The Prairie Art Gallery: After the Fall

Historic building’s collapse is felt nationwide.
by Jody Farrell

Images of The Prairie Art Gallery collapse showing the destruction of the Central Gallery, photos by Wen-Shu HuangWhile Albertans have sometimes felt that national newspapers ignore much of what goes on west of Toronto, the airwaves and print media across Canada were all over the collapse of Grande Prairie’s historic Prairie Art Gallery building on Monday, March 19.

The demise of the Gallery, which was built in 1929, and designated a historic site in 1984, affected a lot of people. Though no one was hurt, staff, art lovers, and history buffs are grieving the loss of the dignified brick building that served initially as a high school and was used by the Grande Prairie Regional College before becoming home to the Gallery, whose Class A status allowed it to exhibit national and international artworks.

pag2.jpgWhen this magazine went to press in early April, it was still not clear exactly what had caused the building’s collapse. Investigations by structural engineers were underway. Grande Prairie had had over 200 centimetres of snow over the winter, and it was snowing that morning. Robert Steven, Director Curator at the Gallery since October, 2006, had come in just after 8 am on that day and noticed water on the floor in the Central Gallery on the building’s south side. Looking up, he saw a beam protruding through the ceiling.

Steven proceeded to make several calls, first to city officials and then to staff members, who were advised against coming in to work. He removed paintings currently on show and also notified Cygnet Playschool, which hosts morning and afternoon sessions in the Gallery basement, that the building was unsafe. Steven then posted danger signs at the Gallery entrance. Emergency crews were called in and measures taken to secure the area and neighbours. The Central Gallery, which now stood empty, had housed an exhibition by Calgary artist Terry Reynoldson. Adjoining galleries featured the works of Vancouver’s Michael Dowad and Edmonton’s Julian Forrest.

pag3.jpgShortly after 10 am, following the arrival of city emergency workers, the south rooftop and walls of The Prairie Art Gallery crumbled into ruins. Nobody was in the building at that time. Witnesses from adjacent buildings, some with tears in their eyes, filed into the street in disbelief. A steady parade of pedestrians and vehicles took in the wreckage.

The north side of The Prairie Art Gallery basement contained over 500 artworks that made up its Permanent Collection. Well-known regional and provincial artists including Euphemia McNaught, Thelma Manarey, John Snow and Allen Sapp had donated works to the Collection. In the days following the collapse plans were being made to move the artworks. Art conservator, Tara Fraser was contracted to assess them for possible damage. No matter what the decision, the heritage of the building will be honoured.

pag4.jpgIt remains unclear whether the building will be salvaged by the city or demolished. The municipality, province and Prairie Art Gallery board maintain that whatever the decision the historic quality of the building will be respected. Plans are still afoot to begin construction of a nearly $30 million Cultural Centre this spring. The project initially included an 8,000 square foot expansion of the former gallery, and the addition of a new, 37,400 square foot Grande Prairie Public Library. A 4,200 square foot community hall will connect the two centres. The plans are to continue with the project as scheduled.

The Prairie Art Gallery’s extensive programming, with its popular tour and hands-on art workshop for regional schools; summer camps; after school and evening art programs; the Alberta Foundation for the Arts’ Travelling Exhibition program, as well as its gift shop, resource materials and exhibitions for all ages, have all been put on hold as staff scramble to find means and locations to continue their work. Steven, whose quick-thinking prior to the collapse garnered praise across the country, was flown to Ottawa where the Canadian Museums Association honoured his actions.

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