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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.


8 Responses

  1. […] Inside the Art Gallery of Alberta at alexabboud.wordpress.com var addthis_pub = 'mastermaq'; var addthis_brand = 'MasterMaq';var addthis_language = 'en';var addthis_options = 'email, favorites, print, delicious, digg, facebook, friendfeed, stumbleupon, twitter, tumblr'; Tags: aga, art, art gallery of alberta, buildings, churchill square, downtown, edmonton, events, social mediaCategories: Uncategorized | 4 Comments » Related Posts:Art Gallery of Alberta sneak peek for Edmonton’s social media communityTorch Relay Reporter Chris Wheeler comes to EdmontonRandall Stout on the new Art Gallery of AlbertaTimeraiser comes to Edmonton […]

  2. Fantastic post Alex. You’re absolutely right, the real work is only just beginning. We definitely have to make the best of the new building, and the AGA itself needs to continue to give us reasons to visit.

    Glad you could make it today!

  3. Great post. Looks like a great addition to Edmonton.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mack D. Male, Andy Grabia, Alex Abboud, David Rosenzweig, Vulcan and others. Vulcan said: RT @alexabboud: New blog post: Inside the Art Gallery of Alberta http://bit.ly/5soc3L #yeg #yegarts #aga […]

  5. Alex:
    You are such a good writer. A great basis for analysis of Edmonton’s Guggenheim. I will be sending this to my family in Calgary and Ontario. Thanks! Edmonton is indeed the best!!!

  6. […] Alex Aboud provides some more in-depth commentary to go along with his photographs, in his post: “Inside the Art Gallery of Alberta.” […]

  7. […] Abboud previewed the new Art Gallery of Alberta, which opened its doors this […]

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