In its 30th year of filling the downtown core with visual art—most prominently by installing it in the open air of Churchill Square, but also across venues spread over about a kilometre of downtown Edmonton—The Works Art & Design Festival remains steadfast in its refusal to bend to any easy encompassing throughline. Even its own: Amber Rooke, the festival’s executive artistic director, notes that Making Space, this year’s theme, is as loose a guiding principle as ever.
“The themes aren’t meant to be very solid, especially for arts festivals,” she says. “I thought it was a good, flexible theme that could tie together the stories that are being told on the square. So ‘making space’ means making room, making space for installation work in a physical sense. This applies to a lot of our installations in Churchill Square, as well as making space for representation, and considering the space that we occupy in thoughtful ways, and how that comes through in various art projects.”
Which is, effectively, the reputation The Works has built for itself over three decades. Though it certainly makes use of gallery space around the downtown core, anchoring itself in the outdoor square gives its artists—some 500 of them this year, all counted—a beachhead outside the traditional gallery boundaries, opening up access to those who might not enter any of art’s usual haunts of their own accord. The Works also has trained art ambassadors in the space, able to offer context or insight for those who want it.
That openness has given the festival both root and reputation here: Rooke points to one the work of Françoise Thibault, one of the Festival’s gateway artists this year—designing one of two big festival entrances to the Churchill Square. Thibault’s work is a tracing, then painting, of how the festival appears within the square.
“Her notion is The Works festival itself is a special place,” Rooke says. “It’s a place where, when you enter—presumably through the gate—your senses are heightened: you’re more open to understanding, or considering, art and design. And so to try to mark how your perception of a space changes if you’re open to having your perception changed.”
And as for what happens to the discussion around art when it’s taken out of its usual home and audience, Rooke notes she hears discussions just as effective as anywhere else.
“People who you wouldn’t imagine entering an art gallery, or entering into an art dialogue, have engaged in conversation just as complex [as any others], as far as understanding what a rather esoteric piece is about,” she says. “It might start with a comment like, ‘Whoa, what is this guy doing?’ but then, with a little bit of information, it develops into a conversation where that person is, in many ways, repeating the artist statement without ever having been given it.”