or two years, curators at Galerie de l’UQAM, the art gallery at
Université du Québec à Montréal, travelled the country, visiting studios, galleries and art fairs in search of artists who best
represent contemporary painting in Canada. Out of 500 artists
considered, 60 were eventually selected for its massive survey
exhibition, The Painting Project.
The two-part show, which opened in May 2013, was by all accounts a huge success, attracting not just the usual gallery-goers,
but collectors eager to discover young artistic talent. The Painting
Project also brought in companies like RBC looking to acquire
works for corporate collections. Galerie de l’UQAM director Louise Déry
even made The Painting Project publicly available as an online exhibition
and teaching tool through the Virtual Museum of Canada.
Like other university art gallery directors across the country, Ms. Déry
is more than aware of the pressures, both internal and external, to build
audiences – even if those visitors are sitting at their computers thousands
of kilometres away. With administrative budgets getting tighter and funding bodies demanding more inclusive programming, the role of galleries
as mere showcases for art collections is a thing of the past.
UQAM is lucky in that its location in downtown Montreal, surrounded
by trendy restaurants and theatres, is highly visible, attracting passersby.
But it is no longer enough for any gallery to simply hang art on the walls
and hope people will show up. More than just a nice-to-have asset for
faculty, staff, students and alumni, campus galleries are now reinventing
themselves as vital cultural and research hubs, in tune with the needs of
their local communities yet connected to the broader art world.
“It’s not possible anymore to focus on only one aspect of art,” says Ms.
Déry. “Art is so much linked to everything surrounding us. It is linked to
money, to intellectual development, to society, the place we occupy in the
world. We have to network. We have to be linked to the market, to the
intellectuals, to the art critics, the magazines, colleagues in the rest of the
country and abroad. We have to make our productions known.”
“Do we need to be fundamentally
different, or is there an opportunity
here to do something bigger?”
University galleries and museums hold a unique place within Canada’s
public art institutions. Academic freedom has allowed their directors and
curators to become risk-takers who are responsive to both evolving social
issues and artistic trends. But it wasn’t always this way. For the most part,
university art galleries were originally established to manage and display
institutional collections, ranging from paintings and prints to anthropo-
logical artefacts. Built through decades of donations and acquisitions, the
often eclectic collections reflect the evolving mandates of the institutions
themselves as well as the preferences of generations of curatorial staff
At University of Toronto, the situation is more complex than most.
Until recently, two distinct galleries with separate collections existed on its
downtown campus, just 40 metres away from each other. The collection at
Hart House was born in 1922 with the $200 purchase of A.Y. Jackson’s
painting, Georgian Bay, November. In the following decades, the student
centre acquired a substantial holding of Canadian paintings from the
likes of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr. By the 1980s, it was clear that
Hart House’s more than 600 works required professional care and so the
university opened the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery in 1983.
The institution made a similar decision in 1996, when it launched
the University of Toronto Art Centre in nearby University College to act
as custodian to three major collections. During its early years, the centre
focused on exhibiting these works, but after an expansion and upgrade in
2000, it began to show pieces on loan from external collections.
The proximity of the two galleries never seemed to be an issue, says
Barbara Fischer, an associate professor in curatorial and visual studies
at U of T and director of the Barnicke Gallery for more than a decade.
But pressures mounted, particularly in terms of caring for the collections.
After several years of planning, the two galleries relaunched in January
as one entity with two separate gallery spaces known collectively as the
“As we developed, we found that we were collaborating more,” says
Ms. Fischer, now executive director at the Art Museum. “Exhibitions were
sometimes co-produced and we found ourselves increasingly wondering:
are we fundamentally different? Do we need to be fundamentally differ-
ent, or is there an opportunity here to do something bigger?”
One thing that hasn’t changed with the name is the focus on support-
ing students. The university’s fine arts, art history and museum studies
programs look to the Art Museum for student research opportunities and
curatorial experience, internships and work-study jobs. “There is this in-
tensity of student life that is a part of every aspect of the Art Museum and
that is very exciting and energizing. Some of our students are doing fan-
tastic work there,” says Ms. Fischer. “Exhibitions that they’ve organized
have travelled nationally, which is pretty much unheard of, I think, and
have been getting awards. There’s a certain energy that comes with that;
it’s just magical.”