UBC's AMS student gallery ready to Hatch

At UBC, a stunning art collection and a volunteer team get the space they deserve in the high-design new Nest

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      With its movable white walls and track lighting, its front windows overlooking the vaulted atrium of an architectural showpiece, the Hatch Art Gallery looks every bit an upscale urban art showroom.

      The shiny new space is definitely a step up for the country’s only totally student-owned, student-run gallery. Until now, it’s dwelled in a former reading room on the first floor of the old, heavily used Student Union Building at UBC. But now that the SUB is about to move into the $108-million, LEED-Platinum-designated Alma Mater Society Student Nest on campus, the little gallery with the small but killer collection of B.C. art is finally getting the digs it deserves.

      “The new space elevates the role of art in the building,” says Hatch gallery commissioner Gillian Anselmo, an art history and creative writing student, sitting on a curved black couch amid walls that have yet to have art hung on them. “The new gallery is really a good way to inspire students and the committee that runs the gallery to do their best. The visibility is also really big here. We’ll get a lot of walk-in traffic now.”

      Until today, the AMS gallery has been a bit of a hidden gem—although clearly the province’s greatest artists have known about it. The facility opened in the SUB in 1970, but the AMS began receiving donations in 1947, and its collection, Anselmo points out, now fills out a rich chronology of B.C. art. “Our permanent collection really does track the evolution and development of B.C. art. It shows a vast array of what B.C. art was and is. And artists want to be a part of that chronology,” says Anselmo, and she isn’t kidding. Among the pieces are E.J. Hughes’s eerily expressive 1947 Abandoned Village, River’s Inlet, BC; Jack Shadbolt’s bright 1957 abstract Mosaic for Autumn; Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s 2003 culture-clashing canvas Untitled; and Roy Arden’s 1993 tract-housing-sprawl photo Development #1. Other impressive names in the collection include Lawren Harris, Takao Tanabe, Gordon Smith, John Koerner, Roy Kiyooka, Ian Wallace, Iain Baxter&, Michael Morris, Ken Danby, Gathie Falk, Al Neil, Chris Woods, and Rodney Graham.

      Among the gallery's prize possessions is E.J. Hughes’s Abandoned Village, River’s Inlet, BC.

      Just how did the AMS acquire such stunning art? A 2008 catalogue essay about the collection credits the idea of a student-governed art collection to Prof. Hunter Lewis in 1940, as well as early work by former UBC fine-art department head (and famed B.C. artist) B.C. Binning and 1950s AMS vice-president and future prominent collector Ron Longstaffe. The Vancouver Art Gallery even hosted an exhibition of the AMS’s works in 1965. From that strong base, students and artists have helped it to evolve to represent different eras.

      During the ambitious new season at the Hatch, which includes nine shows between September and April, there’s a chance for Vancouverites to take in the AMS collection in its entirety for the first time in 30 years. The Centennial Show, set to run in January and February 2016, will require display space throughout the campus.

      “I feel like the AMS collection was created for students to see,” says Anselmo. “If you’re a student at UBC, it’s your collection. It should be shown.”

      The gallery also has three large pieces hung near the Great Hall of the Nest building itself: a huge, mosaiclike, 1960s Lionel Thomas mural that had been taken apart but is now painstakingly restored; a three-dimensional, sustainability-themed artwork by student artist Jake Ford; and an ethereal swirl of petri dishes by Alexandra van Zyl and Samantha Melnyk, called Into the Ether.

      Hatch commissioner Gillian Anselmo.

      “The Nest itself is a huge art space,” says Anselmo of the multitenanted student headquarters. “It’s a cultural hub now.”

      The Hatch Art Gallery kicks off this week, during the official opening of the Nest on Thursday (August 27). Its first archival show, called Recollecting Space: Student Union Buildings, 75 Years in the Making, opens on September 1. It includes original 1935 blueprints for 1940’s Brock Hall (the original student building), large photographic prints of student protests outside the SUB during the heyday of the hippies, and architectural plans for the futuristic, sustainable Nest.

      Throughout the year, Anselmo wants to animate the Hatch space with special events and art evenings for students. As for exhibitions, visual-arts students will have shows in the space, and other students will curate them, work that provides valuable experience and exposure to both. Outside the space are display cases for undergrads.

      “It’s really important to me to have a good representation of student work. We have already selected the exhibitions for the year with an eye to picking students’ work from all different faculties across campus,” Anselmo says. “It’s important to see student art because it’s important to see what’s coming. In 10 or 15 years, that is who is going to be important in the art world.”

      Just don’t let the fancy facilities fool you: this is still very much a gallery powered by student volunteers. And the fact that it doesn’t have any paid staff is what really sets it apart. Not all of the students donating their time and ideas to the project are art majors: Anselmo says some study other fields, like biology, and this is a way for them to keep their artistic interests alive. Even Anselmo is juggling her administration work with classes. “I have an exam tonight,” she says with a laugh. “We’re all pretty busy.”

      Recollecting Space: Student Union Buildings, 75 Years in the Making opens at the Hatch Art Gallery in UBC's AMS Student Nest on Thursday (August 27).

      Follow Janet Smith on Twitter @janetsmitharts.