Royal Bank Plaza Main Branch received a facelift, part of which includes a light-filled, community gallery space. The space features works by emerging Canadian artists, and Glenn Gear's Kimutsik will be the first work exhibited on the circular digital screen installed at the centre of it all.

Royal Bank Plaza Main Branch has stood at the corner of Bay and Wellington Streets in downtown Toronto since 1977. Over the last few years, a renovation within the iconic gold-bronze towers began to take shape, which includes a striking new gallery space in the Main Branch lobby. The Community Gallery reflects RBC’s longstanding commitment to the arts and the role arts have in building vibrant communities and strong economies.

“During the planning phases of the renovation, the RBC Art Curatorial team in partnership with Corporate Real Estate had the idea of not only displaying artwork in the client meeting room areas but to activate the planned community space, with moveable walls in a bright and open area,” explains Stefan Hancherow, Associate Art Curator at RBC. “We envisioned a vibrant, living space that could change over time, where we could constantly bring in new stories from artworks in the collection that reflect the diversity, innovation and breadth of artistic approaches, and align to RBC’s core values.”

Part of the plan includes a circular video screen in the middle of the space, which can be seen from Bay, Wellington and Front Streets. “In partnership with the RBC Digital Merchandising team we thought we could use this digital ribbon to interrupt the daily grind in a way by integrating art in that space,” says Hancherow, who reveals that the premise was inspired by the Midnight Moment program in New York’s Times Square, during which more than 92 digital displays are synchronized for three minutes each night to showcase a contemporary artist, interrupting the regular flow of flashing advertisements.

Glenn Gear, an Indigiqueer filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist of Inuit and Settler descent, is among the first artists to be exhibited in the gallery. His work Kimutsik (Dog Team) is the first to be featured on the digital ribbon in a vibrant carousel of animated running dogs.

Glenn Gear’s Transformative Art

Glenn Gear is of mixed Inuit and settler ancestry – his father is Inuk from Nunatsiavut from a place called Adlatok Bay and his mother is a settler with English and Irish ancestry from Newfoundland. Gear grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and looks to both Inuit and settler culture as sources of inspiration.

“It’s where I’m from, from a mixed background,” says Gear in a recent conversation. “A lot of my work is rooted within land and culture and thinking about the ways in which human beings are linked to land, as well as to animals and resources.”

From an early age, Gear knew he would go into fine arts, and describes himself as a “crafty kid” who was always making and building things. As a multidisciplinary artist, he works with many different media – and while he didn’t study animation or filmmaking formally, that has become a large part of his practice. “Animation drew me in, as it’s a world that you could enter and suspend your disbelief,” he explains. “It opens so many possibilities in terms of narrative, emotion and creativity.” He adds that animation is easy to distribute, not being dependent on gallery space.

Gear’s Kimutsik (Dog Team) follows a caravan of animated “ghost dogs” running wild across a frame. The piece recalls the brutal dog slaughters that occurred across the Canadian North during the 1950s – 1970s at the hands of the RCMP and Quebec Provincial Police. The dogs were culled, often without community consent, under claims of an outbreak of distemper. It is still a traumatic and disruptive event that displaced a lot of Inuit from traditional means of getting food and travel, which many of the Inuit elders still talk about today. “That dog slaughter was a kind of impetus for this work,” says Gear, “but I didn’t want to focus on the trauma or the pain. I wanted to create something that was redemptive or transformative for the viewer – and something that ultimately points towards equity or even joy. I think there is something lyrical and playful in the work.”

Gear’s Kimutsik series is one he has been exploring over the past several years, and one he can show in a variety of contexts. “Sometimes it’s a single dog running, oftentimes is a whole team of dogs. It’s been shown in both urban and gallery environments, sometimes very, very small and sometimes very, very large. The scale and the context keep shifting and because of this I continually create new additions and edits.”

Kimutsik at Royal Bank Plaza

Both the story behind Kimutsik (Dog Team) and its ever-evolving format make it a perfect selection to showcase within the new community space at Royal Bank Plaza. It hasn’t been without its technical challenges, however, because the digital ribbon is a perfect loop. “I had to have all dogs on screen all the time, and to make it seamless,” Gear explains. “So when the head of a dog goes out of frame, it has to reappear immediately on the other side. So that big loop was a real artistic challenge, but it was really fun and a challenge that I felt up to. I think it transforms the space and ultimately becomes this joyous carousel of the dog team.”

The variation Gear created for the space at Royal Bank Plaza includes silhouettes of dogs with seal skin and bead work and features some dogs drawn in charcoal and others done in watercolour. “A lot of different media were used to build up this dog team,” says Gear.

Another exciting element of this exhibit for Gear is that his work will be highly visible to a general public he normally doesn’t have access to. “I’m always interested to see how my work is understood or interpreted by a public that isn’t necessarily an art gallery audience,” he says. “Hopefully it will inspire some mystery, some intrigue and some curiosity for people who even catch a glimpse that there is something unusual and moving in this space.” He also loves the idea that these animals will be running through a very urban environment. “They are inhabiting or reclaiming that industrial, downtown space. There is something really wonderful about mixing urban culture with something that is wild or untamed.”

Access to art – for both creator and viewer – is something close to Gear’s heart, as a large part of his artistic practice is mentoring Indigenous youth or elders who are new to filmmaking and animation. “It’s really important for me to pass on the skills I’ve learned in filmmaking, editing and animation to the next generation, or to people experimenting for the first time, especially in remote communities that might not have access to resources. It’s important to demystify the process of making a film, to empower folks who are making films for the first time and help them build capacity. It’s about narrative sovereignty for Indigenous people.”

With installation and testing underway, the new space is expected to launch May 2022. The plan is for Gear’s art to be featured on the digital ribbon for approximately six months – but a version that can play on a stationary screen will continue to play in various locations within RBC indefinitely. Many other Canadian artists will be featured throughout the space, which is open to all members of the community.

For those who get to experience the new space firsthand, a text panel beside each work provides a didactic about the artist and the art. Viewers are also encouraged to visit the RBC Visual Art page to learn more. The RBC Art Collection consists of historic and contemporary Canadian, Indigenous and Inuit art, with a focus on acquiring work by emerging artists. RBC is a longstanding supporter of the visual art community and deeply values the role of artists as innovators within their community.

Diane Amato is a Toronto-based freelance writer who loves to talk about finances, travel and technology.

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