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Interview with Veronique Couillard & Alexis Boyle from the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG)

September 13, 2019

We recently spoke with Véronique Couillard, officer, media, public and Francophone relations and Alexis Boyle, community access, curator at the Ottawa Art Gallery. The OAG’s newest building imagines new ways of tackling acccesibility, and works with their community through out-reach programs. It’s clear that access, inclusion, and innovation are at the forefront of everything they do; how they structure their programming; who they bolster in their exhibitions, and even in how they’ve designed their new building.

The Ottawa Art Gallery opened up a new building in 2018 and its architecture speaks to accessibility in ways that people don’t necessarily think about. Could you talk a little bit about the design of the OAG and how it encourages participation?

Véronique: I’ve worn many hats and a long, long time ago, I was in public programs and that’s when I first started to be involved with redesigning the building. We worked with KPMB Architects but the vision of the building very much came from Alexandria Badzak, our director and CEO, who made sure to include staff in this process.

We would sit at meetings … and all imagine what the Gallery should be or could be. And in that, of course, we talked about things like what kind of flooring and where should the groups come in, and how high the ceilings should be, but we also talked about this [as] an opportunity to rethink accessibility in … a broader way … like being welcoming.

Physically, it meant that we wanted to have … everything in the building accessible to anyone who might not be mobile or be able to walk.…We also decided to stay free — our admission is free in the whole building, and we offer free childcare every Friday evening. Kids are super welcome in exhibition spaces, but if parents or guardians want a couple of hours of free time to look at art, that’s an option.

We also extended our hours, so [the redesign] was also an opportunity to look at other barriers, not just physical barriers, but also social and economic; what makes someone not be able to come to the Gallery?

The new layout of the OAG is rather inviting, with several entrances and no front desk.  Can you speak to the new design?

V: It’s true that upon walking in one of our two main entrances, the first thing you encounter is not a desk! You will see people sipping on coffee in Jackson, a beautiful staircase, interior windows to give you a peek in exhibition spaces, or even art right in the lobby. In a sense this is about removing a physical barrier or any kind of sense that one might feel like they shouldn’t go further.

The new Ottawa Art Gallery, 2018. Photo: Adrien Williams

What does accessibility mean to the OAG and what does it look like?

V: It means that we’re part of a conversation, I think that’s the best way to put it. We’ll never be finished with being accessible, you know? It can’t be a mould or a cookie cutter situation, we have to keep kind of looking into it, researching, or working with partners.

One way we learned that is [by working] with Carmen Papalia, who is an artist based in Vancouver. Carmen describes himself as a non-visual learner, and we worked with him and a place called VocalEye, also based in Vancouver. These two partners helped us in terms of accessibility, looking at how we design exhibitions and our interpretative materials like tours.

We looked at becoming accessible audio-wise … [and at] the height of objects in galleries to make sure that objects are not way up high, and either if you’re shorter or sitting, you can still enjoy the art.

I think is best to … at each opportunity that we can … re-think and re-define accessibility, either because of a new exhibit, a new theme, a new audience, or because we have a new partner, or a new project in the community, and just keeping in mind that it has to be flexible and flowing.

Could you speak about your program, Mine the Gap?

Alexis: Mine the Gap was funded by the Ontario Seniors Grant, and a big part of the program was being able to host older adults and folk from outside of the downtown core. We were able to provide transportation to and from OAG, which is a big one when it comes to diversity accessibility. It’s not just ‘can wheelchairs go through the doors.’

And what were some lessons that you learned from Mine the Gap?

A: Just that we should keep doing this. It was so well received. I think it is quite obvious that this kind of inter-generational programming that brings folks in different communities together for exchange through art experiences is needed.

People love the Ottawa Art Gallery … let’s keep bringing them and adapting programming specifically for their community. Whether that means translators for the tour, or adapting the workshops.

V: What I extracted from it is that … there needs to be more opportunities for inter-generational programs, and that initiatives that are designed for us, by us, work really well. It just ensures that the programming that we do is relevant. Because we’re connected to the community and we’re constantly asking ourselves questions, letting other people be hands on and almost take over our programming if you will, that is also being accessible and welcoming.

Music and Portraits incorporated traditional musical and dance performances into interactive sketches. Photographer: Ming Wu

What do you mean by “letting other people take over the programming”?

V: We have two concrete examples of that. OAG has a Youth Council, and also Art Wise, which is an older adult council. I’ll call them volunteers, but they’re volunteer council members. And they, along with Alexis, organize programs, series, or events based on what they identify as a need, and based on partnerships they create themselves, and basically the Gallery becomes, in a way, just the venue. We let these two groups lead the activities and those turn out to be a huge success, because we can’t know everything, we can’t be on the pulse of everything, and it’s a way of giving a voice.

On your website, you talk about how Music and Portraits worked to break down barriers. Could you speak to how the event achieved that?

A: Most of the seniors that participated, the Chinese traditional instrumentalists and Tai Chi performers, as well as members of Chinese Community service Centre, didn’t speak English. We had high school art students from Canterbury High School sketching their performances.…It was a giant room filled with beautiful music and dancing, and students just sitting on the floor, around, sketching as these performances happened. It was so beautiful and I think the performers were honoured to be able to share their gift in a large, professional space like that.

Even though verbal communication wasn’t possible, there was this tangible respect for one another’s talents … It was an example of how art and creative expressions, those languages can transcend.

Music and Portraits brought members of the PAL Ottawa Community, the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre, and visual arts students from Canterbury High School to the Ottawa Art Gallery to collaborate on creating dynamic works of Art. Photographer: Ming Wu

N: Do you have any advice to other cultural institutions that are trying to be more inclusive in their practices and in their processes?

V: My one advice is that there’s probably somebody out there already doing it. For us, we know that there are groups, or there’s an artist, or there’s a community out there that we can go to and partner with, or just invite over or ask for advice.

A: I would say look around at who’s not coming through the doors and who’s not participating in program – those are your target audiences. Whoever is not coming, go seek them out and create a program or a space, or touching relationship, and a reason to come. That being said … [with] some of the sensitive populations I work with, I often go to them. I’m doing off-site workshops once a month with people, and once that relationship of trust is built, I can invite them in, but it takes time, especially if I’m operating from a trauma-informed place.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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