Taking a stroll around the old courthouse-turned-art-gallery on Central Avenue, it’s easy to see why it would be an appealing space for a gallery. High ceilings, sweeping staircases and plenty of room to roam fuse together modern art with the heritage of the building, giving the gallery a uniquely quirky but peaceful feeling.
In the 33 years since its founding, gallery 2 has become a fiture of life in Grand Forks. It has grown as the city grew, taking on more space, more people and more members over the years. While it might now be indisguishabe from its imposing space downtown, the gallery came from humble beginnings – getting started with not much more than some passionate volunteers and a space in a basement.
Richard Reid is a long-time Christina Lake resident who was instrumental in the early years of the gallery. Reid was the chair of the Bachelor of Fine arts program at the University of British Columbia when they started looking for locations for a summer home. Christina Lakes chose them, he said, and so began summers at the lake as they started building a home.
It was during one of those summers when a friend suggested he attend an arts council meeting, thinking Reid would have interesting insights for the membership with his background as an artist, art professor and university administrator.
Reid’s involvement with what would soon become gallery 2 really began at that meeting, he said.
“The province had a regional juried exhibit and someone said we have the opportunity to get it but we had no place to put it,” Reid said. “Someone else at the meeting said ‘there’s a space under the library maybe we can use temporarily,’ so the city said yes, and that was the start of things.
“I had a look at the space it was just empty, six light bulbs, completely open. I got a few people together and we put up some stud walls and covered them with paper, just white roll paper. The show went and it looked great.”
Community support for that first show was fantastic, Reid said, and got the ball rolling on establishing a formal gallery. The space used for that original travelling exhibit worked well – well enough for people to ask the city’s permission to establish a permanent space there.
“Everyone got enthusiastic about maybe doing it again, and that coincided with someone asking if can we use it more often, and asking me to design [a space],” he said. The city granted their request and gave them some money leftover from the construction of the library to start out, and with that and some grants the gallery was born.
Gallery 2 officially opened its doors in the basement of the Grand Forks and District Public Library on June 13, 1984. For the early years the gallery was under the umbrella of what is now known as the Boundary District Arts Council, until it formed its own society in the 1990s. Opening night attracted over 300 people.
Wendy Butterfield is an administrator with the gallery, and has been involved for the last 30 years. As a volunteer, she remembers those early years as the gallery sought to establish itself in the basement of the library.
“It was a beautiful space, but hideous to get there,” she said “Cement stairs, and lots of people would get to that bottom door and turnaround and leave. It was a big empty space with some light bulbs on the ceiling.”
Using the library space had some challenges, Butterfield remembers. It was unusual for a gallery to have such low ceilings – something that made for unique solutions and stunning shows.
“[We] had a fabric show from Finland. It was all these great big pieces fabric, 12 and 15 feet, [that were] supposed to be hanging,” she said. “Beverly Reid has an amazing artist’s mind, and they hung bamboo rods on fishing line, and had these waves of fabric coming down. It was spectacular, these rivers of fabric, and probably 100 times better looking than just hanging flat on the wall.”
During these years, Reid served as the gallery’s director and his wife Beverly as curator. In those early years there wasn’t much to be had for funding, so the couple donated their time for nearly 10 years as it got established.
“It operated on no money, donations as [people] came in the door, so almost totally volunteer,” he said. “We covered costs with membership and donations and that helped. We did gift shop almost right away and it was very successful.”
Over the next twenty years, the gallery continued to grow into what many of us know it to be today. In that time it didn’t change so much as it evolved, Reid said, becoming more professional, growing its membership and finding more opportunities for funding. In the mid-90s it became one of a handful of art galleries in the province to receive funding, and it established a fee for service agreement with the City of Grand Forks. It also ramped up fundraising, everything from a “gifts from the gallery” Christmas craft sale to a strawberry social to what is now the gallery’s best-known event the annual wine tasting.
