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Legacy Article "Portrait of a Gallery"
May – July 1999
by Hajnalka Santa-Balazs

The Edmonton Art Gallery (EAG) celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and the staff is taking stock, reflecting, and making plans for the future. Thinking about the first 75 years of the gallery means considering its audience as well as its collections, for the history of a public institution is also the history of its public. It is the story of people who conceived and realized the idea of an art museum on the frontier, of the community which sustained it, and of the factions that determined its direction.

The founders of the gallery saw visual art as something akin to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Both played an important role in "civilizing" the country, bringing "culture" to the prairies. These early citizens came to Edmonton with new dreams, old-world values, and a strong resolve to maintain cultural continuity.

Stop Staring.Of course, to the contemporary eye, the line between cultural continuity and cultural orthodoxy is thin. In 1926, Lord Bessborough addressed the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour in Winnipeg saying, "The central culture of civilization [comprises] that great tradition which is the heritage of the English and the French peoples...there might be other cultures in the world, but they are not ours and...do not mix well with ours."

Repugnant as such sentiments may be, they point to the fragmentation of culture on the prairies at the time and to the vital need for a sense of community during the early history of Edmonton. In fact, the EAG originated with various clubs, based on common interest, trying to bind a disparate group together into a community with something in common. The nation was dancing the Charleston, the province had just repealed prohibition, and the "masses" might be unified by the "civilizing" power of art. This was the scene on which the Edmonton Museum of Art (predecessor of the EAG) appeared in 1923.

A few dedicated members of three organizations of enthusiastic amateurs-the Art Association, Edmonton Art Club, and Fine and Applied Arts Committee of the Local Council of Women-met in the studio of Edmonton's only professional artist, William Johnstone, in November. They discussed the idea of starting an art museum. Maude Bowman of the Local Council of Women suggested to the Edmonton Art Club the establishment of a permanent art collection for the community.

The Art Association had been founded during the First World War by a group of teachers and the Art Supervisor for the Public School Board. They organized classes and lectures on art and art history, determined to fight the widespread attitude that art was an unnecessary "frill." The Edmonton Art Club had formed in 1921 to encourage wider art appreciation in the community and to improve the quality of local art. The idea of an art museum brought the groups' interests together. In the following decades the new museum and these art groups maintained close ties and often pooled resources.

The Edmonton Museum of Art mounted its first exhibition in the Macdonald Hotel. The display consisted of 24 works loaned by the National Gallery of Canada and by local collectors.

Beyond its cultural importance to the community, the new museum also came to symbolize to its members the culture and art (European) which set them apart in the alien landscape; it was the badge of "civilization" which they felt a moral obligation to spread. The executive officers of this new organization embodied these values; their titlesLieutenant-Governor as honorary president, doctor, lawyer, minister, judge, major, colonelread as the colonial elite anywhere in the Empire.

The first home of the museum was the Public Library on 100 Avenue off 100 Street. The second exhibition took place in 1925, and the permanent collection was started in the same year when the Edmonton Council of Women donated a painting by Robert Gallon, The Welsh Hills. By 1929, the collection contained about 30 works.

In addition to collecting and hanging regular exhibitions, the museum also offered art classes and hosted lectures. The Edmonton Art Club donated works for the permanent collection and contributed funding for art classes, instructors, and lectures. In return the Edmonton Museum of Art exhibited club members' work.

During the next two decades, while the country grappled with the Depression and with the effects of the Second World War, the museum added only 10 artworks to its permanent collection and moved several times. It was not until the 1950s that the idea of a permanent home was seriously considered again.Dragon.

In 1956 the name of the museum was changed to the Edmonton Art Gallery. A year later the Art Rental and Sales Gallery opened, with 100 Canadian paintings, to generate revenue. Collecting continued, and by the end of the 1950s, the permanent collection had acquired about 50 more Canadian paintings, prints, and drawings.

The late 1960s and 1970s were boom years not only for the local economy but for the art scene as well. Increased prosperity and the 1962 bequest of $560,000 by Mrs. A.E. Condell brought the goal of a gallery building closer to realization. The construction of the new gallery tied into the projects planned for the 1967 celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Confederation. The city donated the current site on Sir Winston Churchill Square. The doors of the present home of the EAG, the Arthur Blow Condell Memorial Building, officially opened on April 20, 1969.

The new facility expanded the possibilities for exhibit and educational programming, large shows, and significant collections. With no immediate constraints on storage space and a considerable budget, the gallery acquired a number of important works. The EAG could finally become a leading force in the cultural life of the province.

In 1972, Terry Fenton became the gallery's sixth director. His 15 years at the EAG left an indelible mark on Edmonton's art scene. But after the initial excitement, the years that followed were marked by criticism, discontent, and partisan action as many felt the EAG lost sight of its original purpose: to serve the community. It happened at the precise time when the gallery's budget finally would have enabled it to do so.

Lelde Muhlenbachs was a junior curator under Fenton between 1974 and 1977. She describes the gallery at the time as "a very positive, dynamic place with imaginative staff full of great ideas...passionate about art; they connected professionally in a gallery that thrived on its international reputation."

Under Fenton's direction the gallery became a bastion of North American formalism, an art movement which flourished in the early part of this century and then again in the 1950s. The theory emphasizes the formal elements of art (colour, line, or composition) over content (representation or narrative). It denies the validity of considering art in social or political context. The style exhausted its critical potential in most major artistic centres by the end of the 1960s.

