What’s behind northern Ontario’s art-gallery renaissance

Communities in the north have historically faced a lack of dedicated arts space — but all that’s changing
By Jon Thompson - Published on Dec 03, 2019
Curator Sophie Lavoie at the Douglas Family Art Centre, in Kenora. (Jon Thompson)

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KENORA — Nicki and Bryce Douglas, Torontonians with a cottage near Kenora, approached the nearby Lake of the Woods Museum in 2014 with something to offer: their collection of 65 works by visual artist Walter J. Phillips.

There was just one problem: the museum didn’t have room to properly display the pieces, most of which were created between 1914 and 1940 and depict the natural landscape surrounding Kenora. “The owners said, ‘I don’t want it to be just stored in a basement,’” museum director Lori Nelson recalls.

The museum, located on the lake side of Memorial Park in downtown Kenora, has more room these days. A combination of donations, mostly from summer cottagers, and government funding programs, both provincial and federal, made possible the museum’s expansion and transformation into the Muse, an arts and culture campus with a new 5,100-square-foot public gallery. In October, Nicki and Bryce cut the ribbon on the Muse’s $4.5 million Douglas Family Art Centre — the first municipal gallery ever built in the town of 15,000 (and now home to the Phillips paintings).

“I think the demand has always been there, I think the talent has always been there, and I think our communities really want to celebrate the spirit of who they are. Part of the culture is their artistic expression,” says curator Sophie Lavoie. “Seeing that other communities are getting the support that they need, they’re applying to the governments because we’re constituents, and art has a place.”

A limited supply of dedicated arts space is a familiar problem for communities in northern Ontario, but that’s changing — and it’s no fluke, those in the arts suggest. In 2014, Ontario’s government lifted a moratorium on art-gallery and museum construction that had been in place since 1995. In 2018, the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, operated by the federal government, opened up money to galleries, and every dollar of investment was matched by the province’s Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation.

Of all the plans for cultural facilities underway in the region, Sudbury’s are among the most ambitious: a vibrant downtown arts hub, called the Junction, that could cost more than $100 million. Sudbury’s 2019 municipal budget approved a $46.5 million financial plan to construct a combined library and visual-arts centre, which has been in the planning process since 2016. There’s also a plan to retrofit the Sudbury Community Arena and turn it into the Greater Sudbury Convention and Performance Centre. And construction has already begun on the Place Des Arts, a $30 million francophone gallery and theatre.

These developments are underway as time ticks away for the Art Gallery of Sudbury, which was established as part of Laurentian University’s centennial project in 1968. Housed in the Bell Mansion, which was built in 1907, it is no longer a suitable venue, according to director Demetra Christakos.

“Sudbury has been identified as one of the worst in the country, going back to the 1990s,” Christakos says of the aging gallery, which is home to a renowned Group of Seven collection. “These collections need to be resituated in a category A art museum, and that purpose aligns with a new public art gallery,” she adds. A deadline of 2025 is also looming: that’s when Ontario’s Accessibility Act will take effect, bringing with it standards that the existing space can’t meet.

“There has been a total revolution in how communities are dealing with infrastructure,” says Christakos. “They’re looking at a huge backlog of infrastructure now, but that mindset has changed. You have to start planning for when that infrastructure is going to age out and have allocations to replace it.”

Thunder Bay’s public art gallery, currently tucked behind Confederation College, will soon be a focal point of the city’s newly reinvigorated waterfront: when it opens in 2022 or 2023, it’ll join new hotel, condominium, and recreational developments.

The current 4,000-square-foot facility was built in 1976 as one of 26 national exhibition centres across Canada. The federal government specifically tasked the gallery in Thunder Bay with acquiring Indigenous art. Forty years later, the collection is extensive, including works by woodland-style artist Norval Morrisseau and Roy Thomas of Longlac 58 First Nation. A piece the museum commissioned in 1984 from Manitoulin Island-based Anishinaabe artist Carl Beam is so large that the freight elevator in the new gallery will need to be custom-fitted to accommodate it.

To gain local support for a new facility, Thunder Bay Art Gallery director Sharon Godwin focuses on touting tourism benefits and the project’s leveraging of new funding commitments from senior levels of government. “People come from around the world because they’re very interested in work by Indigenous artists, and we’ve had comments in the book: ‘I came to see your collection, and it isn’t up,’” Godwin explains. “Most people in this region are gaining an understanding of the importance of the art itself and the demographic shift that is happening where the Indigenous population is growing in Thunder Bay.”

Smaller, artist-run galleries are also growing in northern Ontario. The Nipissing Region Curatorial Collective, in North Bay, opened a combination gallery and workshare space called the Northern Ontario Visual Arts Hive in June 2018, and the Definitely Superior Art Gallery is renovating 5,000 square feet in a former Thunder Bay movie theatre — nearly double the size of its former home in the Eaton’s building. Executive artistic director

David Karasiewicz says that the region’s low rents and geographic isolation allow artists to take risks and defy trends. “Your next wave of artists is coming from the artist-run centres,” Karasiewicz says. “A new build is a build-it-and-they-will-come sort of idea. But you really have to put the work in to engage the community, and that’s what the grassroots, artist-run centres have been doing for years.”

At least one major gallery in the region is struggling. Sault Ste. Marie’s 5,000-piece Art Gallery of Algoma collection is northern Ontario’s largest —and its designation A status ranks it among the country’s elite facilities — but, two years ago, staff noticed water seeping into the storage area. Executive director Jasmina Jovanovic says the facility, which was built in 1980, had plumbing and structural problems even after renovations in 2017: “We’re constantly trying to fix something, and, meanwhile, we don’t have enough space to properly store everything.”

A campaign for a new facility will be mounted next year: Sault Ste. Marie native and Canada’s first female astronaut, Roberta Bondar, will be chairing the initiative. The gallery has partnered with her foundation, and, through recent crowdfunding, raised $30,000. “There is support obviously for the art gallery, but we still haven’t really explored where we’re going to build the new building,” Jovanovic. “I think a lot of community sessions will have to be held, and we’ll be looking into that because it’s the only way we can move forward.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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