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Art, Politics and Alexandra Badzak

July 2010

1)      Ottawa’s municipal government has decided that any redevelopment of Lansdowne Park must include a new home for the Ottawa Art Gallery.

2)      City Hall’s Council and staff say they know where to find the money for this new facility and will finalize the funding in August.

3)      A new gallery depends completely on the city’s October 25 municipal elections and whether a tax-weary electorate complains loud enough for Council to scrap its multi-million-dollar plans.

Alexandra Badzak. Photo by Mike Levin

Despite intentions, politics break promises, and it is into this dilemma that Alexandra Badzak has arrived. It is also her first day on the job.

Badzak took over as director of the Ottawa Art Gallery on Monday. She knew the gallery needed a different space from the belfry it now occupies in Arts Court, but she’s way too savvy to wade into the political machinations of a city she’s only lived in since 2007. That doesn’t mean she’s unwilling to say what’s on her mind.

“If I wasn’t sure (the gallery) was moving forward on a new facility, I wouldn’t have been interested in the position. I’ve been an administrator long enough to know you’re constantly fighting for something, so this doesn’t faze me. I’m curious to see how the politics of Lansdowne plays out,” she says. Not surprisingly, it is a natural curiosity that got her here in the first place.

She reminds me of another Saskatchewan native, artist Russell Yuristy, who feels the Prairies teaches you to be inventive by learning how to watch. Badzak says she brought this with her.” In arts, Saskatchewan is very dynamic. Maybe because of its isolation, no one says you can’t do things. So you try them, and watch what happens.”

Her directness is refreshing, probably a result of growing up in Saskatoon as one of four sisters who tried to out-creative each other. She took a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts at the University of Saskatchewan, then courses in drawing at Emily Carr and in ceramics at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology and even taught children’s art for awhile in Prince Albert before realizing “being an artist is not as important as connecting to art.”

So it was back home to USask and a Master’s of Adult and Continuing Education. “Everything dovetailed, community development, diverse people in different content groups, exploring grassroots movements. It fit my natural curiosity.” Badzak says.

She picked up administrative experience during 10 years at the Mendel Art Gallery (once even working in financial collections) in Saskatoon. One of her innovations was the Reading Room, a space to examine controversial issues in contemporary art. She would try others when she went looking for a bigger canvas – as an executive director – a chance she got in 2007 at Ottawa’s Diefenbunker.

“it’s a cool but very complicated space, but limited by having access only by guided tour. I loved the challenge of transforming it, making it more accessible.” Badzak developed self-guided tours, using smart phones and MP3 players, and oversaw renovations that increased tour sizes from 60 to 500 (as of late June).

This is the sensibility she brings to the Ottawa Art Gallery. “The big problem is, people don’t know we’re here; that’s an issue with the profile. We definitely have a job ahead of us to show the city the gallery’s importance, and that means reaching out with programming that is relevant, using social media, seeing ourselves as part of a gathering space.”

Whew!

 Badzak’s direction is a lot to take in considering that Ottawa’s fractious municipal politics can cut the best plans off at the knees. “Yup. I’m picking up a train that’s already moving, but we are moving forward. We’re seeing some really great momentum by city staff speaking some very sophisticated language about arts and culture. And you know, I do get a sense of a blossoming understanding of what it means, what it takes, to be a creative city. A new gallery has to be a (significant) presence in that community.”

For a while anyway, Alexandra Badzak will guide this tour from her office in Arts Court, the one Ottawa spot where, in arts, anything is possible. How this determined newcomer deals with the political tempest of the moment will speak volumes about her Prairie inventiveness. “My master’s degree was all about political action, but I don’t want to get caught up in the politics of Lansdowne. We’re just after a better home.”

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