Long known for its top-notch contemporary art program, the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge has produced excellent work in recent years in a cramped, reno-ready facility. Fortunately, that facility has now received a thorough overhaul, with the further benefit of a new 200-square-metre addition. To those who know it, the SAAG that reopened September 17 at a crowded 9am ribbon cutting will seem both familiar and transformed.
“It is now such a friendly, welcoming space,” says director Marilyn Smith, who notes happily that the cost of the renovation was just over 1% of that of the recent Art Gallery of Ontario transformation.
The rejuvenated SAAG, whose annual budget before the renovation was about $1 million, could be shown off as a model of smart economies of design and function, of living within one’s means. The renovation budget was just $3.4 million, but the gallery, city and provincial and federal funders have gotten a big return on the dollar, largely because architects John Savill and Dan Westwood went the extra mile. The reno was not without its challenges given the nature of the building, whose office, resource library, prep area and classroom had been carved out of spaces that Smith says were designed not for people, but for book storage.
The art gallery, which opened its first exhibition in 1976 under Allan MacKay, was born in the first home of the Lethbridge Public Library, located in Galt Gardens, the public park at the heart of this prairie city. The library was essentially two adjacent buildings: a two-storey brick, Georgian-style Carnegie Library opened in 1922 and a one-storey 1951 brick extension designed by George Watson, Lethbridge’s leading modernist architect.
The architects of this renovation, who are friends and supporters of the gallery (Westwood is a former board chair), tore out the original narrow join between the 1951 and 1922 structures; took interiors down to the studs; updated electricals and mechanicals; reorganized interior spaces (except for the two exhibition galleries); developed a much-expanded new join space; and redesigned the façade of the 1951 extension.
The glass entryway bearing the letters SAAG is now at the centre of the façade. To the right, the architects have added a tall glass-and-steel wedge to the 50s addition that is the same height as the double doorway of the Carnegie Library. In another call and response, the wedge, which contains the gallery shop, extends away from the façade towards the street for a distance that equals the depth of the 1922 front staircase.
The understated design, marked by other attentive decisions and details, is a harmonious rationalization of different architectural styles that extends into the interior. The upstairs gallery is now reached by an open main-entry staircase and has been integrated with the modernist gallery for the first time in the history of SAAG—an important accomplishment.
Where visitors once went through the front doors right into the gallery shop, there is now a high and wide gathering space. (During the reopening, a stage was set up there for live music and the space was packed by more than 700 celebrants.) To either side of this atrium are the TD Creativity Centre—a classroom for children’s programs or space for screenings—and the publicly accessible resource library.
The exhibition galleries at the front of the SAAG haven’t changed in size, but are now equipped with state of the art AV technology that will allow the gallery to show works requiring sophisticated technical support. For curator Ryan Doherty, this means being able to show media artists like Kelly Richardson, who he couldn’t show before. Doherty also cites the newly won flexibility of the space as an advantage: there’s a new project/video room, new walls lining the gathering space that can be used for hangings, new large pull-down screens in the library and classroom that can be used for projections and new blinds for same that cover the huge window on the park side of the gallery. He will be also able to show sculptural work in the gathering space.
The building is now more integrated visually with the park, increasing the gallery’s ability to serve the community with more public programs. “We want the gallery to become part of people’s social life,” says Smith.
The SAAG renovation was planned to build on the gallery’s strengths: its ability to present relevant, up to the minute exhibitions and to engage its community. That the gallery has achieved its reputation in a prairie city of 86,000 is extraordinary—an example, perhaps, of acting locally and thinking globally. Its success could hardly have happened without the support of city council. Mayor Bob Tarleck declared at the ribbon cutting that art and culture are not considered frills in Lethbridge, but the core of the community. The gallery has also been lucky (or wise) in its choice of leaders: first MacKay, then Alf Bogusky and then Joan Stebbins. Stebbins, who became director/curator in 1985, retired in 2008 after putting the SAAG on the map in the national and international contemporary art worlds.
Smith became director in 1999 after Stebbins gave up her director’s duties to concentrate on curating, and she has overseen this renovation and expansion. Doherty, who did his master’s at the Centre for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, was hired in 2008. His exhibition for the opening, “On Your Marks,” celebrates 17 Alberta artists from three generations and has produced engaging and unusual collaborative works.
In the larger picture, the SAAG is the anchor of an arts and cultural district that will revitalize downtown Lethbridge. Upcoming is a new community arts centre with a gallery, studios, offices for craft guilds and a home for the University of Lethbridge’s music conservatory. This $18-million project is scheduled to open in 2012, and planning is underway for a new performing arts centre to be built before the end of the decade. It’s clear that there’s a lot on the horizon for Lethbridge and the arts.