It is 8 p.m. on a Wednesday evening in March when the “OPEN” sign is turned back on. The red and blue light shines brightly through the front window of The New Gallery.

People walk in and gaze at the art in various forms throughout the open space. Poetry, photography and exercise books are splayed across the white walls of the gallery. Sitting on wooden shelves in the centre of the room rest pastel-coloured, re-labelled cans of preserved food typically found in Asian supermarkets, from coconut milk to luncheon meat.

Unlike most art galleries, this art is available to touch, read and engage with. Visitors are free to flip through the various books, watch the films displayed on vintage Sony televisions and try on the clothing items that are displayed.

Although The New Gallery typically closes its doors at 6 p.m. on weekdays, people continue to fill the progressively loud space to experience art first-hand at the opening night of the exhibition, Perfect Memory: Authentic Gift Shop.

Su Ying Strang, director of The New Gallery, says their mandate is to present socially relevant and politically-informed work to the public.

“We work with the idea in mind that art can be a tool for social change, that we can educate our audiences through contemporary art practices,” she explains.

The exhibition is a gift shop comprised entirely of pieces created and customized by Teresa Tam and Michelangela Samiadji, alternatively known as SAD LTD. Their work explores the idea of what it’s like to be Asian-Canadian and, as Samiadji calls it, the “Asian guilt” that comes along with it.

“It seems like the world always demands that you’re either a super Westernized person or you’re either a super Asian person. The guilt comes from not being enough of either,” says Samiadji.

But Perfect Memory: Authentic Gift Shop may not have been exhibited at The New Gallery even five years ago, before their relocation to Chinatown.

It has been four years since The New Gallery has moved to Chinatown, but it continues to develop new types of programming that explores the culture and identity of its new neighbourhood.

Teresa Tam (left) and Michelangela Samiadji (right), also known as SAD LTD, exchange customized gift items with parts of visitors’ identities at the opening night of Perfect Memory: Authentic Gift Shop on March 3, 2017. Photo by Karina Zapata. 

Change is a constant for the gallery. In fact, The New Gallery wasn’t always The New Gallery. The non-profit, artist-run centre for contemporary arts was established in 1975 as the Clouds & Water Gallery and Visual Production Society. It was the first artist-run centre in Calgary.

Its mission has always been to present and promote contemporary art to the public in alternative, non-mainstream ways. Luckily, the artist-run nature of the organization gives it the flexibility to do so.

“Artist-run centres are these beasts that are constantly changing. It changes when you have a new board, it changes when you have new staff and new leadership, it changes as the arts change in Canada. We evolve and shift on a day-to-day basis,” says Strang.

In 1980, Clouds & Water was renamed the OFF CENTRE CENTRE and seven years later, became The New Gallery that it is today. Although the gallery is constantly changing to remain new and relevant, the creation of its name was serendipitous.

“The gallery was moving and there was a floor plan and somebody wrote ‘new gallery’ on the floor plan as in, ‘This is the new gallery floor plan.’ But it just stuck,” Strang laughs.

However, one of its biggest shifts was its change of location in 2013 — after six moves around the city throughout its history, The New Gallery found its present home in Chinatown.

The move to Chinatown meant that the organization was decreasing the amount of money spent on rent and increasing the amount of money spent on programming.

 “We work with the idea in mind that art can be a tool for social change; that we can educate our audiences through contemporary art practices.” – Su Ying Strang

Often, an exhibition is paired with an essay that relates to the context of the work. An essay titled “Vaguely Familiar, Strangely Foreign” was written by Vicki Chau for Perfect Memory: Authentic Gift Shop. The move to Chinatown prompted the idea of taking the essays that are commissioned for the main-space exhibitions and translating them to Chinese.

“I think it’s always important to remember the context you’re in and respond to that,” says Strang, who played a key role in the essay translations last year. “Offering our essays bilingual wouldn’t have been as relevant when we weren’t in Chinatown.”

But one of the main challenges of the relocation comes along with the awareness that The New Gallery is a gentrifying force in Chinatown as a contemporary arts space. Strang says actively listening to merchants and residents of Chinatown is the first step to contributing to the community.

“I guess what I hope, as an organization in Chinatown, is that we are able to work with community residents and businesses, that we are able to collaborate with the community, and that we understand the context we’re in.”

Residing in Chinatown isn’t the only context The New Gallery has to respond to. The organization is constantly moulding itself and the kinds of content that occupy its space in order to respond to different societal needs and interests in Calgary.

Strang says that plenty of artists have begun to work in broader social contexts, making their work relevant to anyone — art enthusiast or not.

This gives Strang and her colleagues endless options when searching for appropriate programming to pursue, which can come through workshops, artist talks, exhibitions, residencies, and publications.

Tam, whose project alongside Samiadji was chosen to be presented at The New Gallery, says the organization is important because it exposes people to what contemporary art is today.

“The space itself [of The New Gallery] is very good because it’s central and it engages a different audience that isn’t typical of most artist-run centres,” says Tam.

Samiadji adds, “A lot of people still have the understanding that art is a specific, very conservative idea. [The New Gallery’s installation-based content] is creating a conversation in the community about what art is today instead of sticking to something people are comfortable with and I think that’s a good thing for Calgary.”

Back in the Gallery and only a few feet away from Tam and Samiadji are people of various ages and ethnicities who have gathered together in support of the collaboration’s “attempt at creating a culture [they] want to belong in,” as stated on the exhibition’s website.

Strang makes her way around the busy space, kindly welcoming visitors as the door chimes open and speaking in depth with others about the purpose and importance of the exhibition. She says  one of the benefits of being a public space is that they are open to critical discourse on the arts to kick off the conversation.

“We’re really interested in people getting familiar with contemporary arts so people can continue supporting it in the city, in Canada, and then we can see the visual arts flourish here.”

By Karina Zapata | kzapata@cjournal.ca

Editor: Logan Peters | lpeters@cjournal.ca