Architecture of Art Galleries in Canada

While the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) lists nearly 400 art and leisure museums, Canada's major institutions are relatively few in number and often of relatively recent vintage.

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Victoria, BC (courtesy Art Gallery of Greater Victoria).
Owens Art Gallery
The Owens Art Gallery is a Renaissance-style palazzo of olive- \r\ncoloured Cumberland sandstone. (Photo courtesy of the Owens Art Gallery)\r\n
Mendel Art Gallery
Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon is a glass, concrete and brick structure that introduced indirect overhead lighting into galleries (courtesy Mendel Art Gallery).\r\n
Winnipeg Art Gallery
Architect Gustavo da Roza's most significant large work is the Winnipeg Art Gallery (1971) (photo by Henry Kalen).
Art Gallery of Ontario, Galleria Italia
Built of Douglas fir, representative of the northern wilderness that is a subject of so much of the art in the gallery, the expansive galleria extends across the front of the building (photo by James Marsh).
Art Gallery of Ontario, rear
The back of Frank Gehry's new gallery, which houses much of the museum's modern and contemporary art, is clad in sheets of blue titanium (photo by James Marsh).
Art Gallery of Ontario, Staircase
The Allan Slaight and Emmanuelle Gattuso staircase imposes a balletic fluidity on the classic forms of the old interior (photo by James Marsh).
Art Gallery of Alberta, formerly Edmonton Art Gallery
Interior (courtesy Art Gallery of Alberta).
Vancouver Art Gallery
The Vancouver Art Gallery in Robson Square. This neo-classical building, which now houses Vancouver's art gallery, served as the city's Court House for 70 years and has retained its grandeur (courtesy Colour Library Books Ltd.).
Confederation Centre Art Gallery
The Confederation Centre Art Gallery opened in 1964 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference (courtesy Confederation Centre of the Arts).

Architecture of Art Galleries in Canada

Major galleries in Canada may in general be divided into 2 categories: predominantly modern or contemporary purpose-built spaces that house established collections, and donated sites that have undergone adaptive re-use. Of these, some cultural institutions find their roots in exhibiting societies or artists' organizations, while others have been initiated through generous private endowment. Building expansions are most frequently undertaken in response to collections growth and often to meet the standards for exhibition required by national institutions established under the Museums Act of 1990.

While the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) lists nearly 400 art and leisure museums, Canada's major institutions are relatively few in number and often of relatively recent vintage. Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton were entirely purpose-built structures, while the institutions in Western Canada, among them the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Mendel Art Gallery, pioneered modern buildings by regionally prominent architects.

Major international figures like Moshe Safdie and Frank Gehry have entered the scene, Safdie with his 1988 design for the National Gallery of Canada and 1991 addition in Montréal, and Gehry with his reworking of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Regional responses like The Rooms in St. John's, NL, have added a contemporary postmodern sensibility to the mix.

National Gallery of Canada

Chief in the first category is the National Gallery of Canada. Founded in 1880 from the diploma works of artists nominated to the Royal Canadian Academy, the National Gallery collection has occupied a variety of premises since its inception.

The national collection was first housed at the Clarendon Hotel in Ottawa, then with the Supreme Court of Canada from 1882-88, and finally with the Federal Fisheries exhibit for a quarter century. Only in 1911 were the works accommodated in the east wing of David Ewart's Victoria Memorial Museum, now the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Following the 1951 report of the Massey Commission, the government announced an open competition to design a national gallery. Of the 104 Canadian submissions, a modern, low-rise grid of horizontals and verticals by the Winnipeg firm of Blankstein, Greene, Russell and Associates was successful. After years of debate over the proposed site, the program was recast as an eight-storey block that could serve as a government office building until a final location for the gallery was determined. The Lorne building on Elgin Street, the compromise developed by the Department of Public Works in association with the Blankstein firm, was occupied by the gallery from 1960-88. A second government-sponsored competition, held in 1977, named John Parkin and Associates as architects for a new building to be erected on Wellington street, but this plan proved abortive.

In 1988 the National Gallery of Canada finally moved to a permanent, purpose-built home. Architect Moshe Safdie developed the scheme specifically to serve the collection, with 2 components - a hermetic curatorial wing on the north side, and the gallery itself that fronts on Sussex Drive. Glass pavilions at the building's entrances and at the site's highest point echo the shape of the Parliamentary library to the west, while a colonnaded ramp linking the main entrance with the Great Hall evokes a nave or temple processional like that of Notre-Dame Basilica, across the public square to the east. Compared by some to an ancient treasury enclosed by grand public spaces, the interior is one of coved, top-lit galleries. Today these display a collection of European, American, Canadian and Asian work.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts houses a collection that is older still. In 1877 a bequest by Montréal merchant Benaiah Gibb facilitated the first purpose-built art gallery in Canada. It opened in 1879 with Gibb's modest collection of European paintings and sculptures, the basis for what is now the permanent collection. Located on Phillips Square, this first top-lit exhibition hall also provided a venue for an annual loan exhibition and a juried salon of works by living Canadian artists. Other generous bequests supplemented the European archive and added ceramics, so that by 1909 a new building was a necessity.

