Students from Central Public School on a school field trip to Agnes get to play and dance in Etherington House, an extension of the exhibition a guest + a host = a ghost. Photo: Garrett Elliott
By Tiffany Shaw
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Queen’s University’s art gallery embarks on an expansion that centres on the social role of art.
For over 50 years, Queen’s University’s art gallery has been housed in Etherington House, a neo-Georgian mansion bequeathed to the university by its owner, Agnes Etherington. Starting from a core collection of Canadian historical art in the Euro-American tradition, Agnes has grown its holdings and space over the years to become one of Ontario’s largest art galleries.
Recently, the art centre was due for a renovation and expansion. Director and Curator Emelie Chhangur saw this as an opportunity not just for a visual refresh—but a fundamental pivot that will help Agnes to centre the social impact and social role of an art institution.
Chhangur launched the project by inviting guest graffiti artists from along the Montreal-to-Toronto corridor to paint over the façades of part of Agnes’s current facility. The effect was to give a fresh visual presence to the building— and to underscore its radically different path.
The graffiti mirrors a sensibility of openness and intentionality about engaging with current and new audiences. Inside the mansion, a range of activities—from jam sessions with local musicians to square dancing with schoolchildren—are part of reclaiming the place as a warm, lived-in home which will eventually house artists’ residencies, rather than a stiffly preserved historical house that solely shelters artwork.
In consideration of the current conversation around monuments—questioning who they are privileging, and why—Agnes is positing a new direction that breaks down the barriers of institutional rigour and the framing around renovations for institutions. As part of this exploration, RIEL Consulting has been invited to create a framework for extensive community engagement, using a basis of Indigenous methodologies throughout, to find new directions for Agnes. Through studio workshops, they explored questions such as: what does hospitality look like in the 21st century? What does it mean to further the cause of art and community as a public, pedagogically driven museum? What needs to be done now to ensure Canada’s future museums no longer look like those of Canada’s colonial past?
The new building continues to be shaped by talking and sharing circles that meet on a regular basis. As Chhangur says, she wants to ensure that “our new building won’t be a container for old systems, but a proposition for new ideas.”
This work is starting to crystallize in an architectural proposal, led by KPMB, that includes flexible spaces for broad programming, and the idea of a front porch where land enters the fringes of the gallery, with access open to the community after hours.
The process is proving as important as the outcome: by bringing together community members around the kitchen table, the open-ended conversations around the future of the gallery echo the way women have gathered for generations, in many cultures, including in traditional Indigenous communities, and in Agnes Etherington’s own day and age.
“Agnes Etherington was a philanthropist, and I probably wouldn’t have a seat at her table,” says Chhangur. “But her original gift to Queen’s was made ‘to further the cause of art and community.’ We are taking Agnes’s calls to action and reimagining them today.”