By DC Rutherford
When we think of community centres, we’re drawn to images of indoor pools, basketball courts, parkettes, and town hall meetings. When I was growing up in Ottawa, the Cole Park Community Centre was where I learned to swim, attended nursery school, and made friends I’m still in touch with today. It’s where my parents made connections that would nurture and foster their young family. But as we see urban – and suburban – spaces shift culturally and socioeconomically, we’ve also seen our public spaces reimagine what a community centre is or can be. The Art Gallery of Burlington is, and has been, at the forefront of that cultural shift.
The AGB has been a community centre for over forty years, and their welcoming open doors could serve as a template for other institutions to foster community through their agendas. The gallery was established in 1978, as a number of local artists’ guilds came together to share space, resources, and interest in one another. The founding guilds – photography, hand weaving, spinning, sculpture, woodcarving, ceramics, fine arts, and hooking craft – provided a foundation upon which generations of artists and enthusiasts have enriched their work and excitement within the disciplines. The AGB grew quickly into a public art gallery with exhibitions, publications, and its own permanent collection. These were supported by educational and public programming and necessitated two large expansions. Its community-centred mandate was not built by accident. There is a strategic and concentrated effort to nurture and expand the breadth of its role, established forty-five years ago.
“It started with a group of women who were all artists in various mediums, who wanted to have a space where they could come together and work,” says Nadine Heath, the AGB’s Director of Marketing and Communications. “And so the first part of the gallery was then formed, which was essentially a series of studios or workshops, which are still here today. Within this space, there is a beautiful, high-functioning, modern pottery studio with a number of kilns and equipment, and a children’s pottery studio as well. There is a woodworking and sculpting studio with all of the equipment you need and a lot of space to work. There is a weavers studio, full of rooms – it’s a beautiful space, large and open – and people come in there and do their fibre work. We also have a state-of-the-art photography studio, divided between an actual studio space where photographers can come in and set up their workshop and models, or do still photography, with backdrops and lighting. It’s a fantastic space. And there is a darkroom that you can go in and develop your own work.” The gallery also features a meeting room and a library, providing the different guilds with their own spaces; a rug hooking guild; a new media guild aimed at younger artists, and aspiring artists; and a fine art school open studio space. Workshops, formal and informal, are offered in order to facilitate conversation and growth within their communities.
“At one point, this space had language that was much more referential to being a community centre,” notes Heath. “Then galleries were added so the guilds could show their work. And now we have larger galleries to show rotating, curated exhibitions as well.” The guilds are still very much part of the foundation of the gallery. Anyone can join and become a member to learn from others and use the resources of the spaces. Additionally, the curated exhibits, featuring contemporary artists from all around Canada, also have access to and use those spaces. There’s a wonderful, organic, fostering mission at play at the AGB, one that doesn’t simply promote art but builds artists and community. There’s also the AGB’s permanent collection, which boasts the largest collection of ceramics in Canada, grown out of the pottery guild. Collections are augmented by an acquisitions committee, which considers the discipline and acquires items for the collection.
When we think about galleries and cultural contributions, our minds tend to wander towards the cosmopolitan nature of the metropolis. Certainly, nowhere is this more evident than in the GTA, where Toronto proper is alive and rich in theatres, galleries, museums, and other cultural entities. But the rapid expansion of what was once pejoratively referred to as the suburbs, and the cultural and socioeconomic development of those regions, has built incredibly diverse and rich communities of artists and cultural contributors beyond urban centres. The AGB has been a vital example of this shift and prides itself on its role in continuing to grow and support that transformation.
No community can be built without investment in its future. The AGB’s youth outreach has fostered generations of artists and interests. “We have a large children’s art studio,” notes Heath. “It’s a big, bright, beautiful space. And we use that for a lot of classes and camps and school visits.” But there is a method and care to the curation that is hyperaware of not just the local community, but global as well. “Our curator definitely has intention from what she brings into the space. She does a lot of work to highlight different interesting voices and social and cultural issues.”
A current exhibit explores the intersection of colonialism and tourism. Here Comes the Sun “traces the origins of extractive tourism industries through the works of contemporary artists whose practices examine the interconnections between colonial legacies of crop plantations and service economies in the Caribbean.” The exhibit features the work of four artists: Irene de Andrés, Katherine Kennedy, Joiri Minaya, and Ada M. Patterson.
Spain’s de Andrés’ work concerns itself with the engagement between tourists and home, Ibiza, an island known for its nightclubs and festivity, while this exhibit examines Puerto Rico. Barbadian Kennedy – an artist, writer, and cultural practitioner whose work has visited Aruba, Jamaica, Nigeria, New Zealand, South Korea, and Trinidad & Tobago – explores a “visual practice…tied to a sense of place, using interplay between organic and inorganic materials and imagery to interrogate the spectrum of belonging and displacement in different environments or cultural contexts.” Minaya is an American multidisciplinary artist of Dominican descent whose work is inspired by her homeland and its struggles with colonialism and the cultural engagements of her materials and media. Patterson, another Barbadian artist, describes their work as “picking up the fragments of what washes up in these places and trying to make sense of it together, and, as a queer person, as a trans person who grew up in Barbados, you do get pushed to places that feel almost on the edges and you have to try and make a different kind of life for yourself.”
Other exhibits the AGB is excited to be featuring this summer include work from the Z’otz* Collective, whose “vivid storytelling explores themes of memory and Mesoamerican mythology through humour and collective action” through a mural installation that engages with the AGB’s “architectural space and the cast of characters who wander [its] halls.” The collective is a local group, a Toronto-based trio (Nahúm Flores, Erik Jerezano, Ilyana Martínez) with Latin American roots. Mother Tongue, from Vietnamese illustrator and muralist Yen Linh Thai “explores the widening gap of lost cultural knowledge between generations.” Thai is a renowned visual storyteller, and their work confronts the inherent nature of generational dissipation of culture.
All of these exhibits promote municipal and global communities through a diverse lens, which further promotes local engagement. AGB members can now take a variety of classes in digital formats. But the AGB also has recorded and streamed workshops and lectures, as well as art instruction videos to share. “Last year alone, we had 20 community partners, and with each community partner, we used our resources in combination with theirs to reach their various groups and communities. And so for each of those groups and communities, the information, the material evolved and adapted.”
Being a beacon of its community is not a responsibility the Art Gallery of Burlington takes lightly. For four decades the institution has provided the GTA with a collective space to create, concentrate, congregate, and marvel at art, artists, and artistry. Not satisfied with simply being a centre of documents and artifacts, the AGB puts cultural authority and growth at the forefront of its mission. My friends and I from back at Cole Park now have families of our own, bright and excited young minds who aspire to passion and dreams. Where once our community centre built the foundation for their lives, a visit to the AGB will inspire the cultivation not only of their aspirations, but those of their children, and theirs, and theirs, and…