A site was chosen on Sherbrooke Street in the Square Mile, then home to the city's elite. Montréal architects Edward and William S. Maxwell were retained to execute an imposing Beaux-Arts scheme in marble, completed in 1912. From the classicizing portico of the exterior, a central hall with a grand staircase linked together a series of top-lit galleries. The premises also included a lecture hall, library and art-school studios. Between 1975 and 1977 the building was enlarged by architect Fred Lebensold. Rapid growth in the collections followed, culminating in 1991 with a major addition on the south side of Sherbrooke Street that mimics in scale, if not in form, the earlier work by the Maxwells. Designed by Moshe Safdie and executed in collaboration with Lemay and Associates, the new white marble Jean-Noël Desmarais pavilion, with its glazed roof and a street-level entrance, doubled the existing exhibition space. The 2 pavilions are connected by subterranean passageways.

Musee d'art contemporain de Montréal

In 1992 the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal (Montréal Museum of Contemporary Art) opened its doors at St. Catherine Street West and Jeanne Mance. The concrete slab scheme by JLP Associates of Montréal, with an esplanade garden by Dimitri Dimakopoulos et Associés, houses a collection of 7000 works formerly the property of Québec's minister of cultural affairs.

Musee national des beaux-arts du Québec

In Quebec City, religious museums display collections in buildings that date from the earliest settlement of New France. In the 1920s the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (Quebec National Museum of Beaux Arts) began to assemble its collections, now located in 3 buildings in Battlefields Park on the Plains of Abraham overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The earliest portion of the site, inaugurated in 1933, was the Gérard-Morisset building, executed in a classic Beaux-Arts idiom by Wilfrid Lacroix. Reliefs on the façade were sculpted by Emile Brunet. In 1991 the museum expanded into the Charles-Baillargé building, named for the architect-engineer-surveyor who first designed that structure in 1867. Formerly the Quebec City prison, this second building was renovated over 2 years and now houses 4 exhibition galleries as well as historical sections recalling its earlier use. Between these 2 structures is a Grand Hall of glass, added in 1991 by Quebec City architects Dorval and Fortin, to provide a visitor centre and access to the adjoining 1867 and 1933 buildings. A collection of Inuit works has been accessioned into the collection of some 27 000 works, representing contemporary art and Québec artists from the 17th century to the present. As a result, in 2007 the Québec government pledged one-third of an anticipated $90 million required to erect a further pavilion, fronting on the Grande-Allée.

Art Gallery of Ontario

The Art Gallery of Ontario is another institution that began its building history in adaptive reuse but has gone on to extend its premises through a series of new structural initiatives. Incorporated in 1900 as the Art Museum of Toronto, its first permanent venue was established in 1910 through the bequest of the former Harriet Boulton and Goldwin Smith house, known as The Grange. By 1912 one of Toronto's leading architectural firms, Darling and Pearson, had submitted plans for a major addition to the north along Dundas Street. This grand Beaux-Arts scheme, consisting of 30 galleries opening onto 3 courtyards, was only partially executed in brick by 1918, and the following year the museum's name was changed to the Art Gallery of Toronto. Eight years later a second phase opened, a third being completed in 1935. The modest brick-faced structure remained unchanged for 30 years, until a proposed donation of Henry Moore sculptures and other important initiatives prompted a further building campaign under the guidance of one of Toronto's premier modernists, John C. Parkin.

The work took place in 3 stages between 1971 and 1993. The result was a new pre-cast concrete and glass façade with increased exhibition spaces and more room for administrative offices. During the first phase the Grange was restored by heritage architect Peter Stokes, while phase 3 was undertaken by Barton Myers Architects Inc. in association with Kuwabara, Payne, McKenna and Blumberg. The latter addition reworked the former pre-cast concrete façade to introduce a brick elevation opening into a three-storey pyramidal lobby.

By 1996 the gift of Kenneth Thomson's art collection had prompted yet another expansion, this time designed by the internationally known Canadian ex-patriot Frank Gehry. The work of Gehry Partners aligned the building entrance with the 1926 Walker court at the centre of the structure and added a 600-foot wood and glass canopy to the façade, to create a second-floor sculpture promenade. Zoomorphic forms further animated the design, linking interior to exterior, while on the south side of the building, where the Grange remains intact, a blue-titanium-clad box houses the AGO contemporary collection as well as an event centre.

