History of Art

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[dropcap]H[/dropcap]alfway down the South Concourse of the Academic Quadrangle, there are a pair of indescript glass doors distinct from the sea of wood paneling. Over it, a sign says SFU Gallery — admittedly not a particularly imposing entrance.

A relatively small space, it exhibits both contemporary art created primarily but not exclusively from Canadian artists. As the only dedicated Art space on the Burnaby Mountain campus, you’re more likely to stumble inside between classes, than to actually seek it out.

The small space doesn’t do justice to the long and dynamic relationship between the arts and Simon Fraser.

The current SFU Gallery system consists of three spaces: the SFU Gallery in Burnaby, the Audain at Woodwards, and the Teck at Harbour Center.

The SFU Gallery runs semesterly programming, and tries to connect an undergraduate population from diverse backgrounds and disciplines with Contemporary Art.

The Audain is a public Contemporary art space with diverse programing, it includes a spring and summer exhibition, undergraduate and graduate shows, and a fall artist-in-residence program, balancing the School for the Contemporary Arts with a city wide public audience.

Meanwhile, the Teck functions as a short term public art space with year long projects in a multi-purpose function and study space in the Harbour Center Atrium. The arts at SFU and the SFU Gallery have a longer history that predates this current set-up.

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ur University opened its doors in 1965. At the time, its approach to education was unique in many ways, along these lines was the potential for interdisciplinary exchange in the liberal arts and sciences.

Those founding years were filled with excitement about the potential in that approach. The Centre for Communication and the Arts was one of the initial bodies to be created. Formed under the Education program, it is the predecessor to the School for Contemporary Arts and the SFU Galleries.

The Centre was an incubator for the arts that existed as a non-credit hive for programs, workshops and events open to the entire University community. It fostered artists and performances with a nationally recognized faculty in an environment with few boundaries and barriers.

Many of SFU’s initial experiments in education did not survive long. The Centre was no different, and it was restructured. Eventually, the Centre for Communications and the Arts shifted away from the radical freedom of its early years and eventually transitioned into the credit based program we know today as the School of Contemporary Arts. This reflected broader trends at the university for a return towards the entrenchment of long established ways of thinking and working.

Artist Iain Baxter& — who at the time was simply Iain Baxter, adding an ampersand to his name in 2005 — founded SFU’s visual arts program and was the creator of SFU’s original logo. He was responsible for fostering a lot of that initial freedom and experimentation at the Centre for Communications and the Arts.

One of his notable attempts was when he taught what was supposed to be a semester long class — 13 two-hour lectures — as a 26 hour marathon session instead, an experiment born out of the free-wheeling mentality of artists at the time and the freedoms afforded in a Centre running on a non-credit system.

Without a dedicated gallery space, this was an environment where art could, and did, happen all over campus.

1969’s Catalog for the Exhibition, organized by Seth Siegelaub is one such project. It included participatory and durational pieces by artists like Sol Lewitt and Lawrence Weiner, which were situated around the campus.

Jan Dibbet’s “Perspective Correction” for instance, involved the cutting and removal of a perfect square of grass in perspective from the lawn next to the theatre. This was then photographed and made into postcards available in the theatre.

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the Centre’s key figures in the early years of SFU was James Felter, a visual artist and curator who joined the Centre in 1968. He advocated strongly for a gallery space at SFU — a goal he achieved in 1970 when then President Ken Strand established the Simon Fraser Gallery and named Felter as its first director, a position Felter would hold for sixteen years.

Under Felter, the gallery would exhibit and work with many renowned artists and curators, while simultaneously developing the young, but strong collection of artworks by Canadian artists that the University started in 1965.

It was a prolific time in the gallery’s history, with 127 exhibitions being held in the first ten years, an impressive rate of an arts exhibition per month. Felter also developed a program of circulating exhibits that could be sent on tour to other public galleries in Western Canada and beyond, venturing into the traditional territory of much larger galleries with expansive collections.

This was an initiative cut short by the University’s growing budgetary crisis in the 80s.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the years following James Felter, the Gallery would be separated from the successor to the Centre, the Department of Fine and Performing Arts.

With this new found independence, the gallery would no longer be run by Visual Arts faculty. Now under one of the University’s vice-presidents, the appointment for Gallery director would draw from other faculties and departments. With this administrative separation of the gallery came an ideological one as well. As the gallery took a more conservative approach to art, and as the Visual arts faculty continued to develop and experiment within a contemporary environment, their direction would diverge considerably.

