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FEATURE The RMG: Oshawa’s hub of art and culture

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

The Robert McLaughlin Gallery has long been a staple of art and culture in Oshawa for the last half century.

Originally built in 1969, the RMG was designed and built under the guidance of an architect named Hugh Allward of Allward and Gouinlock.

According to the RMG website, it was originally “a square, stone, modernist structure allowing for 6,000 feet of exhibition space, offices and vault storage.”

In 1987, big change came about when a $5.4 million expansion was commissioned.

Architect Arthur Erickson was secured to add 36,000 square feet to meet the growing needs of the RMG and the community.

The design was built around the existing structure and incorporated the original stone façade into a “dramatic lobby design which is flooded with natural light, skylights and soaring to 35 foot ceilings.”

The concept of the RMG itself was originally conceived in 1967 by Oshawa designer William Caldwell, who had organized an exhibition of work by local artists at a commercial space.

Ewart McLaughlin and his wife Margaret, otherwise known as the painter Alexandra Luke, found there was a need for a more permanent home for the art.

The two of them offered financial support, as well as works from their own private collection.

It was eventually given the name of Robert McLaughlin, the founder of The McLaughlin Carriage Company, and Ewart’s grandfather.

Ewart’s cousin Isabel McLaughlin, also provided funding and more than 100 works of Canadian and international art, as she was an recognized ‘modernist painter,’ and also a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters.

Today, the RMG is independently incorporated, and governed by an elected Board of Trustees while also being operated by staff and volunteers.

The City of Oshawa, The Ontario Acts Council, The Canada Council for the Arts, Department of Canadian Heritage – Museum Assistance Program and the RMG Volunteer Committee all provide support for the gallery.

The RMG currently houses more than 4,500 works of art, the Thomas Bouckley Collection, and an art library as well as archives.

Donna Reatsen-Kemp, the CEO of the RMG says she believes the gallery was born through the collected efforts of people from the community.

Raetsen-Kemp notes there was a big role played by women in the development of the RMG, singling out Alexandra Luke and Isabel McLaughlin.

“Female artists – there wasn’t really a lot of respect for them at that point in time,” she says. “So we’re really proud that we’ve got two strong women that were at the roots of the gallery itself.”

Raetsen-Kemp says the RMG prides itself on promoting feminist culture, Indigenous culture, and various other demographics which are often overlooked.

“We’re very focused on making sure that we’re telling the full story of all of our communities,” she says. “We’ve been working really hard on working together with our Indigenous communities, and making sure their voices are heard, and the stories are told through their voices.”

As they implement their new strategic plan, Raetsen-Kemp says the gallery is “really focused on giving voice to the big issues that are facing our communities.”

However, she notes, “Every once in a while, there will be people who will voice concern with something they’re not comfortable with.”

She says museum officials see this as an opportunity to start a conversation.

“That’s how we’ve been approaching it and the feedback has been really positive,” she says. “Occasionally there might still be people who walk away and they’re maybe not pleased or they’re not satisfied, but the overwhelming majority of people are very supportive.”

Leila Timmins, curator and manager of exhibitions and collections, says, “As the manager of the curatorial department, I work with a team to put on the exhibitions that are seen up in the spaces.”

She works on everything outside of Gallery A, “which is our community and emerging artist gallery.”

Timmins explains there are six different exhibition spaces in the RMG, with the majority of them turning over three times per year with contemporary artwork, “even from within the collection or from without.”

She says there is also the permanent collection space which only shows work from the RMG’s vast portfolio.

“We have about 4,600 or 4,700 works, and so part of my role is overseeing the management of that collection too,” she explains.

Saira Knowles, the manager of learning and engagement says her department has a very multi-functional role divided into categories.

One category is formal education, which is with schools, and informal education which is “classes and workshops for kids, adults, special needs, all ages, family programs.”

Finally, Knowles says her department has the community and artist residency space, which is their partner and community engagement work.

Some programs run by Knowles and her team include the PA Day Camps, Sketchlines and Brushstrokes, Drawsome, and March Break and summer camps.

Knowles says with a laugh there isn’t a single piece of art in the gallery she identifies with, and she explains this is because “All art has different purposes and functions, and fulfills something different, so that’s kind of like asking me to pick my favourite book, it’s not possible, because everything lends itself to a different conversation, to a different dialogue, to a different understanding, and that’s how our school programs are put together.”

She says they can use one piece of artwork, and “it has three different conversations depending on which workshop it is serving.”

Sam Powless, the manager of community and volunteer development says he oversees three major things at the gallery.

Powless says he administers the volunteer program, runs the gallery’s gift shop, and oversees the monthly RMG Fridays, a monthly open house on the first Friday of every month where the gallery showcases local music, has food vendors, and short films from the Durham Region International Film Festival.

Powless says he grew up in Oshawa and has been visiting the RMG since he was a child, and for him there’s a couple pieces of art that stick out over his time there.

One such piece was a painting by Mary Pratt.

“When I was a kid, we came here for school trips all the time and I remember when I was a kid there was this painting of an aluminum foil covered turkey, and it looked photo realistic and it’s a beautiful painting. I remember looking at the time and being like ‘Why didn’t someone just take a photo of this? Like, why would you spend your time painting it when you could just take a damn photo?’” he says.

Powless further explains he will always remember that feeling of not understanding it, and he says it has always stuck with him.

“I read recently that artist, she just passed away, and I saw a photo of that painting and I can remember being a little kid and looking at that painting and all the feelings it stirred up in me,” Powless says.

While that painting was in the gallery when Powless was a child, there are still works in the exhibit today which catch his eye.

One such work was from the James Kirkpatrick: To the Unseen Future exhibit, which combines modern technology with art, and even includes video games.

Kirkpatrick is a London, Ontario-based artist known for mixing “vintage pop-culture imagery found in underground comics, retro video games and outsider science fiction with symbolic references hidden in secret societies” according to the RMG website.

Other exhibits currently on the go include the “Whose Home and Native Land” exhibit, the Shellie Zhang: The Ties that Bind exhibit, the Machine Age exhibit, the Riveting Women exhibit, and the Feminist Land Art Retreat: Free Rein exhibit which closes on March 31.

There is always a story surrounding the RMG, so for more information about the exhibits, RMG Fridays, or the gallery itself, visit http://rmg.on.ca/