Shirley Madill, executive director of Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery talks about how they’re adapting to change. NICK STANLEY PHOTO

KWAG Is Not Going Back To Normal

When was the last time you heard someone say “…when we get back to normal?”

In the first months of shutdowns and physical distancing, we all assumed that we would go back to business as usual at some point. We’re approaching the nine-month mark of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses and organizations have started to look beyond returning to normal — and instead, look at this as an opportunity to rethink and refocus on how they operate.

While music and theatre venues are continuing to struggle due to COVID-19 restrictions, local artists and art galleries are finding new ways to engage with their audiences — both inside and outside of physical spaces. 

“This place will not be the same even with [COVID-19] disappearing, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery (KWAG) executive director Shirley Madill said. 

“What we discovered was a lot of options. So not only were we changing our strategic thinking in terms of how we’re meeting the audience [and] engaging the audience, but also our methodology and programming.”

The gallery decided to continue with their scheduled exhibitions during the shutdown. In June, they were able to reopen to the general public with a reduced capacity inside the gallery. 

“It really caused us to shift our thinking on how we were going to meet this challenge,” Madill said.

Madill and the gallery team have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to look at how to evolve and continue serving their mission. Going forward, KWAG will use a hybrid model of in-person and virtual events to engage with audiences in Waterloo Region, across Canada, and around the world. 

“Hybrid is the best option,” Madill said. “You’re jumping into that digital realm, and you’re experimenting with that digital realm. So you can actually break ground in that regard, and also reach a broader audience.”

Going digital can be challenging, but KWAG is tackling it by first acknowledging the gaps between in-person and online. Madill referenced an early attempt by tech giant Microsoft to create a virtual gallery. 

“They said, you just need the image. You’ve got a Van Gogh, you got the image. Well, that doesn’t really work. It’s not gonna cut it.” To be successful, Madill said the digital experience has to be engaging and interactive.

KWAG’s purpose goes beyond exhibitions in their gallery space inside Centre In The Square. Community outreach has been a core part of the gallery’s mission to help share art and art-making with everyone from students to seniors. The gallery’s approach to a hybrid model also includes community engagements and working to make sure they’re accessible and interactive. 

“You just need the arts more than ever at a time like this.” 

The gallery was asked to curate the Downtown Kitchener BIA’s Art Walk that opened last month. There are over 50 pieces of art spread out around the downtown core, including some impressive installations on the sides of new condo developments. 

“It was a really great win-win situation,” Madill said. “Because we were still in lockdown when this request started, and then to go outdoors and do something outdoors. It was really a breath of fresh air to do that.”

Turning lemons into lemonade might be a cliche, but it’s one that resonates well with KWAG’s approach to their mission going forward. Like most of us, pre-COVID times were spent doing our jobs and trying to keep up with deadlines and demands. COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests have given the gallery a chance to look at their methods of curating, collecting, and engaging through art. 

“We’re not going to be the same,” Madill said. “Will we go back to normal? No, because we’ve learned too much. There’s so many opportunities that came out of this experience that allowed us to experiment.”