During her 10 years with the Art Gallery of Alberta, deputy director/chief curator Catherine Crowston has grown accustomed to seeing important travelling exhibitions skip over her institution, and often western Canada altogether. She knew it was futile to pursue these shows, because of the sub-standard environmental conditions within her 1969 facility (formerly the Edmonton Art Gallery). Things were so bad in the winter that even supportive Canadian institutions such as the National Gallery of Canada and the Vancouver Art Gallery would not lend works to the AGA.
So Crowston has been feeling like a kid in a candy store in recent days, as she's overseen the arrival and installation of works from some of the great masters - Degas, Goya, Karsh - from institutions around the world, including the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the Smithsonian Institution and the Art Institute of Chicago. The works are being displayed during the inaugural exhibitions at the downtown Edmonton facility, which opened its doors to the public on the last day of January after a massive, almost-three-year $88-million renovation (which includes the cost of refurbishing a temporary location and building a storage facility).
"We wanted to open with a bit of a splash," says Crowston, who says these big opening shows would not have been possible before the renovation. "Those places wouldn't have lent to us in the past. … Our Degas show is bringing in loans from 24 different lenders from across the United States and Europe so it's really allowed us to think much bigger than we have in the past."
The new gallery meets temperature, humidity and climate-control requirements, allowing for the precious loans. Crowston says a growing operating budget - and, she hopes, growing visibility - make international partnerships easier to establish. "We're really trying to be able to be that kind of world-class facility here."
The new 85,000-square-foot, five-level Gehryesque building (architect Randall Stout was a protégé of Frank Gehry) features steel and zinc on the outside, and a circular stainless-steel ribbon running through the interior and exterior. The jaw-dropping feature inside, gallery officials hope, is a 5,000-square-foot glass atrium, connected on the main level to what's being called the Great Hall, and rising four storeys. Described by the gallery as a work of art itself, the building, Crowston says, needs to be seen from the inside to be appreciated.
"On the outside it looks more like a three-dimensional sculpture, like an object, and once you're in the building you get a sense of the volume and the space and kind of the vastness of some of the public spaces and the atrium," she says. " ...It would be like the equivalent to looking at a conch shell from the inside versus the outside." Stout's design - inspired, he has said by the Northern Lights, the North Saskatchewan River and inukshuks - was a controversial choice. Some strongly preferred the short-listed submission by renowned London-based architect Zaha Hadid (who upset local officials by not making her pitch in person).
But executive director Gilles Hébert, who joined the gallery last fall, says the board made a good decision. "The vindication comes when you walk through the building. It's easy to be dismissive if you take a look at the exterior and … you say well it's a little gimmicky or maybe the architectural gesture is just a little bit too much," he says. "But when you get into the place and you see the flow, and you see what I think is probably the most remarkable contemporary gallery in the country; it's amazing."
The 6,000-square-foot contemporary gallery on the third floor has opened with the Canadian premiere of The Murder of Crows by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, among the biggest Canadian names in contemporary art - and former Albertans. The AGA's RBC New Works Gallery is launching with Storm Room, created by the couple specifically for the AGA's opening.
More exhibitions, such as Edgar Degas: Figures in Motion; Francisco Goya: The Disasters of War and Los Caprichos; and Karsh: Image Maker have been mounted in galleries on the first and second floors.
And 17 photographs by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who has been documenting the construction of the new AGA facility, have been installed throughout the gallery, including the Great Hall and the theatre foyer.
The new AGA opened to the public on Sunday, following a number of previews and galas. It is a busy time: the opening of the new facility, the installation of several major exhibitions, a rebranding, a new online presence, some major party planning, not to mention the logistics of simply moving offices.
"We're trying to figure out all the mundane things like where the garbage cans are," says Crowston. "But it's all exciting. It's been a remarkable process."
Edmonton's Art Gallery of Alberta is now open to the public. Regular gallery hours begin today (www.youraga.ca).