Winnipeg Art Gallery

The oldest public gallery in Western Canada is the Winnipeg Art Gallery, established in 1912. Founded by a group of Winnipeg businessmen, its first premises consisted of 2 rented rooms in the old Federal Building at the corner of Main and Water streets. As the collection grew, it found new space in the Manitoba Archives building on St. Mary Avenue. Under the guidance of curator Ferdinand Eckhardt, the gallery acquired both late Gothic and early Renaissance art, together with what is now the largest collection of Inuit art in the world. It also specializes in the work of Manitoban and international artists.

The present building, which opened in 1971, was the result of a 1967 national competition for which 109 entries were received. Macau-born émigré Gustavo Uriel da Roza, who had arrived in Canada 7 years earlier to take up a full-time appointment at the University of Manitoba, produced an imaginative triangular design that the jurors described as sensitive in character and scale, with a clear relationship to the site. Constructed from poured-in-place, reinforced concrete and clad in Tyndall stone, the structure is described as "finely detailed," yet built from standard components wherever possible in order to save on costs. Whereas the exterior walls slope to reflect sunlight, asserting an aggressive geometry that is often compared to an iceberg or the prow of a ship, the interior contains 8 galleries and a 320-seat auditorium, together with a library and meeting spaces, all of which are rectangular in order to facilitate optimal use.

MacKenzie Art Gallery

In Saskatchewan, 2 important art galleries were the gifts of private philanthropists. A 1936 bequest of 100 paintings to the University of Saskatchewan (Regina College) by lawyer, art collector and former National Gallery of Canada trustee Norman MacKenzie was the impetus for the foundation of the Norman MacKenzie Gallery on the university's campus.

In 1990 the newly incorporated MacKenzie Art Gallery gained autonomy from the university and moved into the T.C. Douglas Building in Wascana Centre on Albert Street. The northwest wing of this limestone-clad office building, originally designed by MacPhail Johnstone and Associates, had undergone a $9.55-million renovation by de Lint & Taylor Architects Inc. and Interior Space Planning, both of Regina. The nearly 10 000-square-metre, three-storey facility includes 2 large galleries and 5 smaller ones, all of which have state-of-the-art climate controls and security. Other amenities include a vault, conservation laboratory, workshop and preparation rooms, as well as a 185-seat theatre, gift shop and conference rooms.

Mendel Art Gallery

In Saskatoon, art collector and businessman Fred Mendel funded the Mendel Art Gallery with matching funds from the Province of Saskatchewan. The 1964 scheme by Winnipeg architects Blankstein, Coop, Gillmor and Hanna, which was among 48 entries in a national design competition, has been described as "one of the finest examples of Modernism in Saskatchewan." It amalgamated inspirations from the work of Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn in a glass, concrete and brick structure that introduced indirect overhead lighting into galleries. Mendel's gift of 13 paintings by Canadian artists launched a collection now numbering more than 5000 pieces. A 1975 addition coincided with the art gallery's designation as an associated museum of the National Museums of Canada.

Art Gallery of Alberta

Formerly the Edmonton Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Alberta has occupied a number of locations, including the Hotel Macdonald and the Richard Secord House, since it was established in 1924. The collection found a purpose-built home in a concrete Brutalist building designed in 1968 by Donald G. Bittorf and B. James Wensley and opened in 1969. This structure included a sky-lit grand staircase, which architectural critic Trevor Boddy described as "one of the most handsome spaces of any building in the province."

An international architectural competition held in 2005 called for proposals to rework the existing concrete structure. Randall Stout Architects were successful with a patinated zinc and stainless steel design intended to articulate the gallery's commitment to contemporary art. The new program, carried forward in 3 stages, provided state-of-the-art off-site collection storage and doubled the exhibition space within the structure, forging a strong connection between the building exterior and the site.

Vancouver Art Gallery

Following a campaign by arts patron Harry Stone, the Vancouver Art Gallery opened in 1931 in an Art Deco building by Sharp and Thompson. This structure on West Georgia Street was tripled in size between 1949 and 1951 in order to accommodate a large collection of paintings bequeathed by Emily Carr. The architect for the addition, Ross A. Lort, added new galleries in the central portion and to the east, together with a new façade of concrete and glass that reflected the idiom of international modernism.

Today the gallery's collection of 9000 works is located in the city's former sandstone and granite Court House, designed between 1906 and 1911 by British architect Francis Rattenbury, also known for the provincial Parliament Buildings (1893-98) and the Empress Hotel (1904-08) in Victoria. Rattenbury and associated architects Dalton and Eveleigh, of Vancouver, created an imposing Beaux-Arts edifice to which Vancouver architect Thomas Hooper added an extension from 1910 through 1912. The Rattenbury portion of the building was subsequently adapted to its current use by Arthur Erickson and Associates as part of the Robson Square project. Robson Square was conceived as an "urban meadow" to which a constellation of low-rise buildings was linked, notably a series of government offices (1978), the Provincial Courts Building (1979) and the Vancouver Art Gallery (1983). Cornelia Hahn Oberlander was associated with Erickson in conceptualizing the development, together with design co-ordinators Bing Thom, James Wright and Rainer Fassler.

