ARCLines Alternator: Cultivating Alternative Art in the Okanagan

In 1987, a small group of artists living in the Okanagan came together to plan the formation of a regional artists association. The goal was to provide members of the local visual art community with networking and peer-support opportunities, and with the possibility of exhibiting work outside of the existing commercial and public gallery system. Soon after, on January 29, 1988, 16 artists attended the group’s first official meeting. The main item on the agenda was to concretize the formation of an association of Okanagan artists that would potentially oversee the foundation of a Parallel Gallery with the mandate to serve the region’s artistic community. It was decided that the association’s immediate goal would be to create a space for artists to meet, network, and share their work with one another. This mandate addressed needs and issues faced by the community including: a desire for “honest, open discussion,” for “mutual support,” and to break a “tremendous feeling of isolation;” the lack of opportunities for Okanagan artists to network at the local and national levels; the necessity to provide a space for the experimental presentation of art; offering support to younger artists; and the need to mediate with the public in the areas of education and politics. [1]

Following the yet-unnamed group’s initial planning reunion, an open showcase was organized for artists to mingle and receive feedback on their work. The event took place on the evening of February 26, 1988 at the Laurel Building (1304 Ellis St., Kelowna). Shortly after, the group’s second official meeting was held (March 25, 1988), this time with approximately 50 artists in attendance. The decision was made to name the association the Okanagan Artists Alternative (OAA), and members started making plans to organize their first group show.

The Okanagan Artists Alternative Association was officially incorporated in 1989 and applied for ANNPAC membership in 1990. Following the presentation of its first group show, which was held at the Laurel Building on May 7-8, 1988, the OAA decided to organize one juried thematic show and one all-members show a year. To put on these events, the OAA rented different temporary spaces until the Association signed a 6-month lease on a gallery space at 581 Gaston Ave. With this move to a semi-permanent location, the group developed regular programming and organized 6 exhibitions between the months of March and August 1991. In November of the same year, the OAA moved to 273 Bernard Ave., a space that would host its activities for the next 11 years. In 1993, the OAA changed its name to Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art. The same year, the centre received its first Canada Council grant and was able to begin paying staff members.

Providing “a venue for unorthodox or controversial art that cannot be seen in municipal or commercial galleries” is stated as guiding principle in the OAA’s founding constitution. This statement found particular resonance in 2005 when a controversy ensued in the process of realizing Temporal Transmissions, a public art project that the City of Kelowna commissioned Alternator to coordinate as part of the city’s centennial celebrations. For this project, Alternator commissioned 7 artists (Dana Claxton, Jayce Salloum, Patrick Conelly, Randy Grskovic, Christian Nicolay, Portia Priegert, and Karen Tam) to realize videos exploring aspects Kelowna’s history. The video compilation was to be presented at public screenings included in the City’s program of centennial festivities. However, 2 days before the first public screening was scheduled to take place, Kelowna’s Public Art Committee decided to postpone the event and requested that changes be made to Jayce Salloum’s video before the project received the City’s approval. Salloum’s contribution to Temporal Transmissions consisted in a 30-minute documentary video, Terra Incognita, which traced the local aboriginal community’s history before and after contact with European settlers. Specifically, the video looked at the evolution of the Westbank First Nation’s living conditions and denounced the pervasive effects of cultural assimilation, including the decimation of the local indigenous population and the legacy of Residential Schools. The City’s Public Art Committee considered that Salloum’s video was not rendered in the celebratory tone it had hoped for and that, since the work comprised approximately half of Temporal Transmissions’ compiled screening time, it disproportionally emphasized the local aboriginal community’s history. Both the artist and the gallery accused the City of censorship and claimed that refusing to screen the piece constituted yet another step in the process of erasing First Nations’ history in the region.

