Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Prairie Artsters: Southern Differences*

Last week, I trekked down to Calgary for a few days of art openings, performances, studio visits and gallery visits. While Alberta's other major city is geographically close to Edmonton, we all know the two cities couldn't be further apart in identity. This spills over into the arts scene, from its roster of commercials to artist-run centres and, most notably, in the foundation of The Alberta College of Art and Design.

One thing I'll say off the bat is that Calgary artists are just better at self-mythologizing. And while the brain drain hits Calgary just as hard as Edmonton, if not harder, its base is replenished by the art college, and its growing roster of successful alumni.

A breakdown of the visit started on Thursday, when I arrived at ACAD for the PopSex! opening at Illingworth Kerr Gallery. Organized and funded by the University of Calgary, PopSex! brought together artists from Calgary and Berlin to respond to the remnants of Magnus Hirschfield's Institute for Sexual Science.

As an international exhibition with an adjoining academic conference, it was welcoming to see faculty and alumni alike come together in this exhibition, including Wednesday Lupypciw, Keith Murray, Anthea Black, Heather Stump and Mireille Perron, along with other notable Calgary-based artists such as David Folk and RICHard SMOLinski.

The next evening was spent hopping from one artist-run centre to the other for an evening of talks and openings. First up was The New Gallery, where Clive Robertson was in town to talk about Then and Then Again, his exhibition on the history of artist-run culture in Canada. As someone who spent a considerable amount of time in Calgary in the '70s and who co-founded Centerfold magazine in Calgary, now known as FUSE Magazine, Robertson is also supposedly the man who coined the phrase, "artist-run culture." The show was archival at best, but the interesting part was the crowd, which included a mixture of faces new and old who are all willing to still participate.

One significant difference, or lack, that I've brought up before in relation to Edmonton and Calgary is the southern privilege of generating critical writing for each exhibition. Each gallery produces a critical text for each publication, no bigger than an event invite, commissioning and supporting a roster of guest writers. This is by no means unusual practice across this country, but when comparing a city that participates and creates dialogue and a city that doesn't within the same province, the differences are like night and day.

Next up was TRUCK Gallery, where Ontario-based artist Roula Partheniou was paired up with local artist Hyang Cho for a mediation on permutations and combinations. In the opinion of a fellow attendee and myself, the local artist outshined the visitor.

The third stop of the night was the main draw where everyone ended up: The Directors' Show at Stride Gallery. In its 25th year, the gallery invited all its past executive directors to create something for this commemorative group show. Like a healthy artist-run gallery, the small-but-mighty space has featured over a dozen directors, almost all women, at its helm in the last quarter century.

The show stood as a snapshot of a growing family, with the exhibition text written by longtime board directors and Calgary mainstays Chris Cran and John Will. The Directors' Show proves how rewarding it is to have a melange of personalities and skills and visions within any organization's history.

First visits were also made to Pith Gallery and Studios and The Haight Gallery, small independent spaces that will bring the next wave of artist-run culture in Calgary.

*First appeared in Vue Weekly

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