The openness to public art and experimentation that existed prior to the gallery was partially fed by the shifting ideas on the purpose of galleries in general.

Contemporary artistic discourse was exploring the idea that art didn’t need to be relegated to a devoted gallery space. The thought was that it could, and should, be part and parcel with the world and the public sphere. The idea of the ‘white-cube’ as a meaningful mode of explanation, with the gallery as a blank slate for the exhibition of work also came under fire.

This was a period where the gallery and institution were criticized for their role and conservatism, creating a generation of artists that would question the role and exhibition of art. The movement in this direction by artists and faculty contrasted with the direction of the gallery under non-art directors.

Though the conversation around public art would continually develop and change, the familiarity between the university community and public art would continue, through permanent works installed around campus, but also through temporary exhibitions and programs.

One notable example is the first year campus project — a project where first year students develop and create a site-specific public art piece at the end of their second semester.

Until the completion of the Woodwards complex and the final movement of the School for Contemporary Arts downtown, this was a project that formed a regular part of the Burnaby Campus. A lasting tradition of taking art outside the gallery space, that met with the mixed results of first year students developing their nascent artistic practices.

Another particular moment in the development of art came in the 80s, when Jeff Wall, a rising and soon to be leading artist of photoconceptualism in Vancouver, began giving classes in his studio on the 100 Block of West Hastings. With time, Wall would join the Visual Arts faculty, and the program would move into the same building.

This arrangement included a gallery space that showed a variety of artists, not restricting itself to students or graduates. It was a gallery space in line with the developing artist-run centre culture of the time. With the moving of the Visual Arts program to its current location at 611 Alexander Street in 1993, this location of the gallery would cease to exist.

However, this didn’t leave the University without a downtown exhibition presence — a gallery space came with the 1989 opening of SFU Harbour Centre in the renovated Spencer’s department store building.

This is the Teck Gallery space at the far end of the Harbour Centre atrium, and it would be joined in 2010 by the Audain Gallery on the ground Floor of SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. Throughout the years, despite the shifting locations, administration and nature of the arts, SFU’s various gallery spaces provided an important opportunity for students and members of the public to be exposed to art, and its development in the city and beyond.

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[dropcap]B[/dropcap]eyond exhibiting work, the SFU Galleries are also responsible for the SFU Art Collection, an important collection of local and regional artwork. This collection covers work of historical and contemporary value and stands at over 5,500 pieces. Large parts of this collection are either hidden away in short term storage in the AQ, or long term storage under Strand Hall. Though occasional portions of the collection that are in storage occasionally come out as part of exhibitions, the majority of those remain largely unseen.

However, a substantial portion of this collection is displayed around SFU’s various campuses, this includes over 1000 public sculptures, murals, large format paintings, and prints. The original two pieces of the Art Collection are amongst those found on display — Gordon Smith’s mosaic murals, commissioned in 1964 and installed in 1965, form a permanent part of the Academic Quadrangle.

Located atop the monumental staircase that rises from the Mall to the AQ, they face each other across the central east-west pedestrian axis that defines the university’s design. Their commissioning for the new university, and prominent site make them a fitting start for the Art Collection.

The murals are amongst the best known works in the collection, frequently used for photo-ops, and promotional photos. They have presided over the Quadrangle and Mall throughout SFU’s history, and frame the yearly processions of students who graduate having successfully slogged it through years of a university education to make it to their convocation ceremony.

Their visibility is one utilized for SFU’s 50th anniversary campaign, as the murals found themselves used as the backdrop for signage and promotional material across printed and digital media.

On the western side of SFU’s Burnaby Campus, on the opposite end of the spectrum, sits the most recent acquisition. This is the large Damian Moppett sculpture Large Painting and Caryatid Maquette in Studio at Night (Sculpture Version), that was installed over the Residence Dining Hall Building. It was originally commissioned for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s offsite public art space on West Georgia, and was on display from November 2012 to April 2013.

Here at SFU it joins a long-running tradition of public sculpture that began with Gordon Smith. Adding to the many examples of public art permanently located around the AQ and throughout campus.

