Live here long enough and you’ll hear someone gripe about the lack of arts and culture here in Waterloo Region. It’s an unfounded complaint, and one that the art community here wants people to stop voicing. There’s not a lack of cultural things to do here – it’s that most of us don’t take advantage of them. Exhibit A: the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery. KWAG is one of the best-known art galleries in Canada, and it's located right here in downtown Kitchener.

Earlier this week, I walked over to the gallery to check out their latest show and learn more about its history. KWAG opened in 1956 in what was a bicycle shed behind Kitchener Collegiate Institute. “Volunteers had to literally scrape out pigeon droppings to put on a show. It was a Tom Thomson exhibition, with A.Y. Jackson from the Group of Seven playing a big role in organizing and opening the show,” said Stephanie Vegh. 

Vegh is the Manager of Media and Communications at KWAG and she took time to walk me through the gallery. The gallery moved to a space on Benton Street in the 60s before moving into Centre in the Square in 1980. “We just finished our big lobby renovation last year,” Vegh said. That was a big change, figuring out how to adapt the space built for a certain idea of what an art gallery in the 1980s should be.” It’s not only the size of the gallery that has increased over the years. The gallery’s collection has grown to more than 4,200 works of art.

The lobby at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery The new lobby at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery (Communitech photo: Alex Kinsella)

KWAG's current exhibit is Adad Hannah: Glints and Reflections. Hannah was born in New York, but has called Vancouver home since the 1980s. “He does a lot of these projects where he's going into museums and working with their collections, just sort of dealing with what the contemporary visitor’s relationship to historical work is,” said Vegh. Hannah works with community groups to stage tableaux vivants of classic pieces. “It’s a really interesting way to bring some of these historical works into the present,” Vegh said, “to be able to consider what our relationships as viewers or participants is.”

More of the Adad Hannah exhibition. (Communitech photo: Alex Kinsella)

“Look around here and it’s all photography and video,” said Vegh. Hannah's pieces are a mix of almost surreal photorealism and videos. From afar, the video pieces seem static. It’s not until you’re close up that you see the small twitches we all make when posing.

The gallery is working with more artists to incorporate new media into their work. This past summer, KWAG had artist Jenn E Norton on view in two of their exhibitions. Norton works with augmented reality for her art. “It's a challenge sometimes for us to teach the art that reflects what's going on in our gallery,” Vegh said. “We don’t have someone on staff who who’s an expert in AR to teach AR.”

Gallery staff are always looking for opportunities to work with the tech sector. “We recently installed two large screens as part of our Education Hub,” said Vegh. The plan is for the screens to be an interactive portal for visitors to view the gallery’s collection. “We don’t have the expertise to develop that kind of interactive experience,” said Vegh, “so we’re working with Google to make that happen.”

A sample of works from KWAG's permanent collection. (Communitech photo: Alex Kinsella)

For people looking to get involved, KWAG is open to volunteers to consult and even teach programs. The gallery is also open to equipment donations and sponsorship of their youth, teen and adult programs. “We want to let kids know that creativity is a vital part of who they are regardless if you become an artist or not, said Vegh.

I posted a few photos to my Instagram story while at the gallery. Almost immediately, I got a message from a friend asking how much admission was. That’s another thing people don’t know about KWAG – admission is free, though donations are welcome. “It's great because you can come back a few times during the show’s run,” said Vegh. “You don’t have to absorb it all in one go.”

KWAG is open every day except Monday. Thursday is the late night, when the gallery stays open until 9 p.m. The gallery is also open until 8 p.m. when there's a show at Centre in the Square. 

Vegh and I ended the tour back in the new lobby. I mentioned how refreshed I felt. Vegh commented, “KWAG is great for getting a refresh from simply being in the space. It just really recentres you to be able to spend time here.” I couldn’t agree more.