The Ellen Gallery opens the vault 

By Karen Herland

Magnifying glass

Michèle Thériault knows having a strong and focused vision has been key to the national recognition earned by the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery.

As director since 2003, she has seen funding through the Canada Council increase by 110% – no small feat in a time of cutbacks and financial crisis.

“I think we have established our reputation as a serious gallery with a focus on contemporary art and recent historical contemporary practices that are intellectually engaging and demanding for the audience,” says Thériault.

The gallery continues to hold its own, being the only of three campus galleries to benefit from such a high level of external funding.

Unlike the VAV, which presents student work, or the FOFA, which is dedicated to professors, students and alumni of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Thériault says the Ellen Gallery focuses on both Canadian and international professional artmaking and curating and is an important presence in Montreal. “More than 50% of our visitors come from outside the university.”

Thériault considers this beneficial to the university by offering a different avenue for people to learn about Concordia, either by visiting shows, activities and events, or by coming across the gallery’s publications in museums and bookshops around the world.

That role was recently underscored during a strategic planning exercise undertaken to chart the gallery’s direction from 2009 to 2014 where artists, professors, community members, donors, alumni and administrators met to discuss the gallery’s future. One outcome was a recommendation to move governance of the gallery from the President’s Office to the Office of the Vice-President Research and Graduate Studies.

According to the gallery’s Strategic Plan [pdf], this shift reflects precedents elsewhere and will afford the gallery “similar forms of support as those received by other units that contribute [to our creative and academic mission] in similar ways.”

The Ellen Gallery began in the early 1960s with collections at both campuses that were later merged. In 1992, the gallery was named in honour of Leonard and Bina Ellen, important benefactors of the university. Of the 1 700 works currently owned by the gallery, most are Canadian, two-dimensional and reflect the tastes of their donors.

“The collection represents a kind of history of collecting at Concordia,” Thériault explains, adding that in its current state it raises all kinds of questions about its relationship to current collecting practices.

Technician Philip Kitt fits the current show’s title in amongst the collection spilling onto the Ellen Gallery’s walls. The show is open to the general public, adjacent to the LB Atrium, until April 17. Magnifying glass

Technician Philip Kitt fits the current show’s title in amongst the collection spilling onto the Ellen Gallery’s walls. The show is open to the general public, adjacent to the LB Atrium, until April 17.

Those questions are eloquently addressed in the gallery’s current exhibition, As much as possible given the time and space allotted, curated by Rebecca Duclos and David K. Ross. The curators have developed a way to systematically pull works from the vault with no consideration for style, medium and provenance and place them on the gallery walls. Their approach blurs the distinction between collection and gallery, exhibition and storage, private and public.

“The curators find ways to problematize a collection that raises all kinds of issues in terms of its display and conservation,” says Thériault.

The exhibition itself is a mapped-out version of that process. Each day the gallery is open, students and technicians will use a plan formulated by the curators to hang or display as many works as possible.

"You will have a Claude Tousignant up next to some little-known painter of the 20th century,” says Thériault.

The show is a clever wink to how so few works from any collection are ever viewed by the public. The gallery does have part of its collection in offices and boardrooms around the campus. Those works were photographed, starkly, in their current locations, by Ross. These images are rotated on a screen in the exhibition.

The works will continue to come out, jumbling incoherently on the walls of the gallery until March 31, the midpoint of the exhibit and the date of the vernissage. After that, the works will be taken down and returned to their storage space, wrapping up by the end of the show on April 17. The whole process will be recorded through time-lapse video updated weekly on the gallery’s web site.

Thériault wants the gallery to be recognized for exhibitions that address important issues in contemporary art and challenge curatorial practice, collecting and the role of the gallery itself. The Canadian and international artists she has invited to exhibit over the years have all shared an intellectual engagement with artmaking and a complexity in their discourse.


Concordia University