Ottawa’s coming of age: an engaging conversation with Alexandra Badzak, Director & CEO, Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG)

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Daily Ave. facade in the making

Tell me about yourself?
I am a prairie girl, born and raised in Saskatchewan. I trained as a visual artist. This is surprisingly rare for art gallery directors who tend to come from an art history background. I realized I loved the idea of connecting art to people and the ideas that art was exploring. I moved into my masters degree which was all about informal learning in the art gallery and grassroots movements pertaining to art and community involvement. That led me to eventually rise up through the ranks for the municipal art gallery in Saskatoon.

How did you end up in Ottawa?
I came to Ottawa as the first Executive Director of the Diefenbunker Museum.  I took it through a big organizational change including a big capital project. The Museum went from being able to allow 65 people in that huge underground bunker to over 500 that they are allowed now. That was a big project. I flowed right into this position. I have been at it for six years and every day and every year of it has been preoccupied with making the OAG expansion happen.

Can you talk about the genesis of the OAG expansion?
The OAG expansion is in a lot of ways a wish fulfilment for the arts community here in Ottawa. The OAG as it sits now at 12,000 square feet is one of the smallest municipal art galleries in Canada and that’s including Grande Prairie, Alberta, and Brandon Manitoba. A lot of it comes from the dynamic of national institutions. We hate to use the word ‘overshadowed’ but in fact that is part of the issue. In the early days a lot of patrons and a lot of artists were very much occupied with the National Art Gallery. In the 80s there was a real movement, and that came because there were other institutions forming and the University started playing a bigger role and the arts community rose up and said ‘we need a gallery of our own’ and that’s really where the genesis of the OAG emerged. Officially we started as the Gallery at Arts Court, the building we are in now in 1988, and we were fully incorporated as the Ottawa Art Gallery in 1993. Since then we have had three female directors, I am the third, and we have slowly built up the organization to what it is now but there was always, I think, a feeling that our occupation within Arts Court was a temporary solution and that we truly needed to build a building that is museum designated that was up to the proper standards and that truly showcased the talent that the city has to offer in terms of its art community.

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The future is near and beautiful

And now you are growing exponentially…
That is what we are building. We are going from 12,000 square feet to a building that is going to be over 80,000 square feet. We will have increased exhibition spaces, four times the size visitor amenity and programming space, four times the size collection storage space for our art. What we are trying to build is a space that people can commune with art at their own level. We are not just building a building we are growing an organization, but we are also trying to shift the paradigm a little bit and really look at things like radical access.

Radical access…
We did some interesting work with non-visual learner Carmen Papalia, he is an artist as well, kind of pushing what it’s like to think of an art gallery for someone who is blind. We are looking at mobility issues but also very simple things like ‘hey, let’s have our hours of operation actually be open for times people actually need us to be open’. So many galleries are usually not open Monday, and open from 9am-5pm, well that’s just ridiculous because most people are working during that period of time. So we are going to be open until 10pm, open Monday, we are going to be free – that’s a crazy idea.

We are very aware that museum building in western society is a colonizing activity. It was about taking artefacts from other culture, I think with good intentions of educating people about those cultures, but it nonetheless was a colonizing activity and it still continues to be based on those traditions, and of course there has always been the criticism of it being elitist. We are very interested to break through some of those barriers for participation and those come in a myriad of forms, such as economic, so getting rid of entrance fees is one part of that. The concept of barriers delves deeper, we present art on the walls in a way that generally does not allow people to touch the art, and there are good art conservation reasons why we have done that, but what is the real risk to the art? Can we start to push those boundaries? Can we start to find ways that art can be touched so that non-visual learners can gain access to what the art might be? We typically put a tiny little label next to the art – what do we want to shift that to? I think for a lot of non-visual learners, for example, the story behind art making, the story behind artists themselves becomes a way into the work, so how do we deliver that story, can new technology be a way? If so, how does that change our budgets and the way we typically hire people.  For instance, writing will always be an important part of a curator’s job but it seems to me that interview techniques and digital technology are going to be more and more important to the staffing of visual arts institutions. So those are small examples of where we want to go.

