Does YK need a proper public gallery space?

The opening night of Jen Walden’s exhibition of landscape paintings drawn from  her visit to the Mackenzie Mountains. | photos Jack Danylchuk

After a summer of exhibitions by Jenn Walden, Alison McCreesh, and now Terry Pamplin, it might be tempting to conclude the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre has added ‘art gallery’ to its mandate.

It hasn’t, nor is it about to, Sarah Carr-Locke, Assistant Director of the Culture and Heritage Division in the department of Education, Culture and Employment, assured EDGEYK.com in a recent interview.

Because there is no other institution to take on the job, the Heritage Centre has become the territory’s de facto public art gallery, “but that is far from its role,” Carr-Locke said.

The Heritage Centre offers its walls to artists like McCreesh because “her pieces speak to life in the NWT,” said Carr-Locke, whose education is in anthropology and archaeology. “Visitors connect with the show because it’s a slice of northern life.”

“We want to focus on the stories of the people, and people’s knowledge and their culture. I don’t want to have less room for those because we are exhibiting art. We don’t have any art curators on staff. We don’t have that kind of expertise.”

In contrast to Yukon, which spends $25,000 a year acquiring new art work for its permanent collection of 362 pieces amassed since 1980, the Heritage Centre has no acquisition budget, and no budget for art exhibitions.

Nevertheless, the territory has a collection of 1,300 pieces – mostly Dorset print editions that fill drawers of a grey metal cabinet pressed against a back wall in the Heritage Centre’s climate-controlled vault.  There are bronze busts bought by Stuart Hodgson when he was commissioner, oil sketches by Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson, works by Bern Will Brown and Don Cardinal.

A few pieces are usually on display in an alcove off the main entrance to the Heritage Centre, but most of the collection is stashed away in the vault. Out of concern for security and the lack of appropriate display space in government buildings, most of the works are rarely seen by the public.

The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre’s Joanne Bird with the government’s trove of never-exhibited Cape Dorset prints.

That policy also sets the Northwest Territories apart from its western neighbour. The Yukon collection is shown throughout the territory in public spaces beyond the confines of the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse, the only Class A gallery in the North.

“Our mandate is to make the collection accessible to the public as much as possible,” said Garnet Muething, art curator in Yukon’s department of Tourism and Culture.

Built after a decade of fund raising and lobbying, YAC has been in operation for 22 years as a performing arts centre and art gallery. The gallery gets $300,000 of YAC’s $2.1 million annual budget and mounts a dozen or so curated exhibitions every year.

Half  the centre’s funding comes from the territorial and federal governments, 20 per cent from project funding derived from government and private sources, and the balance through its own fund-raising efforts.

Works by Yukon artists comprise much of  the Yukon Permanent Art Collection, Meuthing told EDGEYK.com in an email, and pieces acquired for the collection need to have some kind of connection or significance to the north.

The story is the same in Yellowknife. When the Heritage Centre opens its doors to art, it focuses on artists who work, or have a connection with the Northwest Territories. Applications for time and space are reviewed by an exhibits committee.

“We’re  looking  for shows that tell a story, that connects with the land and people of the Northwest Territories,” Carr-Locke, “and we don’t have so many that we are turning people away.”

Carr-Locke describes the Heritage Centre’s situation as “unique in Canada for being much more part of the government. We have more steady funding; we’re not dependent on revenue from admissions.”

Alison McCreesh at the opening of her exhibition at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre this past spring.

As a branch of a government department, the centre takes its marching orders from the government, which has shown little interest in art, and seems content to leave the business of exhibiting and marketing art to artists, gift stores and private galleries.

Colin Dempsey, who runs the Gallery on 47th Street from his home, questions whether there is sufficient interest among artists and the public to warrant the investment in a publicly-funded art gallery and museum.

“If you build it will they come? Based on my experience, there aren’t enough artists here, and the public is only luke warm. We get 30 or 50 people to an opening, and its the same at ARCC. I don’t think there is one artist in Yellowknife for the territory who relies solely on their work for a living.”

Art school for YK?

Yellowknife MLA Bob Bromley thinks he may have an answer.  Speaking in the legislature last year, Bromley noted the success of the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in Dawson City, and made a pitch for an art college in Yellowknife – a partnership between Aurora College and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver.

Bromley also proposed the GNWT dedicate at least one per cent of its office building space to the arts in every community and suggested that the office building nearing completion on 49th Street include an arts demonstration, exhibit and sales space on the main floor.

“There appears to be so much benefit from art school, both in terms of economic development and diversification of the economy, but also there are many local benefits. It draws on local talent and local resources,” said Bromley, who will raise the issue again in the legislature this week.

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