Donated by the artist, the Caryatid Maquette took two years to prepare and install. As it had been commissioned for a different site — a specific site — relocating it meant finding the right site on campus and also adapting the work to meet it, all while following the procedures and considerations of the University.

According to the current director and curator of the SFU Galleries, Melanie O’Brian, “It was a process unique to working in the arts within a large comprehensive institution.”

Bringing the Caryatid Maquette to SFU was a long process that sometimes had to take a step backwards in order to continue. The initial approval, was followed by site selection, and consultation with facilities to seismically test the site, and engineer it for safe installation, a process that had to be repeated when the site was changed.

Compared to a free standing sculpture like that of Terry Fox, or Mahatma Ghandi, this process was considerably more complicated since the sculpture was to be installed onto a building.

As well, the previously free-standing sculpture was originally a layered three dimensional array that referenced the artist’s studio as a stage set. To fit its new home, it had to be flattened and welded back together into a new unique arrangement that didn’t interfere with the original vision.

Despite the long process, it’s one that O’Brian would like to do again. As projects like it set the tone for her desire to “bring Contemporary Art up to campus and contribute to a culture of vibrancy,” something that can happen through paintings like those in the AQ concourse, “but sometimes requires bigger statements.”

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]nyone entering the SFU Gallery in the Fall of 2013 would have encountered Samuel Roy-Bois’ Not a new world, just an old trick. It was a large white construction, whose exterior could be used to study, or to lounge and sit amongst cushions and blankets.

In the interior, were two small rooms that held a selection of the work from the SFU Art Collection that Roy-Bois curated as part of his installation. These works included such diverse things as photographs, drawings, paintings, sculptures and some silverware that would not have felt out of place in the proverbial North American home of our grandparents, or in a period piece on HBO.

As Christina Hedlund, the collections manager with SFU Galleries, put it, “No collection is perfect, all collections will have weird and unusual works.” Developed over the years from purchases and donations, it has grown in an organic and uncontrolled fashion.

The SFU Art Collection has a variety that includes grandmother’s silverware, but only has a limited amount of contemporary photography or SFU talent — an absence important in our local context due to the recognition of Vancouver as an important place for the development of conceptual photography.

This is curious considering SFU has a strong arts tradition tracing back to the Centre for Communications and the Arts, that focuses on contemporary art and critical thinking, and has always had a strong cohort of alumni, professors and students.

These kind of gaps are amongst the issues the Gallery seeks to address, to the extent of its ability with limited options for space and storage. In this context, small steps are being made when they can, such as the handful of works from SFU artists joining our collection following last summer’s exhibit, Through a Window: Visual Art and SFU 1965-2015.

In the past three years, Melanie O’Brian has focused on both small, and large movements. Improving things behind the scenes, silently reinforcing the Gallery’s status as a professionally recognized art space, while simultaneously making big statements. This work includes curatorial experiments such as last Spring’s Geometry of Knowing Series, and last Summer’s Through a Window.

The former consisted of four interrelated exhibits held at both the Audain and SFU Galleries throughout the spring semester. Three of the exhibits were curated by SFU Galleries, with a fourth curated by a third year School of Contemporary Arts Visual Art Core Studio cohort.

The setup allowed for the development of dialogue around related themes across the two galleries.

Through a Window consisted of concurrent exhibits at all three SFU gallery spaces providing a particular historical summation of the arts at SFU.

This approach to exhibiting stems from O’Brian’s desire to think about programming together across the Gallery spaces, exploring the potential crossover between ideas and audiences in the process. The focus on combined programming started with the rebranding of SFU Galleries as a coherent three gallery system, beginning with a new logo, a new website and a single program guide.

It continues through programming that bridges the physical distances between the galleries, and through the Gallery’s foray into publications.

This reassertion, and heightening of the visibility for SFU Galleries, within and outside the university is a continuing and multifaceted process, that they have to do while maintaining the socio-politically involved contemporary artwork that the University and the Gallery are known for.

Despite attempts to bring them together in new and interesting ways, the three gallery system presents challenges.

“They can have distinct audiences and distinct shows, and operate with their own sense of conditions,” said O’Brian.

It is fitting that the three gallery system reflects the structure of SFU itself, split into three different campuses, each with their own ways of thinking. Bridging this structure presents unique opportunities to create, in the spirit of that initial freedom and experimentation that started with the Centre for Communications and the Arts.