The leading advocate of American formalism was New York art critic Clement Greenberg. Through his personal friendship with Greenberg, Fenton established a link with the art world of New York. Throughout the 1970s Greenberg made frequent visits to the Prairies. Here, formalism was still alive (while dead or dying everywhere else), due largely to the influence of the EAG and Fenton's aesthetic direction. Greenberg was what Caterina Pizanias, a sociologist who has written about the local art scene, calls an "outside legitimator." Perhaps Edmonton saw itself as a cultural outpost, and some people needed the periodic presence of figures with cultural and political authority. In 1979 the EAG reaffirmed its commitment to formalism with an exhibit of the work of Jules Olitski, an American formalist artist.

The Welsh Hills.Much of the resources for the exhibition of local art were allocated to works that conformed to the formalist style. Artists producing such work were favoured with more opportunities for exhibition at the EAG than were their colleagues who were not formalists. By the 1980s, the gallery was heavily criticized for its narrow focus, formalist bias, and authoritarian elitism. Public interest in the gallery was waning. Groups with specialized knowledge excepted, the art on display was seen as incomprehensible to the average visitor. "Many felt that the community would benefit more from shows with variety, diversity, and critical dialogue....By this time, critics felt the EAG had become an anachronism," comments Blair Brennan, curator of the University of Alberta's Fine Arts Building Gallery.

By the late '80s morale was low at the gallery. The excitement of the early years was gone. Government funding was also drying up: the library and the extension and education programs became casualties. In 1987, Terry Fenton left the EAG.

The appointment that year of the new director, Roger Boulet, signalled a sort of glasnost, a thaw of the ideological autocracy, Pizanias notes Boulet said he wanted to generate public interest since "without the public we might as well...label it [the gallery] and seal it up." While the gallery continued to show the best of formalist work, it shifted its focus and began presenting a more dynamic program, with socially relevant issues, coming one step closer to serving not itself but the community that supports it.

In 1990 the EAG mounted the controversial watershed exhibition Dangerous Goods, curated by Bridget Elliot and Janice Williamson. Many saw it as a long-overdue critical venture addressing a number of social issues and feminist ideas. The show was exceptionally successful with a record-breaking turnout from the community. Hundreds showed up for the opening. Still, although many welcomed the EAG's relevance to contemporary society and art practice, others were upset and criticized the gallery for becoming too populist.

Boulet resigned in 1991 but changes continued in the same direction under his successor, Alf Bogusky. The formalist old guard, which for so long had been identified with the gallery, continued to object once it became clear that they had lost their hold on the EAG for good; they bemoaned the aesthetic depths to which the EAG had been allowed to sink.

Even in 1995 the proponents of formalism continued to brood over the loss of "purity" in art in Edmonton. The remnants of formalism were described by artist Peter Hide as the "outcrop of hard volcanic rock that's survived when everything else has been eroded away." Other artists countered that this aspect of the Edmonton art scene was not volcanic rock but fossilized sediment from a forgotten ideological flash flood.

In recent years, the EAG has become less a place of secular worship than in the past, with efforts to make the gallery more open and accessible to its public. Under Bogusky, the EAG undertook a market survey to evaluate perceptions in the larger community. Its new mission statement places greater emphasis on reaching out to the public. The gallery aims to broaden its audience base, recognizing that it has a vital role in mediating interaction and discussion within the community as a whole, not just a specific group of aesthetic initiates. The programming is meant to combine the visual with the intellectual: to show and tell and be open to dialogue.

University of Alberta art historian Jetske Sybesma sees the role of the gallery as no longer just hanging things on the wall and telling people what is good about them. "The institution," she says, "should become a cultural facilitator. Rather than just display, the role is to educate and to interact."

And what is the vision for the future? Vincent Varga, EAG director since 1997, is committed to continuing Bogusky's initiatives, but he also has plans for the immediate future and for the next century. He says that "the EAG is dedicated to be responsive to the needs of the community and to bring art to life in Alberta."

Inside Balzac.Varga says part of the gallery's role is to encourage visual literacy. "The EAG has the tools to provide an interactive, critical forum where images from diverse sources can be brought together. This opens up the gallery without elitist leanings." The 1997 show Pierced Hearts and True Love: A Century of Drawings for Tattoos is a case in point. The show explored broad visual culture and popular imagery within a critical framework. Varga sees it as one example of a balanced, socially responsive, integrated program with a healthy mix of contemporary practices and historical exhibits. In addition, since 1996 the EAG has had an interactive children's gallery where families have fun learning about art.

Varga notes that the gallery building is over 30 years old and needs major renovations, some due to deficiencies in the original design. The building is made of concrete, the material of choice in the '60s, but it has not weathered well. The builders never installed a vapour barrier, and there is no climate control. The interior space also has its idiosyncrasies. Though much of the art in the '60s was very large, the wall spaces and the service sections of the building were not designed with that in mind. With about 4500 objects-most acquired since 1969-the gallery has grown well beyond the confines of its present home. "The limitations of the building restrict what can be done and shown," he explains. Ultimately, he envisions a facility that will accommodate and allow proper care for an expanding collection, in addition to serving a growing community.

The EAG is now a venue for many voices. Early in 2000, Jane Ash Poitras will be presenting a multimedia exhibit on the aboriginal experience. Another upcoming show, The Look of Edmonton, will ask what defines Edmonton, what creates its sense of place. Through most of its history the EAG has tried to bring its community closer together through visual pleasure, through discussion, and through education. The ever growing audience of the gallery shares its founders' hope for the future: that the gallery will be recognized as a source of pride, winning hearts and minds with art.

Hajnalka Santa-Balazs is a University of Alberta graduate student finishing her thesis in Art History.

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