“Somehow I made the mistake of going to an arts council meeting,” Reid said with a laugh. “It was accidental. I had no intention and 25 years later I left the gallery.”
Into the courthouse
Over time, it became clear the gallery needed a new space, Butterfield said. While the library space was unique, sometimes it was difficult to find or patrons had trouble with the stairs. Either way, they needed something bigger, and that’s when political will propelled them forward.
“It was the courthouse and when I moved here 30 years ago it had all the offices, forestry and mining and fishing, probation, registry. It was a busy building.”
After some government cuts, the centralization of the courts and moving of offices, Butterfield said the building spent most days completely empty. The city bought the building “for a steal.” While the gallery had actually had their eye on what would later become city hall, it was the city’s Chief Administrative Officer that suggested the old courthouse.
“It was Victor Kumar. He came down to the gallery and looked around right after he came into town, asked a few questions and left. And the next thing is he said ‘they’re going to move into this building.’” The gallery moved in to its new home in 2008.
While Reid had retired from gallery work a couple years before the move into the new space, current gallery curator Ted Fogg had taken over the position as director-curator in 2007. The move from library to courthouse included the addition of the heritage gallery and visitor’s centre in the bottom floor, changing the mandate from Grand Forks Art Gallery to Gallery 2 Arts and Heritage Centre.
The building, which was built in 1911, demanded a new kind of respect for the gallery. Before the art moved in, the city did some extensive renovations on the space, including changing the lighting to make it suit an art gallery. So while the heritage fixtures are unique for a gallery space, Butterfield said art and heritage have always coexisted well in the space.
“We have adapted well [to the space],” Butterfield said. “We were concerned. There were good vibes in the library, and we didn’t think we’d get that here, but by golly we do. It was just so much bigger, but it felt like home so quickly.”
The courthouse space lends a bit of majesty to the gallery, Butterfield said, and the addition of the visitor’s centre brings people in who might now ordinarily visit an art gallery.
“This building has a real class about it,” she said. “It just works. It lends itself to having art everywhere. People are proud of this building, they bring guests in, and that’s good support.”
Since moving into the courthouse space almost 10 years ago, the gallery has adapted, Butterfield said. While there’s been growth, the support of the community has remained the same.
“We have the same membership system and the same base. We get new members but its amazing how many people have been members since day one,” she said.
Gallery curator Ted Fogg got an early start with the gallery, volunteering his time long before he became the gallery’s director-curator (and more recently, curator) in 2007. Fogg worked with the Reids to put together exhibits in the early years of the gallery, working as a preparator – that is, the person who hangs the art and getting it ready to show.
Fogg said over the 10 years he’s been the with gallery, including its move across the street, the biggest challenge was the new space. But, he added, it’s only made the gallery stronger.
“The biggest change was moving from the library here. It gave us an opportunity to do more on a larger scale, and … get more local work. We have three spaces and we try to keep on for local [artists],” he said. “What we try to do is bring art you wouldn’t see otherwise, unless you travelled.”
The gallery continues to be a centrepiece of life in Grand Forks, hosting everything from annual general meetings to the black tie wine tasting fundraiser every year. That is central to the building’s history as a community hub, something to which the gallery has tried to maintain true, Fogg said.
“It is a community building, so we try to involve the community,” he said. “We have meeting spaces, music concerts and such.”
Fogg started out as the director-curator, but about two years ago the position split and the gallery took on a curator as well as a director. Fogg and executive director Terry Woodruff are both retiring this year, and the gallery will move back to a director-curator model with its new hire.
While the gallery looks ahead to its future in Grand Forks, one thing has remained constant: the support of the city and the community has remained central to the gallery’s survival. That’s one thing unlikely to change as the gallery moves forward into its next 35 years and beyond.
“So many people come in and say, ‘I can’t believe a town this size has a facility like this,’ Butterfield said. “Full credit to the city, they support us well. The building is beautiful and we have good shows.”
-This story is the first in a monthly series documenting the history of some of Grand Forks’ most notable buildings and intuitions.