and in particular Churchill Square, is how early everything closes. It’s tough to do anything after 6pm, since most everything closes right after work. In the Square, the library and adjacent Second Cup are open through the evening. Three Bananas is open until 7pm Monday-Saturday (and 5 on Sunday), but L’Espresso closes at 5 on weekdays, and isn’t open at all on weekends. Factor in City Centre Mall (which closes early) on the west side of the Square, and you’re not left with a whole lot going on. Barring the nights when there are festival events going on, Churchill Square is dead after work hours, especially at the street level.

So what will the AGA do to address this? It will be open until 7pm Tuesday-Friday (it’s closed all day Monday). This at least affords people the opportunity to stop by after work. The restaurant, Zinc, will be open until 11pm most night. Hopefully this will help attract some after-work activity to the Square, especially during the summer time. Every little bit helps; in aggregate, enough activities will keep the area busy after-work hours.

Though it will operate seasonally, and according to gallery hours, I should note that the Terrace Cafe looks really promising as well. I’m anticipating it will be a popular lunchtime and after-work spot during the summer hours. Look how much fun we’re having when it’s -10 and covered with snow; just imagine it come summertime!

Terrace Cafe
We braved the cold to experience the future home of the Terrace Cafe.

Closing Thoughts
My first impressions are almost all positive. In many ways, though, the work hasn’t begun. It will be an on-going effort to keep people coming back to the Gallery, both as patrons for the exhibits, and for other community events. The AGA can only do so much programming; if they’re going to keep bringing in top-level exhibits, they’re going to need paying customers to support them; if we want a downtown that’s vibrant after-hours, we have to be willing to organize events and outings that happen there.

If we want Edmonton to be a city with amenities like this, we have to be willing to make use of them as well. The AGA presents a great opportunity; let’s all make the best of it.

My photos from the tour can be seen here

Thanks to Mack Male, and to Sarah Hoyles and everyone at the Art Gallery of Alberta for the invitation and for arranging the tour.


2009: The Year in Music

I generally avoid doing year-end lists. The main reason for this is that there are few areas where I feel I pay enough attention to comment with authority. I read a lot of books, but I don’t feel I’ve ever read enough from the most recent year to give a “best of” list. I don’t watch nearly enough movies or television or play enough video games to even think of commenting there (though I quite liked the “Star Trek” movie, and enjoy watching “30 Rock” and “How I Met Your Mother”).

That said, if there’s one area I might have some insight into the contemporary scene, it’s music. I listen to a lot of music, and go to a good number of concerts. My listening is heavily slanted towards alt-rock (particularly if it’s acoustic driven, or punk-infused), so perhaps my recommendations will be helpful for some.

So, without further ado, here’s a list of albums from 2009 I recommend. Grouped in roughly descending order, starting with those I think only real fans would like, and ending with those I think everyone should give a listen to. For retrospective value, I’ve also listed the best shows I saw, and would therefore recommend you catch the artist in concert if you can), and a few recommendations from ’08 that I discovered this year.

Looking back on 2009, the year in music:

Best Concerts/Sets I Attended in 2009
6. Matthew Barber at Haven Social Club in Edmonton
5. Joel Plaskett at Edmonton Folk Fest
4. Glen Campbell at Calgary Folk Fest
3. Hey Rosetta! at the Starlite in Edmonton
2. Gaslight Anthem at the Starlite (April), and at Edmonton Events Centre (September)
1. Pete Yorn at the Showbox in Seattle
Honourable Mentions: Amy Millan at the Myer Horowitz in Edmonton, The Decemberists, Sarah Harmer at Calgary Folk Fest, Neko Case, Johnny Flynn, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings at Edmonton Folk Fest.

The Gaslight Anthem
The Gaslight Anthem are a must-see in concert if you ever have the chance. I was privileged to see them twice in 2009.

Best ’08 Albums I Discovered in ’09
Johnny Flynn and The Sussex Wit – A Larum
Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

All three are talented folk/acoustic inspired musicians. Good albums to relax or work to.

Still To Be Determined
I generally like Two Hours Traffic and John Mayer, but haven’t yet listened to the albums they released this fall.

I also have never listened to Animal Collective or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who poll high on many year end lists, though people assure me I’d like them so I plan to check them out in the new year.

Shameless Plug for My Friends Who Happen to Also Be Talented Musicians
Sarah Cole‘s piano-driven sound will delight anyone who likes singer-songwriters, or music that’s easy and relaxing to listen to. You can download her debut album, “Waiting for Next Year”, on iTunes.

