Thunder Bay and the region have a rich arts community of painters, sculptors, potters, weavers, glassmakers, quilters, fabric artists and more. Many of these artists and galleries join forces for temporary shows, art auctions or studio and garden tours that occur more often in the summer. Checking websites, local papers and poster boards in coffee shops, shopping malls, libraries, and convenient stores will guide you to many local artistic activities.
Unlike Grand Marais, the art community in Thunder Bay is spread throughout the city, often in odd locations, with more galleries located in Port Arthur (north end). In the early 1970s, shortly after Fort William (south end), and Port Arthur became Thunder Bay, political representatives of each township fought to have new institutions and box stores built on their end of the city. Unfortunately the compromises resulted in these being built in unusual places where there is little or no walk-by traffic. The result is that Thunder Bay is a “car town,” which is why we are always concern about parking. You need a car to see most of the galleries on this list. Most hotels and galleries will have an art map called “Hand Made in Thunder Bay.” The city and current crop of politicians can be credited with a clear plan to improve the cultural layout of the city. The development of Prince Arthur’s Landing, road improvement, art installations, and other ongoing beautification projects has really helped the city in the last few years.
Galleries of Art and Craft in Thunder Bay
The most notable gallery in the city is the Thunder Bay Art Gallery (central). The TBAG (or teabag as it is referred to by the locals) is a contemporary public gallery with the largest permanent collection of art in the region. The exhibition space is the most accommodating in the city with three large showrooms. With a focus on Aboriginal art, the gallery has nearly 25 exhibitions a year, featuring local artists and artists of national significance in travelling exhibitions, with themes and art selected by professional curators. The TBAG is situated on the Confederation College campus. Unfortunately, the names of the roads leading to the gallery change often. Check your map. The gallery is most definitely worth the trip.
Considered an alternative public gallery (non-profit/charitable), the Definitely Superior Artist Run Centre + Gallery is operated by mostly young and cutting edge artists with an emphasis on the experimental and the avant-garde with up to 50 shows a year. The DEFSUP gallery (referred to as the “deaf soup” gallery by locals) supports local, national, and international talent. Much of this centre’s funding comes from dramatic and original campaigns that inspire throngs of young people, with attendance in the thousands, taking over the north end core. The centre contributes dramatically to the growth of the arts community where developing artists, of any background, can experiment with any style and medium, including performance art, video instillations, multi-media, etc. Diversity is key to the function of this gallery centre. It is located on Park St, just up from the Casino, in the basement of the defunct Eaton’s building, the big block sized department store.
In the heart of Prince Arthur’s Landing (formerly Marina Park) the newly built Baggage Building Arts Centre is intended to be “a workshop for new artistic creations” and “an incubator for creative people and organizations.” So, throughout the year the building will work as a venue for a variety of projects, classes, art shows, etc. There are monthly exhibits, with artists in residence and a gift gallery; the small commercial space located on the second floor displaying the work of local artists, jewelers, authors, and more.
Before you cross the Kaministiquia River, on St. James St, heading towards Mount McKay, you will see a gallery in a short strip mall on your left. This is the Ahnisnabae Art Gallery. This gallery represents up to 30 different artists, many of the Ahnisnabae culture. Original works and all manner of reproductions, from professional silk-screens and serigraphs to posters are available, catering to a diverse budget. The work is bright, beautiful, entrancing and resonates with the cultural heritage of the First Nations people who live in the region. Roy Thomas was the founder of this gallery in 1997. He was a prominent artist in the community who passed away in 2004. The owner and operator, Louise Thomas, has kept her husband’s legacy alive with this commercial space. This is a must destination for anyone new to the area.
The Habana Gallery, across from what used to be the Cumberland Theatre, and near to one of the entrances to Prince Arthur’s Landing, offers an eclectic mix of local artists’ work along with works of Cuban artists. Ayesha, the owner, is a young Cuban immigrant and artist. Ayesha continues to regularly bring unique and beautiful Cuban arts and crafts to Thunder Bay. The Cuban influence of rich colour and vibrancy is immediately felt when walking through the door. Local artists who show in the gallery have a unique space in which to show their work and contribute to the art scene. Ayesha offers classes, and beginning in May they will have evenings with live music.
The Algoma and Bay St. area has become a trendy hotspot for the locals. It may not quite look like it yet, but it’s as close to a town square as you will get in Thunder Bay, other than the Country Market on Saturday mornings. There are many little shops here that sell arts and crafts, along with a couple famous Finnish restaurants, along with coffee shops and unique boutiques. But the little shop with the longest tradition of supporting the greatest number of locally made arts and crafts is the Fireweed. It is PACKED! It’s small, but take your time upon entering and make sure you put your packsack down or you’re likely to break something – and pay for it. The quality of work is some of the best in Ontario. Uniqueness is the goal for the little shop, and the artists that show work here, do quite well, especially before Christmas. Chiefly known for its pottery, they also sell jewelry, fine art, fabric art, glass, locally produced books, CDs, and much more. There’s no end of small gifts.
Gallery 33, across from a popular Thai restaurant, is a commercial art gallery displaying up to 50 local artists’ work. The place is very spacious, so each artist has lots of room to hang more than a sampling. The quality ranges from novice to professional. The gallery sells jewelry and books by local authors along with other items. The stairs to the basement leads to The Painted Turtle, an art supply shop where classes are offered. The Turtle is a favourite go-to place for local artists, and in the summer tourists stroll up from the waterfront to check out the galleries and restaurants bringing them to this new space.
One block further inland, and just around the corner from the DEFSUP gallery, is Chenier Fine Arts. This little gallery is packed with art by established and emerging local artists, as well as 40 international artists. With nearly 250 works this space is a feast for the eyes. The variety of works includes modern abstracts to traditional landscapes and figurative works in all mediums. The owner, Debra Chenier has a long history within the community, continuing a relationship with art that began with her mother’s shop, which opened in 1964 and was the first fine art gallery in Northwestern Ontario. Chenier also offers high quality framing with an incredible variety of moldings from which to choose.
The Kleewyk Stained Glass Studio is midway between the downtown cores on Simpson Street. Once a bustling street in the 1960s the city is now trying to retake this area’s history and create incentives for citizens to take a second look. On your first drive you can’t miss the dramatic and beautifully decorated studio shop. This is a professional working studio with a display room. The glass artist, Damon Dowbak, produces stained glass windows, abrasively etched glass, and kiln formed glass. The display room features a variety of works in glass and pottery, along with paintings, also created by Dowbak.
Located in the Victoriaville Mall near the Courthouse and City Hall, The Lake Superior Art Gallery has an eclectic salesroom, divided in two, with the first featuring original art and reproductions, and the other, electric motorbikes. The show room for the art is the larger space. The owner, JP Fraser, a retired photo-editor is usually on hand with his lovely assistant, Tamara. Like Gallery 33, they cater to both novice and professional artists, also selling other crafts and books by local authors. There are five entrances to the mall that is essentially a section of Victoria Avenue with a large roof dropped over it. The main entrances are both on Victoria Avenue. Look for signage, as the entrance isn’t immediately apparent.