BY CHRIS TIESSEN

I can still recall trekking through The Louvre in Paris as an eight-year-old, with my parents and big brother. I remember the seemingly unending rooms of masterpieces. Resplendent, to be sure. But what struck me most about that grand gallery – and others, like the Uffizi, the Rijksmuseum, the Tate – was the life-denying quality of it all. ‘Do not touch.’ ‘Single file.’ ‘Stay behind the ropes.’ ‘Whisper only.’ It was enough to get a boy like me down.

Photo provided by KWAG

What I yearned for was interaction. Immersion. A hands-on experience. A sense of play. ‘Like, say, an event at the gallery where local chefs are invited to interpret a current exhibition as a tasting menu with drink pairings?’ asks Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery (KWAG) Communications Manager Stephanie Vegh, who has broken into my narrative as we meander through the downtown gallery. Exactly, I think to myself. ‘Or a hands-on zine-making workshop?’ I’d love to do that! ‘Or culture talks with leading intellectuals who speak about open, accessible and active cultural spaces?’ Sign me up. ‘We’re doing all of this,’ Stephanie tells me. ‘And more.’ At KWAG – the leading public art gallery in a region that’s quickly becoming the creative capital of Canada.

Photo provided by KWAG

‘Let me tell you about the food and art event,’ Stephanie begins. ’This semi-annual (May and November) ‘Feast for the Senses’ (supported by long-time sponsor Gowling WLG) features an art-inspired tasting menu with drink pairings.’ Past chefs, Stephanie tells me, ‘have included Nick Benninger of Fat Sparrow Group, Ryan Murphy of Public Kitchen + Bar, Jonathan Gushue of The Berlin, Top Chef Canada finalist Rich Francis, Chopped Canada winner Matt Kershaw, and others. Attendees,’ she observes with a grin, ‘tend to leave fat, happy and a little tipsy.’

And what of the creative workshops, then? The subject clearly animates Stephanie, who describes the Gallery’s past workshop offerings from a ‘Vintage Macrame Owl’ workshop with Tanya Smith to ‘Introduction to Rug Hooking’ with the KW Rug Hooking Guild; ‘Abstraction through Islamic Calligraphy’ with Soheila Esfahani to ‘Miniature Portrait Painting’ with Sumaira Tazeen, the City of Kitchener’s Artist in Residence for 2018.

Photo provided by KWAG

And then there are those Culture Talks, on Thursday evenings in Kitchener’s storied Walper Hotel. Launched in November 2018 in partnership with Craig Beattie of Perimeter Development, these talks encourage dialogue that explores how culturally active spaces can positively impact a community’s physical, psychological and emotional well-being. Presenters have included architects, urban designers and cultural leaders such as Heidi Reitmaier, the Chief of Public Programs & Learning at the Art Gallery of Ontario. On May 9th, Caroline Robbie, a leading interior designer who has led multiple award-winning projects in Toronto, will present. 

There are also, of course, the sorts of activities with which galleries tend to be identified. Like the March to mid-June solo exhibition by Waterloo-born artist geetha thurairajah (now based in Brooklyn, NY) – a two-time shortlisted nominee for the RBC Canadian Painting Competition and this year’s KWAG Artist in Residence. And First Nations curator Lisa Myers’ Planting One Another, a re-planting of a Medicine and Butterfly garden by the late Mi’kmaq artist Mike MacDonald – on the KWAG grounds facing Queen Street North.

Photo provided by KWAG

‘Of course the core of KWAG’s mission remains its exhibitions,’ Stephanie reminds me. ‘These tend to emphasize contemporary art featuring the work of living artists.’ In fact each year KWAG presents eight to ten major exhibitions of contemporary art – either organized by KWAG curators or presented in partnership with other Canadian galleries. And the gallery’s permanent collection includes some 4000+ works of historical significance spanning the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries. 

Stephanie’s reference to conventional gallery activity takes me back to that eight-year-old tearing through some of the great galleries of Europe, bewildered by why they seemed so static and untouchable. I’m sure they’ve developed community programs of their own, some of them even related to the locations in which they find themselves. But at a time when Waterloo Region is experiencing considerable, vibrant transformation and growth, I am content to explore the active creative life of KWAG, around here, for a while.

Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery
101 Queen St N, Kitchener
kwag.ca

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