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

In 1946 the Art Centre, renamed the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in 1955, was first located in a disused automobile showroom. Today the collection is housed in a series of extensions to the former Spencer Mansion, originally known as Gyppeswyck, which was designed in 1889 in a Queen-Anne revival style by Victoria architect William Ridgeway Wilson.

The house had served as the home of the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia from 1899 to 1903, when it was purchased by department store merchant David Spencer. In 1951 it was donated to the art centre, whereupon a design competition was launched to add a wing that would offer state-of-the-art exhibition space. The competition for the first $70,000 addition went to Victoria architects Clack, Clayton, and Pickstone. Two galleries, known as the North and South Centennial Galleries, funded by the municipalities of Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay, opened in 1958. The following year city businessman Robert H.G. Ker offered a further $20 000 to honour the centenary of his family's settlement in the Victoria area. This culminated in a third gallery designed and built by architects Polson and Siddall of Victoria. In 1970 the Founders Gallery was added, and in 1977 the Fred and Isabel Pollard Gallery for Asian art provided additional exhibition space for the couple's generous donations of Asian art. At the same time the North Centennial Gallery was rededicated as the Colin and Sylvia Graham Gallery, to honour the first curator.

In 1999 the dining room of the original mansion was refurbished to provide a contextual setting for the gallery's Victorian art collection. In 2004, heritage consultant Stewart Stark supervised the restoration of the mansion's exterior to its original colouring. A children's art studio is located in the former carriage house.

Owens Art Gallery

In the Maritimes, too, private philanthropy provided a major impetus for the opening of several galleries. In 1893 the Owens Art Gallery was funded by Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, to house the art collection of Saint John shipbuilder John Owen. Conceived by Toronto architect Edmund Burke, the Renaissance-style palazzo of olive-coloured Cumberland sandstone includes teaching facilities for the university's art program and additional space for a collection developed under the aegis of artist John Hammond.

Beaverbrook Art Gallery

The first public art museum in New Brunswick was endowed by Lord Beaverbrook, who donated to it many works from his own collection. Local architect Neil Stewart executed the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, which opened in 1959. An example of modern classicism, the structure of semi-glazed face brick was ornamented with a cornice and frieze of Québec marble, quarried at Philipsburg. Originally the interior consisted of one main gallery flanked by 2 other rooms for the Canadian and British collections respectively. Subsequently, an endowment by business entrepreneur Harrison McCain in memory of his wife led to the opening in 1995 of the Marion McCain Atlantic Gallery wing, dedicated to the work of Canadian artists from the Atlantic provinces.

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia

In Nova Scotia the Crown's 200-piece art collection was first entrusted to the Nova Scotia Museum of Fine Arts in 1908. After a stint on Citadel Hill in Halifax beginning in 1967, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia was officially renamed in 1975 and moved to a site on Coburg road, formerly occupied by the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design.

More than a decade later, in 1988, Andy Lynch of Lydon, Lynch Associates Ltd and Boyd and Garland Construction Ltd refitted the Dominion building on Hollis Street for the collection. This three-and-a-half-storey pedimented "Italianate" structure was designed in 1863 by David Stirling as a post office and customs house. Expansion of the refitted structure followed a decade later when two and a half floors of the neighbouring Province building were converted to provide space for the Maud Lewis house along with gallery services.

Confederation Centre Art Gallery

Two other galleries in the Maritime provinces are housed in multi-use structures. The Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown forms part of the $5.6-million Confederation Centre of the Arts, which includes a 1070-seat theatre, a public library and memorial hall, as well as 6 exhibition spaces for the art gallery and museum, together with storage for the 15 000 pieces of its permanent collection. The three-part Wallace sandstone building by architect Dimitri Dimakopoulos of the Montréal firm Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold and Sise was selected from 47 entries and opened in 1964 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference.

Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador

Formerly housed in the Arts and Culture centre of Memorial University, the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador now shares The Rooms with the Provincial Museum and Provincial Archives. Opened in 2005, The Rooms is built on the site of Fort Townsend, the remains of which are excavated in the basement of the new structure. Architect Philip Pratt drew inspiration from the fishing rooms of the outports, where families traditionally processed the catch, for the concrete and steel structure that encloses 14 000 square metres of space.

See Also Art Galleries and Museums.


Further Reading

  • Douglas Ord, The National Gallery of Canada: Ideas, Art, Architecture (2003); Witold Rybczynski, A Place for Art: The Architecture of the National Gallery of Canada (1993); Harold Kalman and John Roaf, Exploring Ottawa (1983).

External Links