Six decades of inspiration: Inside the Dalhousie Art Gallery's storied history

- December 3, 2014

Then and now: An image from an early gallery brochure and a view of the gallery during the exhibition "Giving Notice: Words on Walls" (Gallery photos Steve Farmer)
Then and now: An image from an early gallery brochure and a view of the gallery during the exhibition "Giving Notice: Words on Walls" (Gallery photos Steve Farmer)

Halifax is one of Canada’s oldest cities — and Dalhousie, one of the country’s oldest universities — but did you know that Dalhousie hosts the oldest existing public art gallery in the city?

The Dalhousie Art Gallery has spent much of the past year celebrating its 60 years with exhibits harking back to the 50s and 60s — the earliest days of the gallery.

Though an informal art group has existed at Dalhousie nearly from the first days of the university, the Dalhousie Art Gallery formally came into existence in October 1953. It consisted of one room in the Henry Hicks Arts and Administration building, and was run entirely by faculty volunteers.

It was only in November of 1971 when the gallery moved into its current home, the Dalhousie Arts Centre. With this move, the gallery then had a large exhibition space with climate control and storage for its growing permanent collection. By this time, professional staff had been hired to work in the space, and their early enthusiasm and efforts — and an expanded staff complement which eventually included a curator and registrar/preparator — would transform the gallery into a nationally recognized cultural hub, expanding its influence far beyond its university origins.

Their work also ensured that the gallery’s importance was recognized by the university, and benefactors of the university, narrowly avoiding several closures through times of fiscal instability.

A diamond mine

To commemorate the past 60 years of art at the gallery, this fall’s Diamond Mine exhibition was curated to showcase “diamonds” from the permanent collection, which represented the history of the gallery and the building in which it is housed.

“All the works and prints in the exhibition were from 1965 to 1974,” explains Peter Dykhuis, current director and curator of the gallery. “They more or less represent what was on people’s creative minds during the time period, and how an architectural space like this was built to frame them.”

Dykhuis is, of course, referring to the Art Centre’s pseudo-brutalism architectural style, which features raw concrete walls and blocky hard edged design. He is quick to note the building also features evocations to musical instruments, with the curvature of a guitar and elements of a baby grand piano. “It was probably among some of the most radical architecture in Halifax at the time,” he says, noting that it was initially unpopular with nearby residents for replacing a row of Edwardian houses that used to exist in the space.

The exhibition featured two distinct styles of art — hard edge paintings and drawings on paper. The paintings don’t feature people or landscapes, but rather sharply defined shapes and lines of colour, a form that Dykhuis considers evocative of the art gallery itself. The drawings were drawn from the gallery’s ten drawing exhibitions.

“Many years ago, this gallery defined itself from other galleries by taking works on paper and displaying them,” Dykhuis explains. He says that combining the hard edge paintings and the drawings was an “exercise in looking at two histories, an architectural one and a fine arts one.” 

Performance by the Dartmouth Experimental Music Group during the traveling exhibition Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1985. Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1985.

Custodians of culture and history

In addition to pieces from the permanent collection, another aspect of the Diamond Mine exhibition came in the form of a professional fine arts painting conservator. Elizabeth Jablonski was commissioned to come into the gallery and set up a small studio space in the exhibition area and physically “polish the diamonds.”

“We are the custodians not just of objects, but of their cultural and historical meaning,” Dykhuis explains. “People who donate their work to us entrust us with it and with its perpetuity. So it can’t be in a dank basement with mice running around chewing canvas.”  

In plain view of gallery goers, Jablonski pulled works from the permanent collection — some of which hadn’t been in the public eye for decades — and cleaned them up with distilled water and light solvents.

Installation view of the exhibition Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture. (Steve Farmer photo)

A part of the university

Despite its long history and impressive accolades from the art community, the Dalhousie Art Gallery can often go unnoticed by some. Many students begin and end their university career in the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, only a staircase away from the gallery. But despite this, many of them may graduate unaware of the art that hangs in the basement of the building. Michele Gallant, the registrar/preparator of the gallery has a message for such people.

“We’re here; use us,” she says. “Come to the gallery and see what it does for you.”

“I know some people come here just to think,” she says. “It opens your mind out a little bit. And whether you like the exhibition or it speaks to you or not, it’s a different thing for your brain to deal with and it’s stimulating.”

With exams right around the corner, many students might find themselves in need of a little artistic stimulation — and, of course, the Dalhousie Art Gallery is free admission and open to all visitors. And every seven weeks, the gallery has something completely different in its exhibition space.

The next exhibit is one of the most special on campus: its 61st annual Student, Staff, Faculty and Alumni exhibition, which has an opening reception on December 11 from 4-6 p.m.

“It’s the only exhibition which is not curated, and the artists are not professional artists,” says Gallant. “It’s a wonderful way for the Dalhousie and King’s communities to come around and see what people are up to, creatively.”

Learn more about the history of the Dalhousie Art Gallery at its website.


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