Thursday, April 17, 2008

Prairie Artsters Tours the AFA*

In the front lobby of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts there exists two doors. Behind door number one, grant officers uphold and facilitate the funding mandate of the AFA. In many artistic circles, the AFA only equates to door number one. Simply, the AFA is a source of funds, a name cursed when projects are denied and a logo present when the cheque arrives.

Behind door number two, however, there lies the department of Collections and Acquisitions, a reservoir of research, history, and art works, and which in my humble opinion, is the defining raison d’etre for the AFA.

True, the focus of the collection has been mainly visual arts (which serves the purpose of this column), but there is certainly room to grow for new media and performance-based documentation. But for now, behind the security access door number two there exists Alberta’s top contemporary art gallery and collection that is at once for the public (through art placement programs) but closed to the public (for general viewings). Part exhibition space and part overflow space for various reasons, the gallery space is a real treasure, hidden and unexpected. Getting a prearranged tour and meeting with consultant Gail Lint along with director Al Chapman, I was generously made privy to the gallery and collection and the AFA’s various programs and resources-- and I was astounded with how amazing the collection really is.

All images courtesy of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.

With some of the best in the business working behind the scenes, newly acquired works from Eric Cameron, Chris Cran, Tim Okamura, Bill Laing, Marc Siegner and Nicolas Wade join about 1700 other Alberta-based visual artists that currently form the AFA Collection. Through the Art Placement program that is currently maxed out at over 200 clients, 50 per cent of the collection is on public display at any given time. Lint, who has been with the foundation for 25 years through various reincarnations, kindly encourages artists to apply because of the “exposure and credibility” that come along with being within the collection. Acquired through open calls and peer-review juries, the ongoing establishment is at once fixed, but malleable—much like the state of the AFA itself.

Starting in 1972 in the early Lougheed years and surviving the early ’90s slide, the new Community Spirit ministry looks to be riding the arts in Alberta back into an upswing. Chapman, who began as a musician and a teacher, has a cheerful disposition about the stabilized lottery funding and the overall proactive nature of the AFA. As a sought-out resource centre for educators, curators and other arts professionals, Chapman cordially offers the AFA as a granting and collection body that also serves regional and international curiosities in a multitude of capacities. From new conservation methods to digital archiving, that area of the AFA is certainly engaging in an international dialogue.

Winding through the onsite permanent collection (the collection is big enough that it also requires offsite warehouse storage) in the new state-of-the-art storage facility, Lint shares that the move (from Standard Life and Beaver House in 2005-06) was really beneficial for the collection in the long run. Looking at the new rolling racks that are capable of comfortably storing HTS (Handing in Transit Storage) boxes and the intense organization of every canvas, print, textile, woodwork and sculpture, the incredible amount of work that exists in darkness was shocking to behold.

Packed away efficiently and barcoded into the system, this is where art retires, awaiting knowledge and consent to once again exist in the public sphere and do what it was created to do: inspire.

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*First published in Vue Weekly, April 17 - 23, 2008

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