Every summer for the past 24 years, The Works Art and Design Festival has taken over Edmonton’s downtown core with a spectrum of international art and design. Highlighting the work of fine artists at various stages of their careers in lobbies, basements, and hallways, The Works remains Northern Alberta’s biggest art festival. With the 2009 theme of "Heat", arts and crafts tents and a spacious beer garden cover most of the main area of Sir Winston Churchill Square in Edmonton. The art exhibitions can be found near the north end of the Square, tucked away to the side of the road.
Filtering through the rest of the year’s “Heat” line up, Allen Ball’s non-temperature-related Spectacle in a State of Exception was a pleasant surprise in the always-busy foyer of the Stanley Milner library. Known primarily as a painter, Ball continues on from his last work The German Autumn in Minor Spaces by focusing on photography as a medium to render the psychology and memory of space. The Works show, created during his volunteer post in the Canadian Forces Artist Program, samples a larger body of work that will tour across Canada.
Another highlight from the Festival came from emerging Edmonton artist Josée Aubin Ouellette’s Playground Architects. As one of the few artists who chose her own exhibition space, Ouellette independently approached the YMCA because of the real three-dimensional jungle gyms running alongside the hallway gallery. With five large canvases playfully flattening down the structures into rigid, rudimentary shapes and colours, Ouellette successfully demonstrated an astute awareness of how traditional art forms can engage with public space, an awareness that doesn’t apply to the Festival itself.
From its roots as an idea to revitalize Edmonton’s deserted downtown core by celebrating art in office lobbies and then-empty For Lease storefront windows, The Works hasn’t grown in tandem with the city’s changing dynamics. As architectural standards and public art procedures are finally being put into place, The Works carries on with art culled from non-site-specific open calls — and the Festival’s lack of curatorial vision is growing more obvious. Sprawling into 30 sites, many of which are programmed independently and function regardless of the Festival, The Works appears to be more about maintaining and securing annual partnerships than it is about inspiring art and public engagement. The Works has grown more akin to an overblown craft fair than an international-calibre art and design festival, moving further away from its original mandate to put public art in alternative spaces.
*First published in Galleries West, Fall 2009