Monday, 3 July 2017




Well, that certainly was an interesting birthday weekend. The museum world along with the rest of the country will continue to feel the impact of Canada 150, as the initiatives it funded and the conversations it sparked will not go away anytime soon. It was a similar story 50 years ago during the nation's centennial, as many museums and galleries were established as a direct result of that milestone anniversary to help foster Canadian national identity and pride. I'd like to take a look at one of the galleries born out of the centennial celebrations and observe what it is doing for its own microcosm of Canada at the time of the country's 150th anniversary.

I also feel that it would be fitting for my final exhibition review of the summer to turn my sights to the gallery I’ve been interning at for the past two months: the Woodstock Art Gallery! Though the Woodstock Art Gallery is relatively small, it uses its resources wonderfully, and for an emerging museum professional, it is the perfect place to learn how to bring exhibitions to life. Its exhibitions also demonstrate how to tell stories on both a local and national scale.

The Woodstock Art Gallery in Woodstock, Ontario began as a centennial initiative and started life in the basement of the town library before growing to become the institution it is today. The Gallery collects Canadian art, but it is particularly focused on exhibiting artists connected to Oxford County, and a community focus shines through clearly in its exhibition concepts. By channeling these voices through multiple lenses, the gallery is able to tell vibrant stories.

A view of the Character Sketches exhibition in the Dr. Leonard Reeves Gallery on the first floor. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

The first floor of the Gallery is dedicated to exhibiting works from the permanent collection on regular rotation. At the moment, the centre gallery space is dedicated to Character Sketches, which features portraits in various styles from different periods. Two of these portraits depict Commander Andrew Drew and his wife, Mary, and are originally from the Portrait Gallery of Canada’s collection. There were once plans to create a permanent space for the Portrait Gallery, but the Harper government put the project on hold; instead, works from the collection go on display through loans to other Canadian institutions. The Woodstock Art Gallery’s Head of Collections Roberta Grosland felt that the Drew portraits would be well-served in Woodstock, as Commander Drew was one of the town’s founders. It goes to show that what may lie forgotten in some collections can have new life breathed into it at a smaller gallery.

The Drew portraits, attributed to H. Holmes, circa 1842-1846. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

The gallery adjacent to the first floor centre space is dedicated to displaying works by Florence Carlyle and is currently showing the exhibition Miss Carlyle’s Success. Florence Carlyle is an important artist at the Woodstock Art Gallery and for the Canadian art world as a whole. Though she led a fascinating life travelling around the world and garnering acclaim as a Canadian artist, she is fondly remembered as a child of Woodstock, having spent a great deal of time in the town throughout her life. Carlyle often painted women in an impressionist style. I particularly like this painting of a cheerful washerwoman:

Joy of Living by Florence Carlyle, 1910. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

If you’ve been to the Art Gallery of Ontario recently, you may have noticed that there is an empty space in one of the salon-style Canadian galleries with a notice stating that The Tiff is at the Woodstock Art Gallery. The Government of Ontario gifted this significant large-scale painting to the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1972, and in 2016 the AGO loaned the work to the Woodstock Art Gallery for the latter's 50th anniversary. The Tiff was part of a kaleidoscope of works displayed in a classic salon style at the AGO, but at the Woodstock Art Gallery, it is given a place of honour as the centrepiece of the Carlyle exhibit.

The Tiff by Florence Carlyle (circa 1902) with the original table in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

What I love about Miss Carlyle’s Success is its use of artifacts to complement the art on display. For example, the wooden table positioned near The Tiff was the original model used by Carlyle when she was painting the piece. There are also letters written by Florence Carlyle and a photograph of Russell Carlyle, the artist’s brother and the model for the male figure in The Tiff. It is an interesting example of the intersections between museum and gallery pieces, showing that art and artifacts can converse with each other to add layers to the stories being told.

The Woodstock Art Gallery, interestingly, is also home to a growing collection of Inuit art, which it uses to tell a wider array of Canadian stories. I have been working closely with the gallery’s Inuit art, so I feel a particular attachment to the first floor exhibit Isumannivit: Your Own Thoughts. Inuit have no word for “art” but rather use the word isumannivit, which means “your own thoughts.” This exhibit features works by artists you may know, such as Kenojuak Ashevak. I have grown to love the work of Elisapee Ishulutaq and Malaya Akulukjuk, two artists from Pangnirtung, Nunavut. The Woodstock Art Gallery recently acquired works by Elisapee and Malaya from the Museum of Inuit Art after it sadly closed down last year. However, there is now a new life for these works, most of which had never been exhibited before, at the Woodstock Art Gallery.

Four untitled works by Malaya Akulukjuk, circa 1973. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald

On the second floor of the Woodstock Art Gallery, the community gallery is the first exhibition space the visitor comes across. It last hosted Art Beat 2017, an annual exhibit of works created by students from Oxford County working in collaboration with professional local artists. This space stands as a visible reminder of the Woodstock Art Gallery’s focus on community. Another second-floor gallery space is currently exhibiting photography by Dr. Roberta Bondar, a highly accomplished Canadian astronaut, neurologist, and nature photographer. I especially enjoy this work by Dr. Bondar, because it takes a humble subject and makes it appear as a landscape (also, I just really like blueberries):

Boreal Blueberries by Dr. Roberta L. Bondar, 1999. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

The temporary galleries will be changing over later in July. Upcoming exhibitions include the annual juried show Visual Elements 59, which is comprised of works submitted by regional artists (and for which I am providing curatorial assistance), and an exhibit of recent work by local artist Michael Hunter; both shows indicate the level of involvement at the Gallery of the surrounding Oxford County community. A set of gallery window boxes currently housing artifacts related to Dr. Bondar's career will soon hold an exhibit featuring objects from the Gallery’s permanent collection that tell stories of female connections in art (and is curated by yours truly). Downstairs in the first floor foyer, an eye-catching pop art exhibit will welcome visitors to the Woodstock Art Gallery.

Small Canadian galleries like the Woodstock Art Gallery have much to offer visitors and their communities. By driving its focus on its community and constantly reimagining its collections to tell new stories, the Woodstock Art Gallery shows what a small town gallery can achieve.

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