Without the City’s approval, Alternator went ahead and screened Temporal Transmissions on May 4–the date the first public screening was originally scheduled for–to an audience of more than 150 people, including Chiefs and representatives of each First Nation of the Okanagan Valley. Claiming that Alternator had not held up to its end of the bargain by delivering a work deemed unsuitable in the context of a public art commission, the City–whose frustration was compounded by the centre showcasing the work without approval–asked to be reimbursed the $17,000 that had already been allocated (out of $25,000) for the Temporal Transmissions commissions. Alternator maintained its position and requested the remaining $8,000 to cover project costs. After a few weeks of dispute, the centre and the City came to an agreement: Alternator would not repay the project funds it had already been allocated but would not receive any additional money for this project. In the end, Alternator retained distribution rights on the works, but the project lost its “public art” label. When this controversy ensued, artists and art organizations across the country manifested their support to Alternator, and the City Council’s inboxes were flooded by messages encouraging artistic freedom and denouncing the muzzling of First Nations’ history.

In 2002, Alternator relocated to the Rotary Centre for the Arts, a community centre host to cultural organizations and events. This move enabled Alternator to expand its facilities and diversify its programming through the administration of a Main Gallery, a Project Gallery, a Window Space and Studio 111, which hosted artist residencies between 2003 and 2009. Today, these spaces are tied to the centre’s many community outreach activities, which complement its regular programming of professional exhibitions in the Main and Window exhibition spaces. The Project Gallery presents exhibitions put on by Alternator’s members and community partners; Studio 111 serves as space for emerging artist-run or community driven cultural projects to be developed; and, in between regular programming, the centre’s Main Gallery and Window Space are used to host Intermission, a program that provides emerging artists (many enrolled at or having recently graduated from the Visual Art Program at UBC Okanagan) with professional exhibition experience. Through these activities, Alternator pursues its mandate to provide support and resources to emerging artists and alternative artistic production in the Okanagan region. The centre strives to inspire its members as well as the broader community by showcasing local, national, and international work that is engaged in its social context and that disturbs and transcends dominant constructions of art, identity, and value.

  • 1. Letter written by Murray Johnson to the Okanagan artistic community, January 31, 1988.
  • Founding Artists

    List of artists in attendance at a meeting held to discuss the foundation of an artist-run association in the Okanagan (January 29, 1988):

    Chris Nedelec
    Phyllis Scarfo
    Wendy Porter
    Mary McCulloch
    Rosalyane Haynes
    Jack Davis
    Tiz Davis
    Colleen Meneer
    Lynda Crawford
    Valerie Hamill
    Jim Tanner
    Luke Lindoe
    Gail Lindoe
    Jim Kalnin
    Dan Herman
    Mike Griffin
    Clare McManus
    Murray Johnson

    First Board of Directors

    Murray Johnson
    Betty Dhont
    Merv Brandel
    Renita Kraubner
    Ruth McLaurin
    Jim Tanner

    Date of Incorporation

    1989

    Okanagan Artists Alternative Constitution

    1. The name of the Society is Okanagan Artists Alternative.

    2. The purposes of the society are:

    - to establish and operate an artist-run gallery as an alternative to the municipal and commercial galleries in the Okanagan Region.
    - To exhibit high-quality contemporary art by both member and non-member artists.
    - To provide a forum for the exchange of ideas within the artistic community and with the general public.
    - To support and encourage innovative and experimental artwork.
    - To provide a venue for unorthodox or controversial art that cannot be seen in municipal or commercial galleries.
    - To support and encourage promising new artists.
    - To sponsor or collaborate with artists to carry out special artistic project [sic].
    - To foster knowledge skills important to practicing, professional artists.
    - To establish links with a national network or artist-run parallel galleries thereby gaining access to a broad range of information and opportunities.

    Alternator Locations

    1988 – Rented space for exhibitions and meetings in different spaces in the Okanagan, notably at the Laurel Building, 1304 Ellis St. in Kelowna

    March-August 1991 – held six exhibitions at 581 Gaston Ave. in Kelowna

    November 1991 – Moved to its first permanent location at 273 Bernard Ave. in Kelowna

    September 2002 – Relocated to the Rotary Centre for the Arts at #103-421 Cawston Ave. in Kelowna

    Relevant Archives

    Alternator houses boxes and binders containing archival material related to exhibition and organizational history that can be viewed at the gallery by appointment. Documentation of the centre’s programming from 2000 to today can be viewed here.

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