Yellowknife needs more non-commercial art spaces, say local gallery owners and artists, but only if they stay that way.
Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty said last week a visitor centre planned for Centre Square Mall will include a non-commercial gallery space to exhibit – but not sell – northern artwork.
Existing Yellowknife gallery owners and artists have heard similar promises before, and some are hesitant to believe things will be different this time around.
“We have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the visitor centre promoting local artists, but not in a way that’s commercial and competitive with the people they’re supposed to be representing and promoting,” said Lisa Seagrave, owner of Yellowknife’s Gallery of the Midnight Sun.
“I don’t have a problem with a public exhibition space. But I would lie if I said it didn’t make me nervous, because it’s a slippery slope. I’ve been here before.”
Yellowknife has been without a permanent visitor centre since the previous building, which sat opposite the territorial legislature, was demolished over structural issues in 2017.
Gallery owners reported facing similar challenges operating alongside the old centre.
Seagrave characterized the old centre as a “market disruption.” She said the centre took advantage of government subsidies to undercut gallery prices, overpay suppliers, and line its shelves with southern products.
Geoff Morrison, owner of Aurora Emporium Art Gallery, said the impacts of that disruption extend beyond the old centre’s closing.
“It prevented our business from growing, it damaged our relationship with artists and customers. And local people were shopping there as much as tourists. It’s outrageous, actually,” he said.
“They were going into everybody’s business – arts and crafts, started getting into diamonds – and they were doing about a million in sales. They were probably the biggest retailer in Yellowknife by the time they were done.”
Rosalind Mercredi, owner of Down to Earth Gallery, said she didn’t understand the impact the old centre was having on her business until after it was demolished.
“They started getting bigger and bigger. We figured there was some impact, but you didn’t really realize how much until they closed and then, holy, our income in the first month increased by at least a third,” she said.
But it was never meant to be that way.
Seagrave said the original lease agreement between the City of Yellowknife and the visitor centre clearly prohibited retail activity on the property.
Cabin Radio was unable to locate the original lease agreement, and the City of Yellowknife didn’t respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Seagrave said if the City wants to avoid repeating the mistakes of its last visitor centre, it will have to provide adequate funding up front.
“As long as all the funding agencies – City of Yellowknife, GNWT – are prepared to fully support a visitor centre for what it’s supposed to be, I’m definitely all for a visitor centre,” she said.
‘This scuzzy mall’
Reservations about the new visitor centre extend beyond allegations of past mismanagement.
For Jessica McVicker, a painter based in Yellowknife, the proposed location in the Centre Square Mall is a deterrent for her to show her art.
Calls to revitalize the mall have been ongoing for years. Councillors have devised countless schemes to revitalize the space: building an indoor farmers’ market, relocating the public library from the second to the first floor, and housing the proposed polytechnic university are among them.
The federal government agreed in April to contribute nearly $400,000 to building the centre in the mall. The territory will kick in another $161,000, and the City of Yellowknife will pull $125,000 from a downtown revitalization fund to support the project.
McVicker said she wouldn’t be interested in showing her work at the mall for fear of devaluing it.
“It’s this scuzzy mall … it just doesn’t give me any points or reputation,” she said. “Selling art is like selling your reputation and the sense of value in your work. Where you’re showing it can really impact that.”
Artists and gallery owners agree that Yellowknife lacks adequate public art space.
Mercredi sat on art boards advocating for a territorial art gallery. She hopes the visitor centre will act as a “stepping stone” to a future permanent gallery in the city.
“We don’t have enough public art. Uptown we have lots of murals people have been painting. But nothing like sculptures and little parks that reflect art from our area,” she said.
“That helps revitalization. All those things that make you proud of where you’re from, and that’s what art can do. And art just makes things look prettier, right?”