March 22, 2023

University of Calgary champions art and culture through campus museum

Nickle Galleries’ free programming connects visitors with artists for a transformative learning experience
The Birth of Portraiture: Alexander the Great and His Successors
The Birth of Portraiture: Alexander the Great and His Successors Brittany DeMone

The foyer in the Taylor Family Digital Library (TFDL) is a bustling thoroughfare of cross-campus traffic and students steadily streaming in to use the library’s spaces (via the entry kiosk). With all the activity, passers-through might be forgiven for not noticing the entry to Nickle Galleries, UCalgary’s unassuming cultural powerhouse, located in TFDL since 2012.

Nickle Galleries’ dedicated staff are focused on bringing social issues to the forefront through a carefully curated trifecta of exhibitions, tours and artist talks. Curators Christine Sowiak, Michele Hardy and Marina Fischer plan exhibitions around the galleries’ mandate “to champion art and culture and Calgary’s arts community” — prioritizing gallery space for artists, writers, designers and guest curators of this region.

All are welcome to visit the galleries during opening hours, to view art, join a curator-led tour or attend a Nickle at Noon artist talk. Currently, one of the upper galleries displays a curated collection of ancient coins: The Birth of Portraiture: Alexander the Great and His Successors. The portraits are delicately struck on silver blanks transforming into tiny masterpieces of Hellenistic art.

After many centuries in which idealized, generic human representations had been the norm, distinctive portrait likenesses began to appear at the end of the 4th century and the early 3rd century BCE — starting with Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). This change reflected a growing interest in individuality.

Portraiture was an effective and persuasive means of projecting the qualities of the monarch. Serene images of the king, for example, suggested transcendence of human limitations. Many of the coins on view provide clues about what these ancient rulers looked like and how they wished to be seen.

“In antiquity, portraits functioned just as photographs do today,” says Marina Fischer, the exhibition curator. “They were one of the most innovative features of that time. Our relatively recent obsession with 'selfies' has the same origin as the Hellenistic individual depictions: self-study with the aim of a better understanding of oneself, and how we connect with others.”

The gallery adjacent to the coins holds a collection of Turkish carpets: After Holbein – Turkish Carpets and the Tudors, curated by Michele Hardy. The 16th century artist, Hans Holbein the Younger, famously painted portraits of royalty and nobles with richly patterned Turkish carpets. Holbein used the carpets as a device that signaled wealth, taste and power, not unlike the portraits of ancient Greek rulers.  

“The exhibit features carpets from the Nickle’s permanent collection, remarkably similar to those painted by Hans Holbein in some of his most famous paintings,” notes Hardy. “Holbein used Turkish carpets strategically to enhance the stature of his subjects including that of Henry VIII.”

Holbein’s paintings of the king — many of which exist only as copies today — have been described as early forms of propaganda. Where imported carpets were considered too precious to place on the floor — except under the feet of the Madonna in early paintings — Holbein’s use of carpets under the king’s feet speaks to his political and spiritual ambitions.

For visitors who prefer a more guided experience, Nickle Galleries offers regular artist or curator-led tours of the exhibitions. These tours enlighten and enrich by offering historical context and stories about the artist and art that deepen visitors’ experience.

On the main floor of Nickle galleries is an exhibition of paintings by David Garneau, Métis artist, previously featured in UToday. One of the pieces in the exhibition is a painted quote attributed to Louis Riel: “My people will sleep for 100 years but when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”

These century-old words feel particularly applicable for the time in which we are living — one in which diverse voices clamour to be heard and dissenting opinions are amplified on social media, while the world struggles to find its footing after a global pandemic. Maybe art will help us see one another and question our assumptions.

Nickle Galleries believes in the transformative power of artistic narrative, which is why it runs free weekly talks alongside its exhibitions and guided tours. For the past 15 years, Nickle at Noon talks have given alumni, art practitioners, and educators space and time to speak about art. In turn, those talks have given listeners an opportunity to reconsider preconceptions about beauty, worth, and acceptance.

And, as we all find our in-person footing in a post-pandemic world, it is particularly meaningful to be in the same room with an artist or educator while they talk about art.

Visit Nickle Galleries’ website for a complete listing of upcoming exhibitions, tours and Nickle at Noon talks. Nickle Galleries is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Upcoming tours:

David Garneau exhibition led by Mary Beth Laviolette on March 25 at 1 p.m.
Textile vault led by Michele Hardy on March 28 at 12 p.m.
Founders Gallery exhibition led by Dick Averns on March 29 at 3:30 p.m.