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A & E Art | A Gallery For All

Shelley Falconer’s Art Gallery of Hamilton is ushering in a new era



It’s too early to call, but it’s likely that Louise Dompierre’s legacy as director of the Art Gallery of Hamilton will be about restoring a sense of class and seriousness to the building. She came into her directorship at a time in the late ‘90s when critics were arguing that the AGH was little more than a money drain whose artworks should be sold to pay its debts. Dompierre instantly blew past any such notions, and instead of entering into a discussion about the gallery’s survival, began to find ways to make it bigger, more opulent, more prestigious, and more expensive.

It’s only been shy of half a year since Dompierre’s successor, Shelley Falconer, has been on the job, and yet you can already sense the paradigm shifting once again. Falconer comes in at a moment when city council has just voted to increase arts funding for the first time in 15 years. She comes in at a time when culture has successfully positioned itself as a cornerstone of Hamilton’s current identity. It’s nowhere as dire a state as the one Dompierre inherited; but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done.

“I don’t really want to be the subject of a profile; I’d rather talk about the gallery if that’s okay,” Falconer says at the outset of the interview. She is easygoing and warm, but wastes no time getting to her point.

“This gallery gets neither the support or federal/provincial status it deserves; we need to change that. Do you know how much funding we get from government? It’s 32%, mostly from project funding and significantly lower than any comparable gallery in Canada. It seems to have always been the case, this gallery is indeed more like an American private not-for-profit, except that there is no comparable tradition of private support here in Canada. What you have instead is a gallery supported by an enormously committed local community, that seems to be part of our historical tradition. This is a community that doesn’t get a lot of government funding, so they make things happen through will and grit.”

Falconer is new to Hamilton, but not necessarily a stranger to it. Her mother and grandmother escaped the Holocaust through the sponsorship of cousins here in Hamilton. Even though the family lived here for only a few months before moving to Montreal, the city still has an obvious symbolic resonance. Falconer herself also worked here in the city for a brief time in the 1990s as a curatorial intern, working with Ihor Holubisky and Andrew Hunter. It was her first exposure to the gallery’s collection.

For more than the last two decades, Falconer has worked as a curator, educator, consultant, entrepreneur with organizations, including Sotheby’s England, the Canadian Government, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. She helped re-shape the public programs during a 13-year stint at the McMichael, and she co-founded and was CEO of Cultural Asset Management Group, a consulting firm that offers a variety of services including appraisal, sales, and storage for private collectors and institutions. Her strength, therefore, lies in working with art collections; more precisely, knowing how to use an art collection as a tool of public engagement.

“When I was with the McMichael, one of my many challenges was to boost student engagement, which we did; we increased educational attendance from below 20,000 to over 40,000 a year. The AGH receives 9,000 kids a year. We should be able to do better. One of our future objectives will be to make sure that every kid within 40 kilometres has an opportunity to experience the collection and its programs. My position is that an institution like the AGH is for everyone, and fundamental to our mission is ensuring that every kid gets a chance to experience the relevance and power of art. Its role is as a gateway to understanding the world and its ability to support general education from visual arts through to geography, english, science and history. Yes, it is relevant to the art teacher, but we have something for everyone. It is just as relevant to the history and geography teacher, and we should be offering programs for every discipline.”

During our interview, Falconer careens through a list of things that need to be done. Renew the website that is 10 years past its prime. Upgrade the elevators. Re-think the gift shop and the Annex (the gallery’s satellite space on James North), make them less like furniture stores and more like bookshops. Get more involved in supporting the city’s industrial and architectural history. Prepare for a significant donation of work by celebrated Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky. Make a movie about the Gallery’s relationship with Hamilton. Initially it seems like a disjointed to-do list, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm with which she describes it. And slowly you begin to get the sense of what her vision might be. Falconer wants to make this gallery a lot more relevant and useful to a much wider swatch of people.

“When I first experienced the permanent collection so many years ago, I was floored. This is a significant national asset. You can’t open a book on the history of Canadian art without seeing pieces from this collection. You can’t tell the history of Canada without this collection. It’s amazing to come back to…This is what I think we should be telling people. ‘You want to learn about Canada, come to the AGH. That’s what paintings and artworks are; they are gateways to the past and present, to the world. Our job is to create those opportunities.”