Alberta's ever-evolving visual arts community

Date: Aug 30, 2016

To celebrate 25 years of the AFA, we’re taking a look back at how we came to be, favourite milestones, and some of the amazing artists we’ve encountered along the way.  

By David Folk, Visual Arts Development Consultant

In the past 25 years, there has been significant expansion in the overall visual arts community in Alberta. Here’ we’ve collected some highlights of the ever-changing organism that is visual arts in Alberta.

Most notably, major institutions like the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) in Edmonton and the Esker Foundation in Calgary have become centres of attraction. There has also been significant growth in artist-run institutions such as the creation of new exhibition spaces such as TRUCK gallery (Calgary) and Latitude 53 (Edmonton).

Art Gallery of Alberta (via Edmonton Attractions)

The growth of these types of spaces is indicative of a larger ideological shift in the sector over the past 25 years, as we see the artistic infrastructure reaching out and engaging with the community in new and unique ways. Artists recognize the need to diversify and expand through different types of programming in order to foster new audiences and remain relevant. Galleries are no longer content to just present work, but seek to actively engage with the larger public.

Even the way that individual artists choose to exhibit their work has drastically changed. In the past, many artists often felt forced to find their audience within one of the commercial, public, or artist-run communities. More recently, there is a greater likelihood that we can see the same artists exhibiting in both public and commercial galleries. This suggests there may be fewer barriers in place to predetermine artists’ points of access. Even the newest trend of pop-up exhibitions is indicative of the ways that artists are expanding their reach, and are no longer content with traditional methods to exhibit their work.

The popularity of recent public art festivals reflects a new emphasis on engaging with the community. The success of Nuit Blanche in Calgary and Edmonton—with the program rolling out into smaller regional centres like Red Deer—demonstrates the public’s willingness to engage with the arts.

Calgary Poet Laureate Micheline Maylor conducting a reading during a Pop-Up Poetry Event in Calgary (via Calgary Arts Development Pop up Poetry page)

While many municipalities have displays of public art and art purchasing programs, the City of Calgary Public Art Program was designed to recognize the role the arts play in our community. The program’s strategic direction provides dedicated resources to purchasing and providing access to public art, and acknowledges that an investment in the cultural life of a city enhances the daily lives of its citizens. This philosophy is even more evident through the adoption of the “Living a Creative Life” initiative as implemented through Calgary Arts Development and intended to promote the wholesale integration of the arts into everyday lives.

These tenets are also being seen in the development and creation of live/work spaces that focus on the creative community. In Calgary, cSPACE has taken over the old King Edward School to build a dedicated facility designed to foster community and provide much-needed resources for artists. In Edmonton, ArtsHab is taking on similar activities, all with the vision of integrating artistic practices into daily living.

Smaller Albertan centres have also expanded their vision to build connections with community. The Esplanade in Medicine Hat and CASA in Lethbridge are both good examples of how community engagement is a key part of the mandates for groups and organizations dedicated to building cultural life.

Sandra Bromely's piece,  It's About Time, on the Capital Arts Building in Edmonton

To commemorate the opening of the new home of the AFA Art Collection–the Capital Arts building in Edmonton–and in recognition of the 2005 Alberta Centennial, the AFA launched the Centennial commission project. The commission was awarded by the AFA in partnership with The Works Visual Arts Society to Edmonton artist Sandra Bromley. Her proposal: to create a laminated glass and photographic mural incorporating one hundred images of Albertans “documented” over the course of Alberta’s history. Her work It’s About Time adorns the south east corner of the Capital Arts building, and welcomes our guests daily. Read more about this piece in our AFA25 post It’s About Time.

In 2015, the AFA launched its formal Public Art Commission Program as an annual project awarded to Alberta non-profit organizations to create original public art. The completed projects are site specific, and the artworks become part of the permanent AFA art collection. In April 2016, the AFA was pleased to announce two successful commission projects from the first application cycle: cSPACE Calgary and Arts Council Wood Buffalo. These two projects will bring public art to exciting and creative spaces around our province, including the King Edward School (Calgary) and the Redpoll Centre (Fort McMurray).

With all these milestones and expansions, we wonder: What will Albertan visual artists explore next?

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