St. Catharines–The Niagara Artists Centre (NAC) has established the region’s newest visual art exhibition space. Located in the peninsula’s most popular flea market, this modest 8ft by 8ft gallery (the size of a market booth) will be programmed by NAC and will exhibit local and national contemporary artists. “Yogi Berra said, ‘If people don’t come out to the ballpark, no one is going to stop them,’ ” explains Stephen Remus, NAC’s Minister of Energy, Minds and Resources. “So we’re taking the ballpark to them. We have a sizable core of people who frequent the exhibits and events at our gallery downtown, but we thought, ‘let’s get out where the people are’; 2,500 people go through that flea market every Sunday.”

The first artists to show in the space are Swizzle Studio’s Christine Cosby and Rob Elliott of Toronto. This duo has cast themselves as beneficent trustees of the fictional Swizzle Foundation.  Transforming the single stall gallery into a European-style art museum, their installation features many of the physical attributes of St. Petersburg’s famous Hermitage Gallery – gilded frames, damask wall treatments, salon-style hanging – as well as such modern public museum fixtures as a recorded audio tour and security cameras.

The art work on display may not have been recognized as having much monetary value or historic significance, but it’s these notions that the artists aim to explore: who determines value and who writes history. The artwork ranges from amateur paintings to mass-produced Atomic Era crafts such as paint-by-numbers, needle-point, and liquid embroidery.  The Niagara Hermitage is a starting point for a conversation about the nature of museums, of collections, of art valuation, and of expected uses of space.

The Nature of Museums:
The landmark museum drawing thousands of tourists has become a brand as much as a cultural destination. In recent years, the world’s most famous museums have branded satellite museums in other cities. In the best-known case, the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, the art collection is eclipsed by both Frank Gehry’s architecture and the exotic location. The Niagara Hermitage purports to be a satellite of the famous Russian Hermitage museum situated in an incongruous locale. It calls into question the museum’s shifting role from agent of public good to engine of corporate enterprise and economic revitalization.

The Nature of Collections:
The art work on display is showcased in a style befitting a gallery or museum, but the provenance of the objects on display includes stops at thrift stores, flea markets, church bazaars, and garage sales. All from Cosby’s personal collection, the art on display at the flea market is presented to audiences for consideration in essentially the same manner as the priceless works of art in the Hermitage. Curiously, when combined together for display Cosby’s objects take on a greater aesthetic resonance. The Niagara Hermitage also prods the role a donor’s status plays in the esteem afforded a collection. Would Ken Thomson’s collection of Krieghoff paintings and prisoner-of-war model ships have warranted the construction of a new wing of the Art Gallery of Ontario if he wasn’t a famous, wealthy newspaper magnate?

The Nature of Valuation:
Sociologist Herbert J. Gans notes in his book Popular Culture and High Culture that everyone has the right to the culture they prefer, whether perceived as elite or popular. The Niagara Hermitage asks, ‘Is there less to enjoy or cherish in a portrait of a poodle by a spinster aunt than in a commissioned portrait of hunting dogs owned by a Habsburg Duke?’

Swizzle Studio
Swizzle Studio has worked with the Niagara Artists Centre since 2007. Rob Elliott produced the site-specific installation Hatchery in Winter 2008. Christine Cosby curated the collaborative textile project (The Return of) 3-D Exquisite Corpse in January 2008.

Niagara Artists Centre
Niagara Artists Centre is a not-for-profit, charitably registered, collective formed by and dedicated to serving the working artists and community of Niagara. NAC provides a forum for the development, exhibition and appreciation of contemporary art by providing facilities, equipment, professional expertise, and a supportive atmosphere for arts research, advocacy, and dissemination. NAC believes that the arts and a critical dialogue on the arts are integral to a healthy community.

The Niagara Artists Centre is grateful to Scott and Kelly of the Factory Outlet Flea Market for the donation of a booth for this project.