Canadian Art


The New Art Gallery of Alberta: Honour, Horror and High, High Ceilings

Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton Jan 31 to May 30 2010
The new Art Gallery of Alberta / photo © Robert Lemermeyer The new Art Gallery of Alberta / photo © Robert Lemermeyer

The new Art Gallery of Alberta / photo © Robert Lemermeyer

Alberta’s abuzz with the opening of the redesigned Art Gallery of Alberta. All opening week, Edmonton bubbled with a generous spirit and celebratory atmosphere as politicians, patrons and artists alike attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies, galas and industry parties. And celebrate we should! Los Angeles–based architect Randall Stout’s dramatic, and somewhat controversial, design is the first major visual arts infrastructure project in Alberta in decades. Spearheaded by board chair Allan Scott, lead donors John and Barbara Poole and senior gallery staff, the $88-million radical redesign and rebranding of the former Edmonton Art Gallery has clearly been a collaborative effort pursued on behalf of the broader community. For the 12,000 people who streamed in during the first few days, the new AGA is a triumph and a flagship for Alberta culture that demonstrates many Albertans have a sophisticated and deep commitment to the visual arts.

Situated at the heart of Edmonton on Sir Winston Churchill Square, the Art Gallery of Alberta adjoins the Francis Winspear Centre for Music, the civic plaza and city hall; a testament to the centrality of the arts in the life of the city. At every turn, Stout’s dynamic design and architectural program attempts to link the gallery with Edmonton’s civic life and the particularities of this place. The swirling façade and grand entrance abstracts how the North Saskatchewan River winds through Edmonton’s gridded urban core. The modern, curved stainless steel, patinated zinc exterior and glass frontage recall cool, crystal clear Edmonton nights that sometimes shimmer with the aurora borealis. The 190-metre-ribboned exterior has been designed to capture and hold Edmonton’s sparkling snow, so that it will become part of the building’s materiality and design. True to the architectural traditions of great cathedrals, the 26-metre-high grand hall stresses verticality and light. A long, brushed-concrete stair wraps around a gigantic stele of light-infused opaque glass that thrusts upwards through each level. Soft daylight filters throughout and the interior glows with warm woods. Interior swoops of burnished and white-painted steel draw our view out of the building and into the city itself. This connection to the city is also structured by panoramic views that can be seen from every level as one winds one’s way up the main stairwell to the galleries, interior lobbies, Borealis Lounge and outdoor sculpture terrace.

The new AGA is a triumph and a flagship for Alberta culture that demonstrates a sophisticated and deep commitment to the visual arts.

Although Stout’s aesthetic has been criticized for being derivative of Frank Gehry, with whom he worked for several years, Stout’s expertise in designing museums, art galleries and art schools is most evident in his considered design of interrelated event, public programming and exhibition spaces. It is clear by his design that he understands the complex program that contemporary public art museums must deliver to support an increasingly diversified range of programs and to generate income from entertainment-savvy audiences. To achieve this at the Art Gallery of Alberta, Stout creates clear divisions of space designed for their primary use, while maintaining the possibility for fluid interactions between spaces and their constituents.

On opening night, the Art Gallery of Alberta became a social hub: part nightclub and part museum, but never were the two confused. The main atrium, named Ernest Manning Hall, which also includes Zinc, the gallery’s adjacent high-end 76-seat restaurant, was bustling with social activity, but the galleries behind remained all about the art. Even with a packed house, the flow of people between the upper-level galleries and their exterior lobbies remained fluid. For easy access, the atrium, art rental and lower-level 167-person, state-of-the-art Ledcor Theatre is connected to the city via an integrated rail and pedway hub. Lower-level education spaces, with a separate street entrance, cluster in close proximity to the galleries above. Most of the Art Gallery of Alberta’s event spaces could also easily double as intermittent program spaces for performances, lectures, symposia, film and video screenings and relational contemporary artworks that are shorter in duration.

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This article was first published online on February 11, 2010.


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