Op-Ed: Does YK need a proper public gallery? Yes, indeed

by Alison McCreesh

In 2008, I spent a season in Dawson City. I was living in my tent and scooping ice cream between my last two years of art school. That summer, the ODD Gallery, as well as the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture were the centre of my social and cultural life. I attended screenings there, I learned how to felt, I participated in group shows, I got to see contemporary art exhibitions, I heard artists speak, I participated in projects, I used their facilities.

It was a hub, it was great, and it was similar to other artist-run centres that are key parts of large and small communities throughout Canada. At the end of August, I made my way back to school in Quebec, confident in my knowledge that the North was a great place to be an artist. A school-year later, a degree in fine arts in my pocket, I headed North again. To Yellowknife, this time. As soon as I arrived, I sought out the local artist-run centre – tried to find an equivalent of the ODD Gallery. Somewhere I could learn, teach, be inspired. Somewhere around which I could structure my career as an emerging artist. I needed to see other artists’ work, I needed to make work, and I needed to show my work. And for all this, I needed a space. A venue. An artist-run centre or an arts centre of some kind. Having access to a place like that is a fundamental part of being a professional practicing contemporary artist, and I was shocked to find none. Especially in a capital city.

Sure Yellowknife had commercial galleries. Sure the Guild of Arts and Crafts offered workshops. Sure the Aurora Arts Society organized an Arts Week. Yellowknife wasn’t culturally dead, far from it. There was a large arts community and lots of people were doing a great job. Still though, there was no hub. No public art space. Nowhere focusing on the kind of non-commercial art I made and was interested in. There are many different ways of being a professional artist, and lots of them do not entail making art that can be hung on a wall and sold. Art and artists can, and often do, play an enormous part in a community, from sparking debate and conversation to engaging and stimulating youth. Throughout Canada, there is generally an understanding of the benefits and positive impacts of fostering – and publicly funding – the presence of art in communities and public spaces. Why isn’t it the case in Yellowknife?

If the argument is there’s no interest, I don’t buy it – and neither do a lot of other local arts enthusiasts. In 2010, the Yellowknife Artist-Run Community Centre was established as a society. As Yk ARCC’s ensuing track record proves, Yellowknife was ready for a group of this nature.

Over the past four years, the organization has moved forward in leaps and bounds. Yk ARCC has successfully offered a wide range of community-oriented contemporary art related programming within and outside its walls.

Since 2012, the group has had a space downtown that houses four artist studios, as well as a community/workshop space that doubles as a small non-commercial gallery. The studios are always full and the the community space is in high demand, often occupied both by other community groups, as well as Yk ARCC’s own programming. Events are well attended and there’s an appetite for more, but a small volunteer-run organization simply can’t meet the community’s demand for exhibits, workshops and educational programming. To me, this answers Mr. Danylchuk’s question: Yes, obviously, we need a proper public gallery space in Yellowknife.

To many, this isn’t news. A lot of Yellowknifers have felt strongly about this for years, and the debate over what Yellowknife precisely needs is a conversation that goes way back – to long before I ever moved North. A public art venue can take on many forms and structures, all of which have strengths and weaknesses. It’s hard to agree on exactly what we need in the North, but we can all agree we need something. It’s not a new conversation, but it’s one we need to have again. And beyond that conversation, we need action.

A city this size needs non-commercial space, and within that space, it needs programming. Programming that gets youth involved and stimulated. Programming that feeds debates and conversations. Programing that engages the community. Programming that cultivates and promotes public art. Programming that offers opportunities to emerging artists. And as we move forward in the conversation regarding a ‘proper public gallery space,’ we also need to stress the value of a ‘properly funded gallery space.’ Fostering art in a community is an investment and the sooner we start investing, the better.

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