The project of an art gallery on campus was discussed at Carleton University as early as 1970, just four years after the creation of a department of Art History. An early University brief prepared by the Art Gallery Users Sub-committee noted the growing interest in the arts in Canada. With the support of the Canadian Museums Association, it proposed the creation of a gallery that would satisfy academic requirements for courses in Art History and Museology; enrich and support broadly the academic offerings of the University, particularly in the humanities and social sciences; and respond to the cultural needs of the university community. In addition, the brief argued, the gallery would play the same role as the library, providing storage and display facilities for the university’s expanding collection (then numbering some 83 works of art) as well as research materials. An underground location in the central Quad was selected and a design study commissioned from the Ottawa architectural firm Murray and Murray, but the project died in 1972 when the provincial government froze funding to universities.
A permanent home
The Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG) ultimately opened in September 1992 as the result of a successful community-wide fundraising campaign, initiated in response to a bequest from Frances and Jack Barwick of Ottawa, who left the University fifty-seven works from their important collection of Canadian art, and a major financial gift.
The University’s broader aim was to create a “unitary fine arts complex” that would group the art gallery together with the Art History, Film Studies, and Music departments in space vacated by the Library’s technical services branch and the School of Social Work in the St. Patrick’s building on the north edge of campus. It commissioned architect Michael Lundholm to design and renovate spaces for the art gallery on the first and second levels of the building. The handsomely retrofitted facility offers a total of 4830 square feet (449 square metres) of exhibition space, divided into three distinctive galleries: two spacious main floor galleries with hardwood floors, one with 19-foot (5.8-metre) ceilings, and a carpeted mezzanine suitable for the display of prints, drawings and photographs. It also includes a dedicated loading dock, three collection storage vaults, offices, a reading room, and an exhibition preparation room, for a total area of approximately 9255 square feet (860 square metres).
In addition to the Barwick collection, the art gallery assumed responsibility for the University’s art collection, which had been started in the mid-1960s and was principally Canadian in content, with a small corpus of European prints. The University’s vision for the gallery emphasized the teaching potential of a properly housed collection and the benefit to the University’s public profile in the Ottawa community. Its location on the campus perimeter was expected to make it accessible to non-university visitors.
Building the collection
Building the permanent collection was an important priority for the gallery during its first decade. In 1992, the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board designated it a Category “A” institution for the purpose of receiving gifts of certified cultural property. Under Michael Bell, the gallery’s first director, the collection grew rapidly and is now one of the largest university collections in Canada. Built mainly through donations from artists and collectors, it has been a significant source of civic support, allowing the University to put down firm roots in the wider community.
The focus of the gallery’s first decade was directed primarily towards creating a resource that would support research on Canadian art at the undergraduate and graduate levels. To this end, the gallery sought to document in depth the careers of individual artists, acquiring significant bodies of work by a number of contemporary Canadian artists. A secondary aim was to reflect collecting patterns and artistic activity in the region, thus complementing the national orientation of the National Gallery. The rapid growth of the gallery’s first decade has been followed by a period of consolidation, as we seek to build selectively on our areas of strength. We are currently searching for ways to expand and renovate the collections storage areas and to provide expanded electronic access to the collections database.
A wide-ranging exhibition program
Over its history, the gallery has fulfilled its public mandate by presenting a varied program of loan and collection-based exhibitions of both contemporary and historical art. Its operations are supported financially by the University with additional funding in recent years from the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Arts Council, as well as from private sources. Exhibitions number from eight to twelve annually; as of May 2010, 276 exhibitions have been curated by gallery staff and invited curators. About one-third of these have been organized by Carleton students. The gallery engages the broader University directly through such long-standing traditions as exhibitions of projects by students in the School of Industrial Design and the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, as well as through the recent initiative of a biennial exhibition of art made by all members of the University community.
The primary focus of the exhibition program is contemporary and historic Canadian art. Exhibitions have ranged from monographic and group exhibitions featuring the work of local artists (the lively 2008 exhibition Michèle Provost: Selling Out is a recent example), to exhibitions that explore collecting patterns in the Ottawa community (notably Prototype: Contemporary Art from Joe Friday’s Collection ), to presentations of nationally known artists such as Lynne Cohen (2006), Pascal Grandmaison (2008), Edward Burtynsky (2009), Nadia Myre (2011), Erin Shirreff (2012), Rebecca Belmore (2013), Young and Giroux (2013), and Samuel Roy-Bois (2014). Our work on behalf of contemporary artists nationally extends beyond the exhibition program, as can be seen by our successful nominations of Vera Frenkel (2006), Terry Ryan (2010), Brydon Smith (2014) and Robert Houle (2015) for Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts.
