The New Prairie Art Gallery

It’s a Living Thing

by Jody Farrell

The Montrose Cultural Centre, the new home of the Prairie Art Gallery is in its final phase of construction

The Montrose Cultural Centre, the new home of the Prairie Art Gallery is in its final phase of construction

Grande Prairie’s Montrose Cultural Centre, located on the site of the former Prairie Art Gallery (PAG), is scheduled to open this June. The modern and airy downtown building is home to both a new gallery and The Grande Prairie Public Library. The PAG will double the former exhibition space with its 8,000 square foot expansion, while the library will feature 37,400 square feet on two floors. The facade of the historic Central High School that housed the PAG since 1975, and was damaged when its roof collapsed in 2007, will form the cornerstone of the Montrose Cultural Centre. Its repair is due to be completed by 2011.

Since 1975, Grande Prairie’s only public art gallery has produced a wide range of both professional visual arts exhibitions and hands-on programs. In its unstuffy, people-friendly environment, it helped foster an appreciation of regional artists, as well as national and international ones whose works adorn galleries around the world.

Public galleries are perhaps society’s most recognizable “goto place” for a peek at what’s in store for our future. Everywhere, as has always been the case, visual arts reflect experiences and changes that we all experience, often even before they’re recognized by the world at large. Robert Steven, PAG Director-Curator, tells us some of what we can expect from our own Prairie Art Gallery during its first years in its new home.

“It’s hard to guess what the future holds,” Steven says when invited to imagine what the PAG will look like in the years to come. “We may be fooled. Right now though, I see the art world fully adjusting to the information age.”

pag-construction2Steven points to the everchanging world of online communication. While until recently, computers offered a “read only” experience, the latest internet sites including YouTube and Facebook make the actual sharing of information possible. These sites’ democratic approach, with content entirely produced by the public and not the programs’ creators, have radically changed the way we relate to our world. It’s an appealing feature for the PAG, which seeks to engage its users in genuine and open dialogue about the visual arts.

“The Prairie Art Gallery space was initially created for art discourse,” Steven says. “We are looking to expand that with a content-rich interactive format on a regional and international scale.” Under Steven’s guidance, the gallery will amass information and facilitate research and interaction with artists, allowing visitors to enjoy a wide range of experiences, including the chance to be a gallery curator. Visitors will be invited to locate art images on computer and project their personal favourites onto a wall. Steven envisions a virtual library that contains the latest in international and national arts news, along with live web-cameras showing what a regional artist is doing that very day. He sees the ongoing dialogue between gallery visitor and artist as essential in keeping Peace Region art relevant and alive.

In his earnest conviction that Grande Prairie and the Peace area is home to some of this country’s most interesting visual artists, Steven is determined to make the PAG “the best little art gallery in the world.”

His multi-faceted plan begins with acknowledging a major obstacle for any gallery: limited storage. The 8,000 square feet that will be added onto the existing PAG heritage building will feature new exhibition space for works on loan, but will only store so much donated or purchased art. What space the new gallery has will have to do for the next 20 years.

Digital space, on the other hand, provides nearly unlimited storage at very little cost. Steven’s “best little gallery in the world” plans include creating “Peace Works,” an event he describes as a “tangible juried exhibition” with a famous guest curator whose presence would bring international exposure to the gallery, while introducing its new patrons to the PAG’s soonto- be virtual library of regional artists.

“Even the discourse an international curator creates will drive us to do more on an international level,” Steven says. “We cannot bring our artists to the world if the world isn’t looking.”

His long-range vision involves creating a sustainable endowment program that enables the PAG to eliminate fees and fundraisers altogether, and focus primarily on becoming a world-class visual arts information centre. Steven also dreams of developing a province-wide professional association whose goal is to make Alberta itself the “best place in the world.”

“People want us to do what we do well. Our job is to determine what that is and do it to the very best of our ability.”

The Montrose Cultural Centre will feature the 4,200 square foot Central Hall, an open, warmly decorated public facility that will feature artwork and comfortable meeting spaces for community and private use. The Cultural Centre will be a stunning new addition to Grande Prairie, visible even at night, creating an inviting downtown go-to place for decades to come.

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