Monday, April 18, 2011

niche gallery: a history

The niche gallery began as a project for a Sculpture III course taught by Professor Nicholas Wade in 1997. The assignment was about public/private space, and this student chose to install a clear plexi-glass door on a locker in the Centre for Fine Arts Building at the University of Lethbridge in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. The door was installed so skillfully that it has remained till this day - though its contents have been altered.

In 2008, BFA (Art Studio) student Naomi Sato contemplated this locker and decided to make it into an art gallery for a studio class assignment. Sato went all-out with this project, installing drywall, hardwood flooring, baseboards, and a text panel outside of the locker for artist statements (even the locker below has been rented out as a gallery storage space). As well, Sato designed a logo, a contract form, a call for submissions poster, and a manifesto for the gallery, titled 'White Cube, Plexi-Glass Door'. The idea behind the gallery was to take a locker, something closed and private, but also public, and turn it into a non-hierarchical and anti-establishment space to exhibit artworks. The fact that a locker is itself a public space defies the idea of an art gallery being an exclusive space that not only requires a fee to view the art, but also requires entry into the intimidating presence of the elitist institution that is known as the traditional art gallery.

When Sato graduated in April 2008, she asked BFA (Art Studio) student Amber-Jane Grove if she'd like to be the curator of the niche gallery for the following academic year. Standing up to the challenge as an extra-curricular project, Grove asked Lisa Spinelli and Brenna Crabtree (also art studio majors) to assist in this endeavor. During Grove's year as the gallery director, she organized a biweekly exhibition schedule, and also worked hard to install an extension cord above the lockers next to the niche gallery. In addition, Grove made a door flap above the gallery space for easier access to electrical plug-ins. As the VP Internal of the Art Society, Grove also initiated the niche gallery's inclusion into the U of L's Art Society. Since then, the niche gallery is part of a club registered in the U of L Students' Union, and has a certain percentage of funding from the Art Society's earnings and savings via fundraisers and student art sales.

Continuing from the 2008-2009 academic year, Lisa Spinelli (BFA - Art Studio) took over as director of the gallery. Through the previous year the gallery team had been anticipating the permanent installation of an electrical outlet above the niche gallery locker due to fire regulations. The electrical outlet was installed in late 2009, making it much easier to having lighting and electronics inside the space! Another fortunate thing that happened is that the Recreation Centre chose to let the Art Department permanently own the niche gallery lockers and the Art Society locker, so that the department would no longer pay a yearly rental fee. Professor Michael Campbell has always been a supporter of the niche gallery and he assisted in some of the locker rental fees, for which we'd like to thank him.

During Spinelli's time as director, she chose to alter the gallery's exhibition schedule to a three week rotation, with the idea that it would give artists more of an opportunity to really work with the space and encourage more complex installations. BFA (Art Studio) majors Brenna Crabtree and Bonnie Patton also assisted with the gallery's communications, making posters and helping with opening reception arrangements. Originally Atallia Burke and Kasia Sosnowski were part of the 2009-2010 gallery team as well, but Spinelli had not yet figured out how to distribute the gallery duties amongst five people. The niche gallery volunteer number hasn't reached a formula yet in this gallery's young existence.

In December 2009 Patton took over as director of the niche gallery, with the continued assistance of Crabtree. Patton was excellent with her genuine interest and enthusiasm for the space, and did an exceptional job picking up the curator's work with Spinelli's unexpected leave of absence. Patton and Crabtree especially made an invaluable contribution to the gallery by coordinating the 'Faculty + Staff' exhibition with Professor Nicholas Wade in March 2010. 'Faculty + Staff' is the most collaborative exhibition - with the highest number of contributing artists - that the niche gallery has had to date.

For 2010-2011, BFA (Art History/Museum Studies Major) Tyler Stewart took over as director of the niche gallery, with David Smith (also BFA - Art History/Museum Studies) as a contributing volunteer member. Stewart brought his art history expertise to the position, reinforcing proposals and pushing fellow students to exhibit more challenging and thought-provoking work. This proved to be more effective than the 'free-for-all' or 'first-come, first serve' approach that had been used in the past for artists to 'sign-up' for exhibitions (after Sato graduated). However, is this still hierarchical, like other galleries? Does this contradict what the niche gallery was originally about? These were questions that previous curators had about such regulations, yet it seems to be a more professional approach, not to mention a good experience for those artists whom exhibit. It also enforces that the niche gallery is taken seriously, as a real and authentic gallery, despite its unconventional format.

As recently as last week, Stewart and Spinelli received an e-mail from a representative of a movement called the Locker Gallery Associaton, which is based in Vienna, Austria. The Locker Gallery Association stated that they were "impressed with [our] motivation", and said that they "would be honoured" if we joined their movement. As of this week, the niche gallery is awaiting its Locker Gallery License in the mail all the way from Austria! It's great to know that the efforts of our past curators and exhibiting artists has been recognized. Though we were never told directly, we can only guess that the Locker Gallery Association found us through, because Stewart and Spinelli are listed as contributors to the blog. Also a special thanks to Professor David Miller for suggesting that we document exhibitions on-line, as to record the gallery's existence and changing exhibitions.

To put it succinctly: the niche gallery is a collaboration with all who share the space, which is everyone. Each year whoever curates or exhibits in the space is changing it in some way, while still collaborating with all of those who have interacted with the space in the past.

This April 2011 Art Professor Nicholas Wade will be retiring. We'd like to thank Professor Wade for all of his enthusiasm and support for the niche gallery space, and for the intellectual and conceptual questions he has left with us, all because of that project he assigned those years ago. Who would have thought that the results of a course assignment would engage so many people?

Now the niche gallery will be passed on to a new gallery volunteer staff for the 2011-2012 academic year, and hopefully this will continue for many years to come.

Written by Lisa Spinelli
niche gallery volunteer

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