Popular perception may rate taking in an art exhibition right up there with getting a root canal, but that doesn’t phase the new exec director of the Kelowna Art Gallery. Making art accessible to the community is a prime goal for Nataley Nagy.

Taking on the role of executive director for a major regional institution like the Kelowna Art Gallery (KAG) means a lot more than looking at pretty pictures. Along with aesthetics, Nataley Nagy’s job involves marketing and politics.

A transplanted easterner she arrived in Kelowna just last year. “It only sunk in about six months ago that I live here,” says Nataley, who came to KAG from the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto.

Taking the Kelowna positition could be seen as a step down from a major museum in the country’s largest city, but for Nataley it was an opportunity to return to her roots in purely visual arts.

“I was always interested in visual art but the Textile Museum is really fascinating because it’s home to a large amount of ethnographic material dealing with many, many different cultures. We had more than 12,000 artifacts. But it is more a museum-type of operation than a gallery. We did do contemporary art shows in order to excite contemporary art viewers. But I really did want to come back to Canadian contemporary art and Kelowna was a really perfect opportunity.”

The KAG job also gave Nataley the chance to leave the big city, which she wanted to do, and to try out the west. “I’m really quite an eastern person. I’m from Montreal, but I wanted to try something completely different. This was a great opportunity to come back into contemporary Canadian art with a collecting institution that has potential for a lot of growth.”

Nataley likes to be a change maker and sees this as a perfect place to do it. “There’s a fantastic team working here. Plus, I have a fantastic board of directors. The gallery, over the years, has cultivated a number of community members who are really committed to increasing its profile and being relevant to the community.”

Working closely with curator, Liz Wylie, plans for the near future include bringing in contemporary exhibitions from large institutions.

“Right now we’re planning a pretty exciting contemporary photography show from the National Gallery. We’re also borrowing touring shows from the Vancouver Art Gallery. Currently Barbara Astman, a Toronto artist who also teaches at the prestigious Ontario College of Art and Design, created a very site specific installation for us.”

Local artists aren’t ignored. KAG is putting together a show by local landscape painter David Alexander and an installation of found objects—in this case abandoned chairs—by Chad Pratch is on exhibit in the courtyard (photo left).

“We do a very broad variety of exhibitions....We’ve had to reduce them this year because of budget constraints, but for the most part, we’re actively turning over 14 shows a year.”

One upcoming exhibition is called, “The Point Is…” by five artists who deal in abstraction and the question of what abstract art is.

“We’re looking for a balance of mediums as well as representations from artists so we’ve also started to look at National Gallery shows that have a bit of a broader appeal. We’re exploring the touring masterpiece packages. They’re expensive to rent so we’re trying to work out a deal. There are a couple of shows that would be more masterpieces and away from contemporary Canadian art. We know that Canadian contemporary art is not everybody’s bag.”

Part of Nataley’s job is to encourage people to visit KAG. “From an historical point of view, if a society doesn’t represent the culture of the day it would be a very barren one. Think about it as a life without colour. It would be like living your life in black and white.”

It’s critical, she believes, that KAG finds common ground with the public and its community partners. The gallery works with Okanagan College and other cultural and social-based organizations like Kelowna Community Resources and the Central Okanagan Foundation to be socially relevant.

“It all depends on the kind of partnerships can we come up with to interest a broader spectrum. We know that probably 10 per cent of the population visits museums. Within that, which is a really small hunk of the pie, we’re trying to drag in some of the 10 per cent to visit our galleries.”

Nataley admits that the arts industry is partly responsible for low turnouts. “We’ve inadvertently created an art-speak that is not common language for individuals living everyday life. One of the things for us to do is to address art in language that doesn’t require you to be an art history major to understand it.”

For new Canadians, who need every cent to establish themselves, there is a citizenship and immigration program called the Cultural Access Pass. New citizens can receive one-year free memberships to cultural institutions in their community. KAG has just signed onto the program.

The arts world can appear formidable, but it is welcoming to those who show even a passing interest. Nataley had no intention of taking the plunge. In 1985 she was an undergrad law student at Carlton University. She volunteered at the university radio station and worked in a half-hour news magazine about upcoming arts events in Ottawa and other newsworthy arts items. “I was producing and hosting that program and becoming further and further involved in community radio which has a gentle way of sucking you in.”

Her show was sponsored by the artist-run SAW Gallery, which recruited her to work as assistant director and publicist. “So I gave up my dreams of being a lawyer and went to work for $12,000 in 1985. I was bitten. There was no going back. The visual arts became my life.”

Nataley then spent six years with the Ontario Arts Council giving out grants before being recruited to undertake her first museum director’s job at the Art Gallery of Windsor. During her time there she moved the gallery into a shopping mall while a new facility was built.

“We decided to try an experiment to see what would happen if this 45,000 square foot gallery was placed temporarily in the largest regional shopping mall while we built the new building. It brought in a lot of locals who normally wouldn’t have visited the gallery.”

Nataley now has a new horizon to seek out in the Okanagan and she doesn’t intend to be quiet about it. She has great plans to make the Kelowna Art Gallery a happy, noisy place with some appeal for everyone.

Story and photo by Bruce Kemp