Public discussions were held at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery just over two weeks ago to generate ideas related to the impending move of the gallery to the waterfront. Although the meetings were slightly paternalistic in method when guests had to play a bit of musical chairs and everyone was limited to preset questions that each group received at their table, the process did save time and got to the nitty-gritty, allowing everyone a voice which generated many great ideas. Not one person at the discussions protested the idea of building a new gallery at the waterfront. The attendees were mostly artists, representing different fields. They spoke well for cultural diversity in the arts and the city and were excited to contribute ideas as to how the gallery would benefit the community and would continue to fulfill the gallery’s mandates.
A move to a new space would be awesome, provided nature doesn’t blow down the new gallery, flood it, sink it, crack it or snow it in. With a beautiful and multi-functional architectural design the gallery could perform its basic functions while also hosting a coffee shop, gift shop, bookshop, conservatory, workshop/utility space, and a hall or ballroom. Potential combinations are exciting, could earn it some money, and make the gallery a natural draw for walk-by traffic of both locals and tourists.
The gallery’s current location in the bush at the back end of a field of asphalt that is the parking lot at Confederation College does nothing for it. Try giving directions to a tourist who asks for its location. Can you name the streets to its location? Not even the majority of college students know there’s a top-notch gallery in their back yard. Taking the bus there is a royal pain.
With the largest permanent collection of art in the region, the only national exhibition space between Sault St. Marie and Winnipeg, the space is the most accommodating in the city with three large showrooms. With a mandate to showcase and collect 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. However, the storage space and demands for bigger shows require more of both.
As Heidi Uhlig, the board president of the gallery states, “We’ve outgrown the building. We’re essentially bursting at the seems and the feasibility study confirmed that.” The gallery is currently using all of its 18,000 square feet and the 2010 study found that the gallery needs to be at least twice its current size in order to expand its collection, exhibition space, administration space, and more. As Heidi states, “We don’t have enough space for hosting community events.”
The gallery is putting out a request for qualifications for architects, looking for an architect who has some experience designing a museum or an art gallery. The board is looking for a design that is unique, iconic, sits well with the waterfront, allows for the functioning of the mandates as a center for aboriginal and regional art with the ability to host international shows and which reflects the topography and geography of the area. The gallery could double as a potential community space of high caliber and be a major attraction.
This is a tall order, which leads to part two of this article in two week’s time.