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Ottawa Art Gallery’s smart new building marks the beginning of a fresh era

The overall structure of the new Ottawa Art Gallery is a smart and airy solution to the problem of fitting the gallery’s collections – and ambitions – into a relatively tight triangular lot.

Adrien Williams

Emulation has been a thing in Ottawa architecture ever since a Gothic Revival parliament complex was built in a land where Gothic never existed. The new Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) must be the city’s first official building to riff on the design of a mid-century modernist house.

The cool new elevated cube on Ottawa’s Mackenzie King Bridge road represents a triumphant reboot for a civic gallery that has till now lived in the shadow of Ottawa’s national collections of art and artifacts. Some of the building’s themes and materials allude to the former Rockcliffe home of local art collector O.J. Firestone, whose collection of 1,600 works has its own dedicated gallery in the new OAG.

You can even walk up to the Firestone Gallery via a brass, marble and teak staircase pulled from the house, which was demolished in 2007. KPMB Architects, working with Régis Côté et associés, have carried over all those materials into their inventive building design.

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The structure over all is a smart and airy solution to the problem of fitting the gallery’s collections – and ambitions – into a relatively tight triangular lot. Three main exhibition spaces have been stacked above each other, and linked by a high glass atrium that at night presents a gleaming beacon to the front and rear entrances. It’s intimate and inviting in a way that the coldly monumental National Gallery of Canada never will be.

An aluminum screen on the cube’s exterior wall houses a programmable LED lighting system, which will further alert the population to the gallery’s new digs. It all adds up to a grand coming-out for a 30-year-old institution that was formerly housed in cramped quarters next door.

“We felt a bit buried away,” CEO Alexandra Badzak says of the gallery’s old digs at Arts Court, the neighbouring former courthouse that is home to many Ottawa arts organizations. Some of those will benefit from the OAG’s departure and the ensuing renovation of its old spaces.

The OAG’s other exhibition areas include a large hall for contemporary art, with a high unfinished ceiling and a floor of polished concrete, and a more formal fourth-floor space for the permanent collection. The latter gallery includes two “project rooms”: a black box suitable for video installations, and a light-filled studio that curator Catherine Sinclair said could be used by an artist working in situ.

The OAG’s bailiwick is local and regional art. That includes figures of national profile who spent time in the area, such as David Milne, Annie Pootoogook and A.Y. Jackson, whose work is particularly well represented in the Firestone Gallery. The OAG’s “greatest hits” display of that collection, which is owned by the city, has been adroitly placed in the context of Firestone’s personal friendships with artists such as Jackson and Vancouver painter Jack Shadbolt.

The gallery’s own collection consists of about 1,000 pieces, including only a handful of historical works. Its inaugural exhibition, however, claims a story-telling horizon of 6,500 years – a trick achieved partly through loans from other institutions, which provided two-thirds of the works on view. Some of those loans were no doubt leveraged with the new spaces where they would be shown.

Some of the building’s themes and materials allude to the former Rockcliffe home of local art collector O.J. Firestone, whose collection of 1,600 works has its own dedicated gallery in the new OAG.

Adrien Williams

“It’s the most comprehensive show that’s ever been done of art in the region,” co-curator Michelle Gewurtz says. The non-chronological strategies she and her colleagues (Rebecca Basciano, Jim Burant and Catherine Sinclair) use in Àdisòkàmagan / We’ll All Become Stories are big on bold re-contextualizations. One salon-style cluster of works includes a tapestry from 1900, a contemporary photo work by Meryl McMaster and a video piece by Luc Desjardins. The show also includes a small display of war art, a large mythic canvas by Carol Wainio, and a Carl Stewart fibre work linked to a notorious hate-crime killing in Ottawa in 1989.

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Large sculptural works, such as Max Dean’s Waiting for the Tooth Fairy and Greg Hill’s Cereal Box Canoe, make their own powerful statements, while also seeming to testify to a new institutional exuberance. The OAG can finally put big works in spaces that can properly display them.

Another salon wall places historical engravings of the city of Ottawa next to prints by Indigenous artists and birch basketry. The wall itself is covered with a paper that mimics the patterns of birch bark.

Eleven artworks were commissioned for the new gallery’s opening, nine of which will become part of its collection. One of these commissioned pieces, a gold-coloured step-ladder by Josée Dubeau, stands inside a freight elevator that is only used as such when the gallery is closed. During opening hours, with elevator doors open fore and aft, it functions as a hallway and display area.

The gallery’s hard-cover catalogue for Àdisòkàmagan includes brief essays on art-making and collection in the region from almost every angle. It’s the ultimate time-capsule publication and a great calling-card for the new OAG.

The OAG does not charge for admission and, as with most other new public galleries, expects its building to generate income from private rentals. It houses a rentable multi-purpose room with bleacher seating that disappears into a wall, a couple of spacious terraces that can also be hired out, a small commercial gallery and a café.

The OAG had been angling for new quarters for more than 14 years. Its goal ultimately became part of a $100-million mixed-use project that includes a boutique and condominium complex to the north, and a separate black-box performance space for the University of Ottawa’s theatre department, headquartered across the street.

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For museums, architecture and destiny are closely intertwined. The OAG’s versatile new spaces send a signal about its ambitions and capacities for storytelling in a language that other art institutions understand. It can strike up collaborations that weren’t possible at the Arts Court, including a forthcoming project with the Vancouver Art Gallery. The OAG has not just been rehoused; it’s being reborn.

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