Wednesday, 08 October 2014 13:56

Art Gallery of Swift Current celebrates 40 years of success

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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Hugh Henry (at left) shares his memories of working as an education coordinator at the Art Gallery of Swift Current during a wine and cheese celebration of the gallery's 40th anniversary, Oct. 4. Seated next to him is the gallery's current director and curator, Kim Houghtaling. Hugh Henry (at left) shares his memories of working as an education coordinator at the Art Gallery of Swift Current during a wine and cheese celebration of the gallery's 40th anniversary, Oct. 4. Seated next to him is the gallery's current director and curator, Kim Houghtaling.

Forty years ago, the efforts of a committed group of Swift Current residents to promote the visual arts in the community came to fruition when the R.C. Dahl Centre opened to house the Swift Current National Exhibition Centre and branch library.

The ongoing success of the Art Gallery of Swift Current (AGSC) was celebrated on Oct. 4 with an afternoon tea party and a wine and cheese evening that included music as well as speeches and recollections by those who have been involved with the growth of the institution.
AGSC Director and Curator Kim Houghtaling spoke at the evening event about the institution’s development and plans for a new gallery at the proposed Integrated Facility that also reflects a confidence in the city’s future.
“These days things are quite optimistic and I think it’s because of our past successes,” he said. “There’s been a real confidence build in the institution and what it can provide and confidence in the people that work and volunteer and support the gallery. This is really showing in what’s probably going to happen in the next 20 years, which will be a new gallery, maybe an expanded population. ... So I think the future is bright.”
The official opening of the Swift Current National Exhibition Centre took place on Oct. 4, 1974 with an exhibition of contemporary Saskatchewan paintings and sculpture. The creation of this art gallery space was made possible through the efforts of the Swift Current Allied Arts Council (SCAAC).
Long-time SCAAC member Agatha Dyck spoke about the group’s role during the celebration event on Saturday evening.
“The Allied Arts Council did believe in the visual arts program and to give our community an opportunity to see tremendous works of arts over the years, but also to give our local talent an opportunity to hone their skills, learn more about what was of interest to them,” she said. “So then we proceeded to develop a local program for local artists.”
The SCAAC members and other volunteers operated an art gallery space in the recreation centre in the four years prior to the opening of the new National Exhibition Centre.
The SCAAC convinced the City of Swift Current to apply to the National Museums for a federal grant to have a National Exhibition Centre in the city, which made it possible to include an art gallery space in the new R.C. Dahl Centre.
She recalled how the SCAAC started a successful juried arts and craft sale in the new building that was their main fundraiser for 29 years.
“It started in this building with four tables,” she laughed. “And then to six and then we ran out of space, and we moved it into the rec centre. So for 29 years that’s how the Arts Council made the majority of its finances. It was at the Comp School, it was at the exhibition grounds and then it ended up in the Swift Current Mall. We kept running out of space.”
She noted the SCAAC is still involved with the art gallery through the annual Southwest Open that showcases the talents of semi-professional and amateur artists from southwest Saskatchewan.
“We partner with the adjudication and exhibition open to southwest artists,” she said. “That’s beena fun, growing project and I think it’s better every year.”
According to Houghtaling, the National Exhibition Centre program was a significant federal initiative that made it possible to build three public art galleries in Saskatchewan, including the one in Swift Current.
“It was a real great idea,” he said. “It was a way to provide access to visual art and education materials to communities throughout the country. It always required a partnership between a local agency like a city or a society, the province would kick in, but it was primarily the effort of Canadian Heritage or Museum Corporation that helped to create these NECs. They had a good reputation for first-rate exhibitions and that really was their mandate to offer first-rate shows.”
He characterized the first 20 years of the art gallery as development years. David Humphries served as the director and curator of the Swift Current National Exhibition Centre until 1994.
In the early 1990s the success of the National Exhibition Centre program resulted in its demise. In the preceding years many towns and cities have developed their own visual art galleries after seeing the benefits of such facilities in other communities with a National Exhibition Centre.
“So Canadian Heritage had to rethink their support and to be fair they could no longer give entitlement for funding to NECs when all the other communities needed it as well,” Houghtaling explained. “So they moved to a more competitive-based program and put a lot of criteria in the grant applications that were difficult for some small institutions to meet. It was a bit challenging for this gallery and so at the time they didn’t get the funding that they needed from the federal government.”
He became the new curator and director of the art gallery in May 1996 in the midst of this period of change. Shortly afterwards the gallery was renamed as the Art Gallery of Swift Current.
“We began working with that rebranding right away and threw ourselves into more and more public programming,” he recalled.
An important focus of the gallery during the past 18 years has been community cultural development and public engagement.
“We started to move more into the community and get more involved in what was happening in arts and culture in town,” he said. “It did mean we had to downsize a little here at the gallery. We offered less exhibitions, but we were able to keep the quality of a lot of our shows well within the standards, but it was definitely a change of character and a change of direction. So I think we had two successful periods with a little bit different direction in each period.”
In recent years, the number of exhibitions increased as a result of the opening of the Westwing Gallery in the H-Hut at Kinetic Park. It allows the AGSC to offer a summertime program with events such as the Southwest Open and the High School Art Show.
“This year we’ve been able to expand our exhibition program during the centennial by using that gallery space as well,” he said.
Over the years the AGSC initiated various events to establish the gallery as an important institution in the community, for example coffeehouse evenings, the Windscape Kite Festival and the Blenders concert series.
“We expanded our extension programming to other activities that were going on in town, took part in them and started thinking about what kinds of programs we could offer to the community that would help,” he said.
Houghtaling is excited about the art gallery’s future prospects, which will include a relocation to the new multi-million dollar Integrated Facility development next to the Cypress Regional Hospital.
“We have for several years been working on a plan and that plan was essentially finished this past summer,” he said. “It’s a good plan. I really like the art gallery itself.”
The new art gallery will have two exhibition spaces. The one area will be a dedicated art museum space for precious works that they can borrow or own and the second gallery space will be used for public programming. The facility will have preparatory labs, storage vaults for the gallery’s permanent collection and a series of studio spaces.
“The studio classrooms that we’ll have will feed beautifully into our school programs and give greater expanded opportunity to artists and organizations that we’ve not been able to engagelike artist guilds,” he said.
He noted the new art gallery will probably not be built within the next eight years, even though the construction of the Integrated Facility will start within the next two years.
“It will phase in and even on a continuous build they estimate closer to eight years before our wing is finished,” he said. “So we are here for a long time yet, but at least we have the promise of something great for if not us, the next generation.”

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