Also, you’re missing out if you haven’t listened to singer-songwriter Tim Smith‘s 2008 debut, “Between Buildings”. He’s also playing his last show in Edmonton for a while on Saturday, January 9th at the Haven Social Club.

Live Albums Worth a Listen

Pete Yorn – iTunes Live in SoHo
Jack Johnson – En Concert

Albums I Recommend Only if You’re A Fan of the Artist
Bon Iver – Blood Bank (EP)
Dashboard Confessional – Alter the Ending
Jay Z – The Blueprint 3
All Time Low – Nothing Personal
Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson – Breakup
Third Eye Blind – Ursa Major

Just Missed the Cut
Ben Harper and Relentless7 – White Lies for Dark Times
Amy Millan – Masters of the Burial

Both are good albums, but not quite at the same level as those listed below. Harper’s new group sounds just like his old one, which is a good thing. Millan’s album is good from top to bottom, but not quite on par with her solo debut, “Honey from the Tombs”

Honourable Mentions
Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies
The XX – XX

These albums likely would have made the proper list, but I don’t feel like I listened to them enough to give them a proper ranking. I discovered Earle in the summer, and listened to his album a few times. It inexplicably fell out of my rotation until a few weeks ago. Earle’s country-inspired music is a delight to listen to. It reminds me of early Ryan Adams, which is one of the biggest compliments I can offer.

The XX is a band I first listened to about a week ago. Through a few listens, their mellow electro-pop style not only holds up, but continues to grow on me.

The Enigma
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimist

If I were doing a “Best Songs of 2009” list, “Two Weeks” would rank near the top. As for the rest of the album, I don’t know what to make of it. On some listens, I really like it, on some listens I find it uninspiring. But it deserves a listen so you can make up your mind.

The Top 10 Albums: 10-4
Elvis Perkins in Dearland – Elvis Perkins in Dearland
One of my favourite discoveries of the year. Perkins is hard to describe, but plays soulful, well-written music. This album is always a good listen.

Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream
A good album, but not outstanding. I found it solid top to bottom, but lacking any standout tracks. Definitely worth a listen though.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
An album that grows on me with every listen. I hadn’t listened to Case before I saw her at Folk Fest in August, but she’s quickly becoming one of my favourite songwriters.

The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
This album grew on me after my initial ambivalence. Seeing their performance at Calgary Folk Fest, where they played most of the album (and in sequence) made me appreciate it as a concept album, and an entire work. It works really well when listened to as such, not as well when listened to in small pieces.

Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
I like this album a lot; a mix of uptempo and downtempo songs; not quite as good as “Sky Blue Sky” but at least on par with the good but vastly overrated “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”

Metric – Fantasies
Just a fun, quality album from top to bottom. Emily Haines is one of the most talented contemporary vocalists, and their keyboard-driven sound works on every track of this disc.

Pete Yorn – Back and Fourth
His best album since “Musicforthemorningafter”, having more depth and consistency throughout than his two previous follow-ups. His well-written lyrics and consistent sound produced the album I had the toughest time leaving out of the top tier.

The Top Three
3. Joel Plaskett – Three
For most of the year, I had this as my top album, but it drops to number three (total coincidence given the title) for a couple of reasons. First, there are way too many tracks (27). Because of this, I find that while there are probably 10-12 tracks that would compete with those on the top 2 albums of the year, there’s too much stuff that I find a cut below (like all of disc two except for “New Scotland Blues”. Second, I find that each plays like a distinct work, so the unifying feel to the album is lacking. Nonetheless, it’s still an outstanding, if not great, album – one of four Plaskett released this decade.

Joel Plaskett
Joel Plaskett’s “Three” is one of the best albums of 2009

2. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
More piano than banjo driven, the Avett Brothers depart from their early sound and it pays off in spades. The thoughtful lyrics and tight melodies produce an album that, from beginning to end, is top notch. It’s a must listen for everybody.

1. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
My favourite album of the year. There is not a bad song on this album – the guitar/keyboard driven sound produces an album that sounds somewhat different from track to track, but still feels unified as an album. I could try offer more thoughtful analysis, but in a nutshell, it comes down to this: I never get tired of listening to this album. It makes me happy every time. And that’s good enough for an album.

Now on to 2010, where I’m already looking forward to new albums from Vampire Weekend, Spoon, and Matthew Barber in the next two months. Hope it’s just as good as this past year.