In Halifax, Nova Scotia, artists have had to continually relocate their studios in the last two decades due to evictions, demolitions, or/and financial difficulties. A survey conducted in 2019 shows that these are the main reasons for the lack of artists’ studios in the peninsula, which has produced precarious circumstances in which they resort to alternatives such as home studios or art residencies in the city that include a working space. One of the artists affected by this surge of evictions was Emily Falencki, Director and Founder of The Blue Building Gallery, located at 2482 Maynard St, the larger initiative Falencki founded in collaboration with Wonder’neath Art Society. The gallery functions as a separate entity, and it officially opened to the public on February 11, 2021.
Emily Falencki came to Halifax from the US in 1999 to study at NSCAD University. After graduating, she attended the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland, to pursue her MFA. Currently, Falencki resides and works in the North-End of Halifax and on Cape Breton Island. In her work, she depicts portraits of people caught up in tragic and violent events. She follows a repetitive painting and erasing process, which creates a build-up of layers, alluding to how layering works in the memory as new experiences can transform old ones. She has also been a faculty member at NSCAD University and participated in the VANS mentorship program.
In our conversation, she brought up the experience of being evicted from the Propeller building on Gottingen Street, noting that what was important from that experience was how it brought home that “for too long there has not been purpose-built, dedicated, art studio space in Halifax.” Fast-forward to 2019, when the idea for this project started to take concrete form with Falencki’s purchase of a 10,0000 square foot building on Maynard Street, then to November of 2020 when 2482 Maynard St. opened its doors with twelve studio spaces for rent as well as other arts facilities, and finally to February 2021 when Falencki launched the Blue Building Gallery. It seems clear that this particular circumstance informed the decision to open a space that catered to the community by providing access to a visual arts facility that accommodates people at different levels in their artistic practice.
The gallery itself looks like the standard white cube warehouse more commonly found in larger cities. The Blue Building opened its first show, Soft Launch, featuring six of the gallery’s seven anchor artists: Emily Vey Duke & Cooper Battersby, Ursula Johnson, Sarah Maloney, Lucy Pullen, and Sheilah ReStack. Lucie Chan was unable to send work for this first exhibition due to COVID-19.
On its website, the Blue Building Gallery is described as an ‘artist-led contemporary commercial gallery.’ When I asked about this, Falencki said straightforwardly, “it means that it is led by an artist it means that I’m not a gallerist, I’m not trained that way so the vision and the skills would be very different.” In the same breath, she indicated that this kind of model for a gallery exists worldwide, listing places such as Berlin and Los Angeles. There is a history of artist-led spaces in her home city of New York, starting in the early 1950s until the mid-1960s with the 10th Street galleries in the East Village. These galleries were in response to a shortage of exhibition opportunities. Artists started to open and sustain galleries on their own, which allowed them to have space for experimentation that would later lead to the development of the foundation for happenings and installation art as we know them today.
“I’m trying to create the model that I would want. You can’t create it for yourself, but you can create it for other people around, so in conversations with these artists, it became clear what it should look like and what it should be,” Falencki says. Well aware of the absence of this kind of gallery in the city, her first step was selecting the anchor artists introduced to her from living here. All the artists will have solo shows in the gallery starting in the spring with Ursula Johnson. After another group show in the Summer, curated by the director, there will be solo exhibitions by Emily Vey Duke & Cooper Battersby and Lucy Pullen in the Fall.
Within the gallery’s framework, the seven anchor artists have been invited as the first exhibitors to display their work. Additionally, they can also curate their own exhibitions. Thus they can potentially use the gallery to champion other artists, possibly international or local artists. Concerning this advantage, Falencki says, “They have some ownership over the space in that manner if they choose to engage in that way, there is no requirement of that from them.” Another important aspect of Falencki’s approach is that the gallery does not represent artists as traditional galleries do. There is no exclusivity and no ownership of any kind; instead, the Blue Building seeks to be a space where artists can display their work and sell it. The gallery will negotiate the sale inquiries for the artists, therefore acting as a mediator, which means that the gallery keeps a sales percentage.
I find the Blue Building Gallery riveting as it seems to be such a heterogeneous space. It does not follow the non-profit structure of artists-run centres, but it also does not follow the traditional commercial gallery’s rules and hierarchical structure. This is to say that it provides an alternative to either model. What matters in this gallery model is to accommodate the artists’ needs and expectations concerning potential exhibitions, plus reaching certain commercial aims with their work. Falencki said quite frankly that she is not reinventing the wheel. In actuality, she expects that the Blue Building exhibitions will create a different discussion surrounding this model she is proposing in Halifax.
At the end of our interview, I asked Falencki, maybe naively, what she seeks to achieve with this project [the gallery]. She replied by pointing out how important it is to create more spaces for artists, especially those which help them receive financial compensation for their work. Moreover, her vision for the artists invited to exhibit in the Blue Building is that they get the recognition they deserve for their respective artistic practices. Falencki stresses that the artists selected thus far are, in her opinion, some of the best artists working today. She claims they could show their work in any gallery in the world.
The details of running a commercial gallery are complex and multifaceted, Falencki told me. She has a clear idea about her intention of following a for-profit model that merges characteristics that are appealing to artists by offering regular programming in the shape of exhibitions. All this is still too fresh for conclusions, not only with the opening of the Blue Building Gallery but also with the larger project of 2482 Maynard St. I’m hopeful of what this project can offer to the arts community in the coming years and how it will benefit the careers of the artists that present their work here. It remains to be seen how the gallery will support the artists beyond exhibitions. Possibly through lectures, fairs, pop-ups or publications. Nevertheless, only time will tell.
It takes gumption to decide to take on a project as big as this one, especially when the model proposed and followed is not conventional. At the same time, the gallery is also operating during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. There is so much potential for what the Blue Building can be and the different amalgamation of possibilities that can bring to the community at large. Also, besides supporting artists, there is an opportunity to involve other art workers in the gallery’s programming. For instance, it can provide a space for curators to cultivate their curatorial skills. Hopefully, it will become a cultural hub in which artists in various stages of their careers can meet and connect. No matter what the Blue Building’s future might bring and the endless prospects it can fulfill, the Blue Building can be a viable commercial gallery without an artist-run centre’s growing pains.