It is amazing how the last few years of the AGA in Enterprise Square have suddenly disappeared and only memories remain of the old concrete fortress that once stood north of Churchill Square. Inside and out, the new Art Gallery of Alberta bares absolutely no resemblance in any way to the old gallery, or any gallery for that matter that Edmonton has ever seen.
Although the final stages of construction were still visible on every floor of the building, a new aesthetic standard is evident. The leisure of open space and natural light, in a city crippled by unimaginative development, was the first noted detail as you walk into the foyer. Boasting 85 000 sqare feet of space, from all first accounts every square foot was effectively used to steer you towards something of relevance. Unlike the waste of public space next door at City Hall, the gallery's flexibility in transforming public space into private rentals is perhaps unattractive in theory or on paper, but as a feat of architectural repurposing, the multifunctionality of the building holds immense future potential.
Photo credit: Eden Munro, 2010
Another laudable detail was the expansion of the gallery's education spaces. With four new colour-coordinated classrooms and its own private street level entrance, the growth of the gallery's education component doubled previous capacity and raises the prominence of art education in time with the notion that art is for everyone.
While Degas and Goya remained off limits and Storm Room remained under heavy construction, Gilles Hébert, the new Executive Director, led us into Karch: Image Maker as well as the highly anticipated The Murder of Crows. (We didn't stay past the introduction of Freida Abtan's score in the 30-minute installation piece, so it is highly recommended you go hear George Bures Miller and partner Janet Cardiff speak on Thursday, January 28 at the Telus Center, U of A, 7 pm)
Coming from the Portrait Gallery of Canada, Karch is a meticulously curated exhibition revealing a lifetime's work by Yousuf Karch, one of Canada's most celebrated portrait photographers. While the digital portraiture of Karch's 4 x 5 process is nothing but disturbing, the exhibition and archive as a whole was otherwise superb. As the show itself will require further elaboration, it was these first moments of walking through the doors of the actual gallery, stepping onto the dark-stained maple wood floors and into humidity control, that was the tour's definitive moment. The first time I noticed a gallery's flooring was the first time my ankles didn't hurt after walking through the then-newly Yoshio Taniguchi redesign of MoMA. The esteem and quality put into every facet of that gallery elevated the experience of the building as well as the objects which it housed onto a level of worship, which according to the AGA's last exhibition, Museums in 21st Century, revealed a sustaining global trend that the our own gallery aims to match.
However, most of the "starchitect"-led galleries and museums have elements of design centered on objects from that institution's permanent collection. With nothing from the AGA's offsite permanent collection being shown in the new building, and an ongoing moratorium on new acquisitions, the weakest link in the new Art Gallery of Alberta is the void of art made in and from Alberta. Bures Miller, Cardiff and Burtynsky have long moved on, but what of those who have stayed? If the point is in fact to create a gallery of national notoriety, should there not be an emphasis in presenting the gallery's potential for distinction such as curating works from the permanent collection and giving presence to regional artists?
Although a Ken Macklin sculpture sits on the sparse sculpture terrace, we will have to wait until summer time to see Alberta artists inside of our new, beautiful AGA.
*First published in Vue Weekly