An important feature of the program is exhibitions of contemporary Inuit and Aboriginal art. Since 1992, CUAG has organized many exhibitions featuring works from its extensive collections of Aboriginal or Inuit art in addition to premiering new work by Aboriginal artists. Recent highlights include Flying Still: Carl Beam, 1943-2005 (2005) which travelled to Iceland in 2006, Red Eye: First Nations Short Film and Video (2006), By the Book? Early Influences on Inuit Art (2006), Shuvinai Ashoona Drawings (2009), Frank Shebageget: Light Industry (2010), Nadia Myre: Symbology (2011), Rita Letendre: Themes and Variations (2011), Rebecca Belmore: What Is Said and What Is Done (2013), and Raymond Boisjoly: Interlocutions (2014).
The gallery’s commitment to historical Canadian art is reflected in such exhibitions as the nationally-touring Pegi Nicol MacLeod: A Life in Art (2005), the retrospective A Pilgrim’s Progress: The Life and Art of Gerald Trottier (2006), and Invention and Revival: The Colour Drypoints of David Milne and John Hartman (2008). The print collection has also provided opportunities for small thematic shows drawing on its holdings of historical European art. Recent examples include Making the News in 18th-Century France (2012), Women’s Faces, Women’s Places: Life and Gender in 18th-Century France (2007), Status and Public Life: The Male Image in 18th-century France (2008), Eros and Endearment: The Look of Love in 18th-Century French Prints (2010), and Marketing Art History in 18th-Century France (2015).
Reaching a broader public
CUAG’s exhibitions have always been enhanced by a dynamic public program of artist talks, curatorial tours, and symposia. Capacity crowds for symposia such as The Past in the Present: Historic Aboriginal Art in the Contemporary Gallery (2007) and other events including the Resounding Spirit Performance Art Festival (2007) and Edward Burtynsky's artist talk (2010) demonstrate the regional appetite for exciting public programming. Exhibitions are often accompanied by publications; more than seventy exhibition catalogues have been published. The ambition of these publications has been enhanced significantly in recent years through increased public and private fundraising.
The quality of our print and web projects has been recognized by the Ontario Association of Art Galleries, which awarded freelance designer Patrick Côté four design awards for CUAG projects: the gallery website (2002), Adrian Göllner’s Modern U website (2003), the exhibition catalogue Pam Hall: New Readings in Female Anatomy (2007), and a brochure we co-produced with the Canadian Museums Association for the Visual Arts Summit (2008).
CUAG’s recent publications have been recognized with with three major awards: OAAG curatorial writing awards for Sandra Dyck for her essays on Gerald Trottier (2009), Michele Provost (2010), and Shuvinai Ashoona (2012); grand prize in exhibition catalogue design for Pascal Grandmaison: Le grand jour / Double Take (co-published with the Art Gallery of Hamilton in 2009) from Concours Grafika 2010, a professional juried competition for design in Quebec; and first prize in catalogue design (galleries with budgets of $750,000 and under) for Sanattiaqsimajut: Inuit Art from the Carleton University Art Gallery Collection from the American Association of Museums in 2009. In 1997 we extended our public profile by launching our first website, designed by Angelo Mingarelli; the site was redesigned by Patrick Côté in 2002 and 2009.
Staff and governance
In 1992, CUAG was staffed by a full-time director/curator and a half-time administrative assistant. It has had four directors to date: Michael Bell (1992-2003); Sandra Dyck (acting, 2003-2005); Diana Nemiroff (2005-2012), and Sandra Dyck (2012-). Today the staff is comprised of a director, curator, collections/exhibition assistant, education assistant and a half-time administrative assistant. These positions are supplemented by summer positions for a curator of Inuit art, usually filled by a Carleton student, and a collections assistant. In addition, the gallery offers an annual research assistantship to a qualified graduate student, and hires several students as part-time gallery attendants. The gallery offers opportunities for hands-on learning in a professional museum environment through graduate and undergraduate practicum placements, and directed exhibition projects that form part of curatorial seminars in the Art History department.
CUAG operates under the University’s incorporation and charitable status. It has an active advisory committee whose members are selected from the University and broader Ottawa communities. Their role is to advise the director on matters of policy and governance.