Ben Benedict gained attention after his work was featured in Western’s McIntosh Gallery 21 years ago. The gallery has been an important part of his life ever since.
Graduating from Western’s master of fine arts program in 1993, Benedict has been featured in the gallery twice. His work — mainly made up of oil paintings and sculptures — focuses on issues of masculinity, gender roles and memory.
He continues to visit the gallery on a regular basis because he enjoys having the opportunity to connect with professional artists and share ideas on a personal level.
“That is like a gem that is invaluable,” he said.
The McIntosh Gallery opened its doors to the public in 1942, making it the oldest university art gallery in Ontario. Funded largely by Western, the gallery runs about 10 exhibitions a year in its two display rooms. Artists’ work is featured for six to eight weeks at a time.
James Patten, director and chief curator, works side by side with Catherine Elliot Shaw, curator, to arrange lectures, conferences, workshops, classes and campus art tours – tours that are made possible by the Artshare program.
The Artshare program installs art from the gallery’s collection in public areas and offices around Western’s campus. Right now, 800 McIntosh collection items are displayed throughout the campus.
Patten said the gallery also showcases its collection off-campus, which helps to expand its audience.
The gallery also partners with groups like Sweet Magic London – a downtown London festival that promotes local artists and musicians, Patten said.
“It’s not just the people that walk in the door,” he said. “(We’re) trying to engage audiences downtown and in the broader community.”
Beyond the Blackboard gives elementary and secondary school students the opportunity to explore the gallery’s exhibitions and engage in curriculum-based activities. The programming is offered to students from kindergarten through Grade 12. Beyond the Blackboard is designed to help students develop an understanding of creativity in the visual arts.
The McIntosh Gallery is one of the founding institutions of Beyond the Blackboard and the program has been a part of the gallery for about 20 years, Shaw said.
“We all want to offer our services to teachers to bring their classes to us,” she said.
Teachers are encouraged to book art tours that line up with the children’s curriculum. A recent exhibit, for example, featured Canadian painter Carol Wainio’s depictions of creatures from children’s fairytales, such as Puss in Boots.
During a walk and talk guided art tour held in mid-October, Wainio was pleased to have her artwork featured at the McIntosh Gallery.
“These are really wonderful and much needed institutions and they do a lot of programming,” she said.
Shaw, who has been a gallery employee for 31 years, said artists like Wainio were not often given the opportunity in the past to exhibit at McIntosh. It was primarily dedicated to showcasing local artists’ work.
But with Western becoming more globally engaged, more international and national artists are being given the opportunity to exhibit, Patten said.
The McIntosh Gallery has 3,500 collection items stored off-site, including paintings by The Group of Seven. Even so, it actively collects up to 200 items a year.
Despite this shift from local art to art from around the world, Western’s master of fine arts students continue to showcase their work every summer.
The MFA graduate exhibitions take place between August and September every year. The MFA exhibition is not only the students’ final degree requirement, but it also is an opportunity for students to work with professional curators and engage in professional practices, Patten said.
“They bring a lot of life and vitality to the gallery. They’re on the cutting edge of what’s happening and bringing new ideas and new perspective so I’m always thrilled with the student shows,” he added.
Former MFA student Thea Yabut exhibited her artwork at the gallery last summer. Yabut’s exhibition, The Lines of Necessity, explored the complexity of identity and race through drawings.
Using the skills she learned from exhibiting work at McIntosh, Yabut is now assisting the director of DNA Art Space, a contemporary art gallery that opened in late November on Dundas Street in London.
Yabut said exhibiting at the gallery helped her gain the experience she needed to begin a career in the London arts community.
“It not only benefits Western students, but the arts community in London in general,” she said. “I think it’s a really great space.”