Art Gallery of Grande Prairie

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Gallery quarter-way there

By ERIC PLUMMER
Herald-Tribune staff

After a year of construction, the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie’s expansion is 25% complete, with the additional space expected to be open for exhibitions in January.

“We’re expecting completion by November of this year,” said gallery director/curator Robert Steven, who hopes to have the new space ready for a New Year’s Eve event.

The building’s steel frame is nearly complete.

“Once it’s up, there shouldn’t be much reason for delay after that,” Steven said. “It should be fairly straightforward from here on out.”

The expansion is just west of the gallery’s current location in the Montrose Cultural Centre (MCC) at the historic Grande Prairie High School, built in 1929, and home to the gallery for a number of years until the roof collapsed in March 2007 from a heavy buildup of snow.

The old school’s exterior has been preserved.

“They had to take the old building apart brick by brick, save every brick for reuse. All the windows had to be taken out and saved using historical techniques,” Steven said.

“The interior of the building had been heavily modified through its life as a school, and then again in its conversion to the gallery, so there really wasn’t anything historic on the inside.”

Steve Ewasco, the site superintendent, has found the most challenging part of the process to be preserving the outside of the original building. A representative from Alberta Culture and Community Spirit has attended every construction meeting to ensure the 1929 portions are properly preserved. The building has provincial historic status.

“The toughest part is because it’s a renovation and we’re building a new structure inside an existing façade,” said Ewasco. “They have one guy who comes around; he just keeps an eye on the façade and makes sure we’re treating it right.”

The preservation effort has garnered support from local groups, including GPHS alumni. Steven expects that former students as well as those who enjoyed the building when it housed the gallery will be pleased to find that when completed, the building will look identical to the original when viewed 15 feet away from the front entrance.

“Almost everything that has to do with the construction has to be thought through in light of the standards and guidelines for the conservation of historic places in Canada,” he said.

Renovations to the Teresa Sargent Hall located next to the gallery in the Montrose Cultural Centre have just been completed, including a new second-floor walkway that will lead onto a glass bridge that extends over an exhibition room in the new section of the gallery.

At a budgeted cost of $10 million, the majority of the gallery’s renovations are being financed by the City of Grande Prairie, with the gallery contributing up to $1 million.

Once completed, the expanded gallery will offer more than double the space.

After the gallery moved to the new MCC nearly two years ago, a maximum of two exhibitions could be held at one time. The new gallery will have the ability to house seven, and of the 40 being arranged for the next three years, Steven believes five of the shows would not have been possible without the renovations.

“We’ll be able to show pretty much anything,” he said. “Nothing that fits inside a tractor trailer will be too large to fit in the gallery.”

The new space will also offer classrooms permanently available for up to 60 visiting students at one time. There will be a children’s gallery, and a room for visitors to look through the 550 works in the permanent collection.

Except for the current entrance to the gallery and a room next to the reception desk, renovations had closed off any space for displaying artwork since August 2010. Some exhibitions were cancelled in this time, and the space isn’t expected to reopen until August.

“It was anticipated to only take two months to work inside the existing gallery, but it was more complicated than expected to work inside … and join it to the old building,” Steven said.

“There’s just a couple of things we didn’t foresee, but it hasn’t delayed the overall project; it’s only affected our exhibition space.”

The Alberta Foundation for the Arts has commissioned a sculpture to be installed in front of the gallery’s restored west entrance. Night School will be created by Lethbridge artist David Hoffos, due to be unveiled in March 2012.

“The theme of it is remembering the past uses of the building in a really sort of magical sort of way,” Steven said.

The old high school served as the first home for the then Grande Prairie Junior College, and later was a next-door adjunct to the old Montrose Junior High, mainly for music programs.

 

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