Artists trying to save store on Alberta legislature grounds

A group of artists is making a last-ditch effort to save a store on the grounds of the Alberta legislature that showcases and sells their art. 

On Monday, MLAs on the special standing committee on members’ services will discuss the budget for the Legislative Assembly Office (LAO), which includes the closure of the Alberta Branded Shop in the Federal Building at the end of the fiscal year. 

Karen Bishop, a fine artist who sells paintings of Alberta landscapes through the store, intends to show up to the meeting with about a dozen other artists. 

“We’re not allowed to speak but we’re going to go there and show that we are not happy with this decision and that we would like it reconsidered,” she said. 

Alberta Branded opened in an airy, light-filled, gallery-style space on the ground floor of the Federal Building five years ago. The store sells paintings, jewelry, ceramics and other fine art pieces from 120 Alberta artists.

The decision to close the shop at the end of March was announced by Speaker Nathan Cooper at the last members’ services committee meeting on Nov. 27. 

Bishop said the announcement came without prior consultations with staff and artists who sell their work there by consignment. 

“We think that the decision has been hasty and we would like to have our opinion heard,” she said. 

Cooper told committee members that the store costs $300,000 to run each year without even breaking even. He told the committee in November that Alberta Branded sold fewer than 90 pieces of art last year. 

“This is not sustainable given the current fiscal climate or any fiscal climate for that matter,” Cooper said. 

Bishop said Cooper eventually spoke to her by phone for about a half an hour but she wasn’t sure if he would take her views into account. 

Kiosk idea ‘insulting’

The closure is up for discussion at Monday’s meeting. Although a final decision hasn’t been made, it appears the LAO is already moving ahead, said Nicole Goehring, the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Castle Downs, who sits on the members’ services committee. 

NDP MLA Nicole Goehring isn’t happy the legislative assembly intends to close Alberta Branded. (Craig Ryan/CBC )

Goehring says staff have been told their jobs will be gone by the end of March, and artists are already dropping by to pick up their unsold pieces.

“I’m concerned that they’ve moved forward without consulting properly with the arts community,” she said. 

“I think the message that the arts community is telling me is that they’re not valued in the province and the economic impact that they provide to the province isn’t being considered at all.”

Bishop doesn’t buy Cooper’s contention that the store doesn’t make money. She sees Alberta Branded as a gallery that showcases the work of this province’s artists, not a retail store that sells mass-produced, legislature-branded souvenirs like pens and mugs. 

She is not impressed with Cooper’s idea to replace Alberta Branded with a small kiosk in the lobby of the Federal Building. 

“It’s just so insulting,” Bishop said. “Typically what goes in a kiosk is not handmade. It’s likely not going to be handmade in Alberta. 

“So what they’re saying is ‘well we can replace all these creative, talented artists by sticking in a made-in-China pen or pin.’ “

Goehring isn’t optimistic the UCP majority on the members’ services committee will reverse the decision.

She still plans to ask questions on Monday about the reasons for the closure and what plan the LAO has to support artists through the transition.