Can you talk about the partnerships in the expansion of the OAG?
The wonderful thing is we are also going to be the first public-private visual arts project in Canada and we have some great private partners like Le Germain Hotel, a boutique hotel out of Montreal and they are great because they are green, very progressive, very arts friendly and arts-focused, and they have been a really interesting partner for us already. Then we have DevMcGill’s ArtHaus Condos. They are very green, contemporary looking, and we have already established some very interesting connections to that condo development in terms of our membership and our rental and sales program. We will also hook up to the old Arts Court building on four different level so when we are all done 2017-18 we are going to be one city block dedicated to the arts in Ottawa. It’s a game changer. Our architects are particularly good at building gallery spaces and they love these volumes and forms that come through. The whole concept was to create a sense of interconnection with Arts Court and OAG. We will also be connected to the University of Ottawa’s Theatre Department. They will have a black box theatre and four classrooms that are part of the whole mix. There is a great flow from all of the spaces. Finally, Arts Court will become accessible.

How would you describe Ottawa’s visual arts scene?
That’s a big one [she laughs]. It’s a fascinating one. It’s in our minds because it is the focus of our inaugural exhibition. We will finally have the space and opportunity to tell the breath and depth of our art history in conversation with our contemporary scene – so that is going to be our big show. There is a pattern, Ottawa becomes to some degree a bit of a meeting place for artists. In the early days they came because they were serving the Federal government, there was a lot of portraiture work because it is a government town so we saw a lot of artists coming for that kind of commissioned work. And then the 70s and 80s you got more public art commissioning work that was happening. The visual arts department at University of Ottawa was important so you had what was called ‘the Montreal mafia’ the teaching faculty was dominated by teachers coming from Montreal. Not quite staying flowing in and out of Ottawa but now we are starting to see that there are a lot of emergent grassroots movements that are happening. There are so many pop up artist run centers; private galleries that are emerging that are really fascinating and quite diverse. I don’t think one could pinpoint what Ottawa art is, I think it is just too diverse for that and I think it should be. We have strength in photography for sure, great painting tradition, absolutely strong assemblage, sculpture tradition, and very interesting mixed media artists. There’s also a great mix with the Ottawa institutions SAW Video, SAW Gallery, Artengine, I think these are all interesting institutions that start to shape and foster and allow for incubation space for the art of our times. The OAG moving forward is really interested to work with those groups.

Can you talk about the relationship with national institutions and how, if at all, that will change with the expansion of the OAG?
It is a great question and I think we have had to explain why we are not the National Gallery of Canada and that in fact it is a very complementary relationship. If the OAG is not doing its job, we are not fostering and supporting the artists that can rise to the top of their game and make their way into the collection or be in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. We are very much part of that matrix much like other municipal and regional galleries across Canada. We are very comfortable in that position, but we do have to explain it form time to time.

I think that there are some great models that both the National Arts Center and the National Gallery of Canada have started to foster that allow for greater exchange with local institutions like the OAG. The NAC Scene Festival is an example of a model where the NAC comes to us, we talk about complementary programming and they actually provide monetary support for the programming that we do and we become part of their whole festival marketing, it is a very exciting couple of weeks in the national capital. The NGC started to move into that territory with Sakahàn, an international indigenous exhibition which they did a couple of years ago whereby we had a great conversation, then developed complementary programming and then we became one venue that was part of their larger festival. I hope that kind of programming will continue. On a person to person basis, which is ultimately what it comes down to, we started to form really great relationships with their curators.

We will be meeting with them very soon to talk about our upcoming programming and their programming and how again we can find linkages. That is the same conversation we are having with Carleton University Art Gallery and we are very interested in some partnership development with SAW Video and SAW Gallery, Artengine and Gallery 101. I think that’s a bit of our mantra moving forward is that we are interested in working laterally.

What keeps you in Ottawa?
For one thing, I think its Canada’s best kept secret, how beautiful it is. Coming from the west, Ottawa represented government and it was an eye opener to see how gorgeous it is. A lovely city that is walkable and bikable and getting better that way. Five minutes out of the city and you have hit the most gorgeous countryside you could possibly imagine. I just feel that Ottawa needed to pick up its game because there is some great art institution building across Canada and we are not at that level yet and we should be given how big of a city we are and how mature of a city we are. The OAG Expansion is a bit of a coming of age project for our arts community.

Do you see that similar trend in other sectors or instating you are in contact with?
I would say Ottawa overall is coming of age as a city onto itself. Not in separation but in partnership with the concept of the national capital. You can look at the Red Blacks and their renewed venue, the Ottawa Public Library working on big plans, the downtown core is starting to redefine itself and the LRT is very important. All these things are happening at the same time so by 2017-18, Ottawa is going to feel very different, especially the downtown core of Ottawa. We are going to feel like a big city. The OAG is a 2017 cultural legacy for the city that we plan to open in the fall of 2017. That will be a great moment where we hope the whole city rallies behind and gets excited by it.

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