By Catherine Stutt
Visitors to the Belleville Public Library are checking out more than books – they are taking the opportunity to see some of the finest art creations in the country, and in the spirit of any public library, the eye (and ear) candy is available free of charge.
Originally housed in the Corby Library in the old Merchant’s Bank, the gallery took a major step forward six years ago when local philanthropists John and Bernice Parrott generously donated their personal collection Manly MacDonald paintings. This gift coincided with the opening of the new Belleville Public Library at 254 Pinnacle Street, and in the donors’ honour, the venue was renamed the John M. Parrott Art Gallery.
As it approaches its 40th anniversary in 2013, the Gallery can reflect on four decades of successful exhibitions. Along the way, it stayed true to its promise of making internationally renowned art accessible to the public in a local venue.
“We offer the best exhibition space between Cobourg and Kingston inclusive,” said Susan Holland, the gallery’s curator for the past nine years. “We have the attention of the Kingston art community; artists from Prince Edward County utilize the space, and we recently hosted Spirit of the Hills from Northumberland County.”
Susan and her assistants balance the exhibitions to deliver a good mix of individuals and groups, new and retrospective works, perspectives on pieces in the permanent collection, and companion work to well-known images.
In September 2011, Charles Beale chose the Parrott Gallery to launch his book on Manly MacDonald. “We used all three rooms,” explained Susan. The gallery’s collection was in the big room, pieces in private collections from community members in the middle room, and the Loyalist College and Glanmore collection in the third room. Manly’s son Duncan and daughter-in-law Barbara attended from Guelph.
Born in Pointe Anne, on the outskirts of Belleville, Manly MacDonald painted 2,000 canvasses over four decades, including a 1959 commission of Toronto’s waterfront as a gift to Queen Elizabeth. Several years earlier, in 1951, he resigned his membership in the Ontario Society of Arts citing creeping modernism in Canadian art circles. The Parrotts’ donation included 70 canvasses of his work.
The permanent collection at the gallery continues to grow, with a strong focus on area artists. “We welcome the opportunity to receive donations of excellent and meaningful local art,” stressed Susan. “They represent local artists and often local scenes. We have copycat events where children can paint from the most famous artists in the community and have their work in a public gallery. We have a lot of room and we can do amazing presentations.”
A significant effort is focused on local and emerging artists. Each year high school students from the Quinte area have an opportunity to show their work in the gallery. “We measure success individually and have a deep appreciation for artists and their struggles to be recognized,” said Susan, who admits she is self-taught with no formal arts training, and is always interested in the artist. The proprietor of Framed and Hung for nine years, she has become very proficient at assembling a show.
There are three main components to the Parrott Gallery. The first is programming – onetime events relating to art. Joan Murray, whose pedigree includes a directorship at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery and Chief Executive Officer at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection presented a lecture on the Group of Seven. She is a frequent guest at the Gallery.
This past February, printmakers Kyle Topping and Chrissy Poitras from Spark Box Studio in Picton shared their vision of promoting local artists by taking art out of the studio and into public places.
The Gallery’s second focus is exhibition events, which are designed to activate the event – to give visitors a reason to attend in addition to the show.
The third is ongoing monthly programming, consisting of open studios in the drawing room, still life classes, life drawing, and the popular Musical Gifts. On the second Friday of each month, pianist Rick Penner features a different composer or style, shares anecdotes of the artist, and performs music as a backdrop to the story.
Rick performs on a Yamaha Disklavier Grand Piano donated by Audrey Williams and her family. Used for distance teaching and lessons, its role in the gallery is to share world class music with a local audience, either through Rick Penner’s presentations, or in special studio sessions with well-known performers.
Susan insists, and a visit confirms the John M. Parrott Gallery is welcoming. “Visit us,” she invited. “We’re working hard to bring art into your lives. We are family friendly and our programming is designed for all ages. We are not all white walls and silence. We are a living, breathing gallery.”
After almost 40 years, it is still somewhat of a secret gathering place. “At least once a week we’ll have someone drop by for the first time because they pushed the wrong button on the elevator and tell us they didn’t know Belleville had a public art gallery.”
Drop in, stroll the rooms, admire local talent, perhaps sponsor a painting, take in a performance, join a class, and absorb the opportunity to experience the region’s only public art gallery.