The space’s inaugural exhibition, “We Tell Ourselves Stories,” pulls together the institution’s diverse collections to show works by John Will, Evan Penny, David Hoffos, Landon Mackenzie and Eric Cameron alongside Alice Munro’s papers, Afghan rugs and ancient coins, among other artworks and artifacts.
Already, Christine Sowiak—a curator who’s been with the Nickle for 14 years—says the move from a standalone facility on the campus to a higher-traffic hybrid building has been a success.
“In the last two weeks, our attendance is better than it’s ever been,” she says, noting that 13,000 people a day come through the library.
The gallery first opened in 1979 thanks to a $1 million donation from philanthropist Sam Nickle—the largest donation in the university’s history at that time. Carl Nickle matched his father’s gift by donating a coin collection of the same value.
Over the years, the collection has evolved to include contemporary Western Canadian art and Afghan textiles, while the mandate has changed to include displays of archival materials from the university library’s collection.
In developing the new show from this range of items, Sowiak says, “I came down to the basic idea that objects travel with an idea. Whether it’s a 2,000-year-old coin or a work of art that’s a year old, they all have stories that led to their making…. You put those objects together in the space and different conversations happen.”
For example, one configuration juxtaposes John Will’s Sixty Years of Hell (2001)—which lists a tragedy like Chernobyl for each year of the Calgary artist’s life—with fire-and-brimstone sermon notes by William Aberhart, the radio preacher who became premier of Alberta in 1935.
Another grouping shows works from Landon Mackenzie’s Tracking Athabasca series, which draws on historic maps of the region, close to Alice Munro’s handwritten manuscripts, which include a hand-drawn map for the fictional town of Jubilee, where Munro sets many of her stories.
Other works include David Hoffos’s Scenes from the House Dream, Phase II, Airport Hotel (2004), Evan Penny’s early sculpture Kim (1979–1982), and Eric Cameron’s Alice’s-rose-is-a-rose-is-a-rose (1996–2000). (The latter consists of 1,000 layers of acrylic gesso and paint on the titular flower.)
The new galleries, designed by Kasian (the firm which also completed Calgary’s Esker Foundation), are 930 square metres.
“The new space is a little bit smaller [than the old one] but it’s remarkably different,” Sowiak says. “The old Nickle was very much a kind of white cube warehouse, where the new Nickle has a presence all its own,” with one gallery mezzanined over another and the presence of a long cement wall, among other features.
“I’ve been using the word dynamic [to describe the space] because it sounds much better than daunting!” Sowiak laughs. In future, she says, the gallery is looking to hold a Marion Nicoll retrospective, an Arthur Nishimura show and a Bill Rogers retrospective co-produced with the Kelowna Art Gallery.
Sowiak says she does not know what the plans are for the old NAM building.
“We tell Ourselves Stories,” curated with assistance from Ann Davis, Geraldine Chimirri-Russell and Michele Hardy, will continue until January 5.