Brief History and Highlights
Lethbridge is a small but dynamic city in Southern Alberta on the traditional territory of the Niitsitapi (Blackfoot Confederacy). Two Blackfoot reserves neighbour the city, Piikani and Kainai, the largest reserve in Canada, with Lethbridge serving as an urban hub for the nearby reserves and surrounding rural communities. Lethbridge recently reached the population milestone of 100,000 residents, fueled by growth which has included a wave of new immigration that has greatly expanded the city’s demographics. The University of Lethbridge Art Gallery is a critical part of the city’s renowned art community and houses one of the most significant art collections in Canada, with over 15,000 objects.
The University of Lethbridge was founded in 1967. In view of its decision to adopt a liberal education philosophy, Arthur Erickson was hired to design the original campus, which opened in 1972. The Art Gallery was created in 1981 with the construction of a Centre for the Arts which included a purpose-built exhibition space. In the 1990s, the UofL Art Gallery went through a crisis in management and collecting practices. Recovery began in 1999 with the construction of an art vault to house the majority of the collection. The space adjacent to the main gallery was renovated in 2000 to hold small works and create a study area.
Over the past 18 years, the UofL Art Gallery has transformed into a leader in innovative exhibition practices, collections management, and audience engagement in Canada. In 2001, Josephine Mills was hired as the Director/Curator, and a satellite space, the Helen Christou Gallery, opened as part of the main pedestrian route for visitors to campus. In 2008, the Art Gallery was added to multi-year funding with the Canada Council for the Arts, which greatly enhanced the ability for long-term planning. In 2009, the administrative structure was moved from the Faculty of Fine Arts; now, the Director/Curator reports to the Vice-President Academic/Provost, thereby ensuring that the Art Gallery is part of high level planning at the University and connected to the entire campus. Following this administrative improvement, an Advisory Committee was constituted and new governing policies were approved. Also in 2009, the main exhibition space was renovated with new lights, flooring, ceiling tiles and electrical upgrades. In 2012, the entrance to the gallery was renovated to create Project Wall, an interactive digital platform to promote Art Gallery programs. In 2013, Jim Coutts selected the UofL Art Gallery to receive his art collection, and in 2017 the Art Gallery was chosen to receive the majority of the art collection of the late Dr. Margaret “Marmie” Perkins Hess.
In 2017, Mills formed Level 2: Lichen Lab, a research team linked to the Art Gallery’s programs that is studying what is involved with providing effective public engagement for contemporary art. In 2019, the research team launched Concepts That Bite Through Time, a project which connects people with Blackfoot knowledge through live events and digital images of historical Blackfoot objects held in British museum collections.
In 2019, the UofL Art Gallery created its first stand-alone strategic plan to thoughtfully move into a future that considers the current political and financial landscape, as well as the realities of climate change. As part of our commitment to learning from and creating deep connections with Indigenous peoples and perspectives, we hired Don McIntyre, an Ojibway artist and Management Professor at the University of Lethbridge to lead our planning process and help us create a truly specific set of strategies for advancement.