The town of Canora, located in the expansive planes of eastern Saskatchewan and with a population of under three thousand people, would not normally be a place I expect to find a contemporary art gallery initiated and run by young artists. The long-standing wisdom passed on to the young and creative is to get the big city and integrate into the big (and already highly developed) art scene.
The National Gallery of Saskatchewan, which is founded, run, and for the most part solely funded by Sarah Jane Holtom and Brandan Doty, explores an alternative strategy. After spending some time in New York struggling to survive in the large metropolis, where rents are accordingly high, the pair was attracted to the small Saskatchewan community because of the availability and affordability of space.
Holtom’s mother had moved to Canora in 2004 and acquired a storefront space on Main Street which she had intended to run as a small shop. When Holtom and Doty joined her in Canora in 2007, partially because they were able to purchase an entire house, complete with apple tree, for less than the cost of renting a small apartment for a year in most cities, she offered them the space. Thus, the playfully named National Gallery of Saskatchewan was born, starting up with only a few hundred dollars to get the space in shape and totally free of obligation to any larger institution or granting organization. The gallery provides an exciting, if occasionally antagonistic voice in the community, such as the Ben L. Jaques exhibition Pure Evil, steeped in the imagery of horror movies and video games, which did not sit well with some of the local visitors to the gallery.
Poster Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Saskatchewan
I first found out about the National Gallery of Saskatchewan as a student in my final year at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Sarah Holtom’s name was familiar in the Calgary art community at that time as she had recently completed and shown her 100 Portraits of Calgary Artists. News began to circulate that Holtom and fellow ACAD alumni Brandan Doty, who also attended the Yale University's Summer School of Music & Art in Norfolk, Connecticut, had started a gallery in Saskatchewan. As one of their first shows was going to be notorious ACAD painting instructor Don Kottmann, rumors of road trips began to circulate widely, though the number of people to actually make the pilgrimage was considerable smaller than the number who talked about it.
The exhibition up at the time of my visit was Country Favorites, an exhibition of works by Calgary artist Stevyn Mars, Winnipeg’s Martin Finkenzeller and Marigold Santos from Montreal. The assembly of these three artist’s work in such a relatively isolated location is one of the successes of the National Gallery of Saskatchewan. While other arts institutions, such as the local arts council, are present in small towns like Canora, their mandate often focuses on showing exclusively local artists. By bringing in artists from across North America, Holtom and Doty provide a sense of connection and context between different artistic communities, something that can be especially difficult to find in the isolation of the Canadian Prairies.
When I asked Sarah Holtom about the pairing of these three artists’ work, her answer was that the main focus of the gallery is not on curation. The gallery’s most important mandate is to simply exhibit work Holtom and Doty like, generally work by artists they know. Their very first show was literally an opportunity for them to hang their personal collection, acquired throughout their travels, to the public. This approach of simply showing artists they know and like, has lead to work by some very established artists such as Dana Schutz and Ahmed Alsoudan hanging on the gallery walls. The strategy does runs the risk of becoming haphazard or elitist and catering to friendships rather than merit, but the payoff is that it provides some much needed relief from the bureaucracy of more formal institutions.
The gallery is tentatively scheduled to close at the end of July, after an exhibition of work by Brian Marion. While the unfortunate closure can be attributed to the exhaustion of the gallery’s founders in terms of time, energy and funds, despite some funding in the last six months form the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the experiment remains none the less a successful one. After almost two years in operation, Canora residents have warmed to the gallery, which from time to time also hosts more local shows, and its closure will be felt both near and far. More importantly than its demise is the gallery’s success as a model for alternative working methods; a do-it-yourself, small town operation that takes risks and puts the emphasis back on artists and their work rather than proposals and paperwork.
The couple both plan to stay on in Canora after the closure of their gallery, both are looking to devote more time to their own art practices. Holtom has recently been employed by Access Television to do a series called the Painting from Life with Sarah Holtom Show, and both Holtom and Doty have recently shown at the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Beyond professional activities, both feel strongly connected to the location; having their own home and garden as well as living under the big prairie sky is not something either is eager to leave.
I am all to conscious that my visit to the National Gallery of Saskatchewan was part of a journey running in the opposite direction from Holtom and Doty’s, going from small town to large city, leaving the Prairies for the busy streets of Montreal. But more than big city versus small town or any other dualism, the National Gallery of Saskatchewan speaks to the opportunities that lie in unusual places, especially those that are created rather than found.
All images unless otherwise noted are courtesy of Jasia Stuart, 2009.
- J.S. Red Deer/Montreal