A Scarth St. art gallery gets a sidewalk space and a new approach

Art | by Gregory Beatty

A partial roof collapse would usually be a major setback for an art gallery already operating on a shoe-string budget. But while Neutral Ground’s board of directors and members suffered some major headaches when that happened during the run of last November’s exhibition Canada’s Rectangle, the accident helped spur a major rethink of the gallery’s operation.

If a disaster can ever be timely, maybe this one was.

“Neutral Ground had an ongoing committee that was looking for a new space,” says programming coordinator Amber Phelps Bondaroff. “Some things about the old space weren’t ideal. You had to walk up a flight of stairs, so it wasn’t accessible.

“It wasn’t very visible either,” adds Bondaroff. “The gallery was there for so long but a lot of people didn’t know about it — so there was a desire [by] the board to move into a more visible, accessible space.”

And now, they are.

Neutral Ground took over its old second-floor space at the end of a long hallway at 203-1856 Scarth St., in 1997. While the gallery isn’t moving very far geographically (across F.W. Hill Mall, actually, to 1835 Scarth), the new space is a world away as far as visibility and accessibility go.

“There’s an inside walkway so there’s lots of foot traffic, especially at lunch time from the business community and people who work downtown,” says Bondaroff. “So we’re hoping that might increase the audience that comes in. Even through just seeing what’s in the windows, people might come in who might not otherwise have done so at the old space.”

The new location also has a second window space that fronts the pedestrian mall.

“We’re hoping to get that going as a separate exhibition space for younger, emerging artists,” says Bondaroff. “For now, it’s going to be an additional space that artists in the main gallery can use. It’s visible all day, all night, so it will give an opportunity for more artists to show their work.”

Shifting Focus

Neutral Ground got its start as an artist-run centre in the early 1980s. For many years, the gallery programmed a regular schedule of exhibitions and other arts-related events.

Lately though, it’s focussed more on collaborations with other arts organizations that typically involved special performances and concerts, along with festivals, film screenings and some digital media projects through its companion organization, SOIL.

Moving forward, the focus will shift back to more formal exhibitions, says Bondaroff.

“I think that being a bit more reliable visual art location is one of the things that will help us serve our community better,” she says. “The changes were made after a lot of consultation with the membership and the larger arts community.

“People said they wanted to see more exhibitions, plus workshops and other public events. As we come out of this period of transition, we’ll be doing that.”

Public Relations

Bondaroff coordinated the 2016 Pop-Up project that saw work by eight local artists installed in select storefronts in downtown Regina, so she’s excited about the possibility for Neutral Ground to engage more vigorously with the public.

“I feel passionate about making art accessible to a broad scope of people,” she says. “Some folks might feel intimidated coming into a gallery, or might think they don’t know anything about art. But walking by an art work and just taking a moment to see it and think about it, I think, improves the quality of life for people in the city.”

And Neutral Ground’s new ground-floor location offers all sorts of possibilities for public engagement.

“The previous space was very tucked away, so anyone who was coming in was doing so intentionally to see an art exhibit,” says Bondaroff. “Now, we’re going to get a different level of engagement — whether it’s people walking by a window or coming into the gallery and spending some time.”

And that might bring challenges.

“With that diversity of audience, you’re going to get a diversity of opinions and levels of comfort,” she says. “As far as sensitive or triggering content, that’s something we’ll have to navigate with each exhibit. But the work that comes to us has been selected on its artistic merit by a jury of artists from the community. And we’re not interested in softening or censoring it.”

During gallery hours, staff will be available to speak with people about the art on display, says Neutral Ground administrative coordinator Simon Fuh.

“Being friendly and approachable goes such a long way,” he notes. “Often, people have misconceptions about their opinions on art. Sometimes, they think their opinions aren’t valid. But part of the idea of greeting people is making sure they know that what they’re feeling is totally reasonable.”

Neutral Ground will soon hold its inaugural exhibition at its new space. Phenomenal Hosts is by Vancouver-based, Regina-born artist Lucien Durey, and consists of paintings, sculpture and assemblage where he subjects the Regina home of his mother and stepfather to what gallery publicity describes as “an intimate investigation”. There’s an opening night vocal performance by Durey on April 7 at 7 p.m., and the show will run until May 19.