An insider’s guide to the Art Gallery of Alberta

Let’s go to the museum! Over the next few weeks, we’ll be discovering Canada’s favourite museums and public galleries and sharing little life hacks for planning your trip right. What are the must-sees? The hidden gems? At every stop, a different artist will be your tour guide.

Located in Edmonton’s Churchill Square, the Art Gallery of Alberta is too distinctive to miss — but if you seriously don’t know the asphalt from your elbow, Marigold Santos always offers the same directions to visitors: “Just look for the beautiful building with the big, metal noodles.”

She’s joking — kind of. Technically, the enormous ribbon wrapping the AGA in 190 metres of steel is supposed to suggest the North Saskatchewan River and the Aurora Borealis — a couple of the city’s natural wonders (though their noodle shops are also excellent). But if Santos likes describing that architectural loop-de-loop as supersized ramen, just know that she says that with love.

Santos is a part-time Edmontonian, and she’s spent the last two winters teaching at the city’s MacEwan University. (During the rest of the year, she splits her time between Calgary and Montreal.) But since first visiting the AGA in 2017, the gallery quickly became one of her favourite places in the city. It’s where she goes on her days off (especially when the temperature dips south of -20), and it’s also an institution that’s played a role in her artistic career. (Right now, a solo exhibition of her work, Surface Tether, is showing there to July 1.)

“In general, museums and galleries are part of my research. As an artist, you need to be informed about what’s happening in contemporary art,” says Santos. “It interests me to know what’s happening, and it’s also something that you gain inspiration from.” So for her, dropping by the AGA is all about making those kinds of new discoveries. Here’s her guide to a day at the gallery.

How to get there

Connected to Edmonton’s LRT line, visitors can reach the AGA by hopping off at Churchill Station, and depending on the weather, Santos strongly suggests taking transit. “I’m here for the wintertime,” says Santos, “and it was an awful, awful winter,” she laughs. “So this was a hack for me.” (Regular adult ETS fare will set you back $3.50.) “You can get off at the platform and walk up the stairs and you’re already inside the AGA. So that’s a really cool thing.”

First stop: Manning Hall

Santos keeps her trips short and focused. “I am a museum goer that gets overwhelmed,” she explains. But a day at the AGA always begins with a stop at Manning Hall, an exhibition space off the entrance.

“It sets the tone for my visit because it can give you an indication to what kind of programming they might have,” she says. Through Oct. 6, a large photo installation from Kablusiak’s ghost series is appearing in the space. (They’re an Alberta-based Inuvialuk artist. The exhibition was curated by the AGA’s Jessie Ray Short.)

“Just to take up that space — this large, beautiful, portrait-like photographic work — is really powerful,” says Santos. “I feel like the AGA has really open, inclusive programming that really takes into account diversity in Alberta, and this is a really good example of that — having a commissioned work by Kablusiak being the first thing that you see.”

To Instagram, or not to Instagram

From there, head upstairs, and Santos suggests taking a moment on the second floor to appreciate your surroundings — the high ceilings, the enormous windows, the view up the staircase towards the top of the building. “The AGA is really beautiful on the outside, and it’s also really beautiful on the inside because all of that architecture is repeated,” she says. “The second floor — there’s something really impressive about that. I guess you would call it the open common area, before you go into one gallery or another. That space is really beautiful because it has a sort of balcony ledge, and you can look down into Manning Hall and the atrium. […] It’s a transitional space, so you might not really think twice about it, but it’s really beautiful.”

What’s new?

“I’m always drawn to seeing what the new exhibitions are,” says Santos, and of the shows on now, she especially recommends “another Landscape show.” (See it to July 1.)

The AGA’s collection has traditionally focused on Canadian abstract art and sculpture, and this exhibition (curated by Amery Calvelli, Franchesca Hebert-Spence, Lindsey Sharman and Jessie Ray Short) questions the major role that landscape art plays in their holdings. “They feature such diverse artists in this exhibition, and it’s not just featuring landscape paintings,” she says. “There’s sculpture, there’s photography — and it asks really hard questions.”

“This exhibition really talks about how landscape can include social landscapes and psychological landscapes and the impact of colonization on our community — the landscape of Alberta and Canada.”

“In recent years [the AGA’s] programming has been very open and inclusive and current and contemporary, which I think is really important to bring to Alberta.”

Picnic on the roof (weather permitting)

If you’re lucky enough to be visiting during the summer, don’t leave the gallery without checking out The City of Edmonton Terrace, the AGA’s rooftop patio. (Reach it from the third floor.) “They set up little chairs and tables and you can take a moment for yourself, looking over downtown.”

“There’s obviously no food and drink allowed in the exhibition spaces, but you’re welcome to bring your own food and snacks and rest in their common areas. And that outdoor balcony area is quite nice.”

Discover the undiscovered

The AGA’s “Showcase: Small spaces | big ideas” is sort of like the V.I.P. version of a neighbourhood “tiny art gallery” — 26 “mini-exhibition spaces” that are available to artists of all ages and levels of experience. Technically, those “spaces” are shelves, rhombus-shaped vitrines that switch up their programming every two months. Find it on the main floor, because according to Santos, this community art project is one of the AGA’s best hidden gems. “I’ve seen photographs in there, little tiny sculptures, mini paintings,” she says. “Anyone and everyone can submit a proposal to exhibit something inside.” (Artists can register through the gallery’s website.)

End your museum day by visiting another museum

In October, the Royal Alberta Museum officially opened its brand new building, which is now little more than a block from the AGA. “After I go to the gallery, I actually like to walk down the street and go there,” says Santos. “I don’t actually go into the Royal Alberta Museum to check out the exhibits. When you walk in, you can go up to the stairs to the second floor and there’s a separate space that’s free to the public. It’s where the Manitou Stone is shown.”

That object, a meteorite thought to be 4.5 billion years old, is sacred to the Indigenous peoples of the region, so this public viewing area (the Manitou Asinîy Gallery) is meant to be a place for reflection. Photography in the venue is not permitted.

“The Manitou Stone is in the centre, and then the enclosed space has circular benches that go all the way around, ” says Santos, describing the gallery. “The walls of the rotunda feature a panoramic photo of the actual geography of where the stone comes from, which is Iron Creek, Alberta.”

“It’s a place where they invite you to contemplate,” she says.

“Sometimes when you’ve seen too much artwork, or too much of anything, it just wipes away thoughts of the thing you’ve seen previously. So I really like to give myself some space to digest what I’ve seen.”

“Whenever I go to the AGA, I like to end my visit by going there to contemplate the stone and think about the heritage of Alberta.”

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