The Saint John Arts Centre: How To Look Good After 113 Years (Updated)

Inside the front doors of the Saint John Arts Centre is a large brass plaque with a very short list of donors. It’s their exclusive platinum donors list, reserved for only the biggest of names. At the very top is none other than steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. In 1904 he donated the money to construct the building (and 2508 others buildings across North America and Europe just like it) as a public library. You can imagine how hard it is to compete with that. Lady Aitken made the list in 1987 after providing the funds to support the building for over a decade in it’s conversion to the Aitken Bicentennial Exhibition Centre. While that’s some pretty rare air, over the last one hundred and eleven years a lot of love and support  has gone into this building as a hub for the arts and culture community, often in the form of smaller donations and grants. Now in its current incarnation as the Saint John Arts Centre, it’s looking for a new way to give back.

Saint John Art Centre (John England/The East)
Andrew Kierstead, SJAC Director (John England/The East)
Saint John Art Centre (John England/The East)
(John England/The East)

Andrew Kierstead is the current director of the Saint John Art Centre. Andrew was taking life-drawing classes at the centre, and already had a history of print-making, when the opportunity to pick up the torch came in 2011.

It was a challenging position to fill; not only was there a call to develop the functionality of the art centre, his first day on the job started amidst dust and debris, and one of the largest controversies the city of Saint John had seen this decade.  ‘The Great Peel Plaza Construction/Carnegie Building Front Steps Non-Event’ was raging on as city planners and architects scratched their heads as they debated whether to bury the lower floor of the building, or face the difficulties of designing a multi-tiered plaza. Amazingly enough, Andrew has never been anything but stalwart in his enthusiasm and passion for the Art Centre, and he’s working to make it better.

Since the Saint John Art Centre officially incorporated in 2002 it has been home to five different art galleries, host to countless events, and have offered regular classes on everything from drawing, to sculpting, print making, animation, sewing, and even yoga.

They have mandated themselves as nurturing grounds for artists, both amateur and professional. They have worked with local school districts to provide opportunities for students to develop their talents, either as hobbies or to prepare them for serious careers in the arts through their Portfolio Development Program.

Saint John Art Centre (John England/The East)
This is what a printmaking lab looks like. Shiny. (John England/The East)
Saint John Art Centre (John England/The East)
(John England/The East)

One shortcoming they’ve been working hard to correct is being able to provide artists with exhibition fees: payment for the privilege of showcasing their work.

“When you speak of non-commercial galleries in the province the first ones that come to mind would be the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the NB Museum,” says Keirstead. “They charge admission. They have other means of access to funds in order to pay out. The important thing to remember is that as a non-for-profit art centre we don’t charge admission. By being able to offer artist rights fees, it is a step in the right direction.”

“We’re changing, we’re developing, we’re trying to make it better, and we’re trying to be extremely respectful for the artists, because without the artists where are we?”

‘Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front Des Artistes Canadiens’ (CARFAC) fees have been offered in galleries across Canada since 1968, and while the Saint John Art Centre is fighting an uphill not-for-profit battle with one arm tied behind their back, they feel that making that effort is important. It hasn’t always been possible, certainly not to meet the full amount of funding for official CARFAC levels, but in support of the artists they’re doing what they can to get past what had become something of a sticking point.

“There was a group of artists here in the city, and some of them were very important for getting the art centre started. They felt that there should always be that high standard, and CARFAC fees should be offered, and they would not exhibit here because of that. Now that they see that we have these fees they’re thinking, ‘Okay, I see that there is a desire to move forward with this.’”

“It can help cover the cost of transportation, or hanging fees, or accommodation for the artists if they’re out of province. Not all work are pretty pictures on the wall, or photographs, some of it is installation, or very contemporary and not meant for sale. An artist may spend a lot of time creating a work of art and want to exhibit it, but know that this work will not be for sale, then how do they get some kind of compensation for what they’ve done?”

Saint John Art Centre (John England/The East)
(John England/The East)
Saint John Art Centre (John England/The East)
(John England/The East)

Their solution? A fundraiser that supports the artists, while also supporting the artists. Fifty prominent artists from Southern New Brunswick have been asked by the Art Centre to paint a 6×6 canvases (provided by SJAC). Each work of art will be placed in an identical non-descript box, and attendees of this Thursday night’s ‘What’s In The Box?’ event will have their names drawn to blindly purchase each box for $100, which will all go towards paying the artists rights fees throughout the year.

“Some people will put their name in five times, and like last year that person’s name was picked four times, and then his wife’s name was picked twice. It’s meant to be fun.”

Each artist has also been asked to bring a second work along to be exhibited during an event where everyone is hoping to come away with something.

“As a community art centre, we only survive because of the community. An art centre will only survive if the community wants it.”

As for Andrew Carnegie? “I like to think he’d smile, and understand that the footprint of the building isn’t big enough for the growth of mankind. Our knowledge has changed, even the fact that we’re going from hard cover books to digital.”

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