Transforming Experiences: Art before Transaction
One evening in early October, silver trusses suspended from the ceiling of the Scotiabank Great Hall were hung low, at shoulder height from the ground, and garlanded with loops of wire cable. An installation team was preparing to raise aloft Jordan Bennett’s monumental Tepkik (2018–19) – vibrantly coloured and patterned, 39 m-long swathes of Polysilk and 3D-printed aluminum fan pieces, with square motif and star elements. Against the darkness outside, the colossal windows of the National Gallery of Canada reflected the room as Bennett guided the installation, his hands among many pairs gripping an edge of gossamer fabric. Tepkik is a Mi’kmaq word for “night,” and its shape is inspired by a petroglyph depicting the Milky Way in Nova Scotia’s Kejimkujik National Park. Within 24 hours, it was floating within the glass and steel bell of the hall – a luminous and flowing piece of art, an adorned double-helix visible from inside and outside the Gallery.
The display of Tepkik is one of a number of changes to the Gallery's public spaces over the past few months, with more planned before the opening of its major fall exhibition Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu Continuel in November. “We are putting art into the public spaces. The zeitgeist is: art first,” says Junia Jorgji, the Gallery's Chief of Design.
Director and CEO Sasha Suda and the National Gallery team are re-envisioning visitor experience. Not only will there be five pieces of art from the exhibition displayed in the publicly accessible spaces of the Moshe Safdie-designed building, but the ticketing desks – located in the main entrance since the Gallery opened in 1988 – have relocated to the Great Hall, just at the top of the colonnade. “We want to create a more welcoming and invigorating introduction to the space,” Jorgji says. “These changes put art before transaction.”
In the original design of the Gallery, the main entrance doors were those facing Sussex Drive and Notre-Dame Cathedral. The ticketing desks were originally in the center of the lobby, ensconced between four columns, and latterly in the east bay. This September, the new ticketing desk and several mobile ticketing kiosks opened in the Great Hall. The main entrance has been opened up and now provides an uninterrupted view of the great ramp leading to the Hall, with greeters offering visitors assistance navigating the re-envisioned space.
The architecture and design of most museums move visitors immediately toward a transaction. The intention of the transformation of the public spaces at the National Gallery of Canada is meant to emphasize an accessible experience of art. Suda is passionate about the Gallery boldly declaring itself and its values to visitors as soon as they cross the threshold. “Walking into an art-filled space upon entry, clearly states that we are art-centred,” she says. “The unmitigated art experience leads with a warm and generous welcome.”
The Àbadakone exhibition created the perfect moment for the transformation, in particular given the nature of the works and the many installations. For the opening, the main entrance is being transformed by the work of Sámi architect and artist Joar Nango, who is installing Sámi Architectural Library (2019), an interactive, site-specific work comprised of wood, repurposed construction materials, books, hide, bark, fish skin and other natural materials. The Colonnade ramp is the setting for the vinyl work ᐆᑌᓃᑳᓅᕁ (ōtē nīkānōhk) by Joi T. Arcand, an artist from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, now living in Ottawa and a 2018 Sobey finalist. A commissioned work of acrylic medium and natural pigments on canvas is being created on site by the Tribal Women Artists Cooperative to fill the long Concourse wall that connects the Great Hall and the Rotunda. The cooperative from Hazaribagh, India, which includes approximately 50 women, was formed in 1993 in response to open-cast coal mining that threatened the traditional livelihoods and art practices of the Adivasi people in North Karanpura valley. Being hung in the rotunda, Mata Aho Collective’s AKA (2019) is a large-scale woven artwork made by four Māori women artists who work in Aotearoa, New Zealand.
The extensive transformation was first discussed in June and then quickly realized. Jorgji says the most exciting part of the process has been a shift in perception. “We are already observing how visitors use and move through the space differently,” says Jorgji. “We are centering the visitor in all our thinking.” She says the location and design of the ticketing desk will likely change again. “We are trying this out and gathering information about what works and what doesn’t. We are iterative and flexible in our problem-solving; applying design-thinking.” She says she is proud of just how flexible, fast and resilient everyone on the team has been. “Institutions are often not great at those things because they are, well, institutions.”
The architecture of the National Gallery of Canada is often described as majestic. The building has been called a masterpiece. The intention of this transformation is to make it more welcoming, accessible and easy to navigate. “Engaging with our building in new ways demonstrates that we are embracing the unfamiliar and the future,” says Suda.
All the works are being installed by November 6. Àbadakone / Continuous Fire / Feu Continuel is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from November 8, 2019 to April 5, 2020, with the opening taking place Thursday, November 7 from 5 to 9 pm. For a full program of performances, events and lectures, see the Gallery's listing. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.