Actual Gallery has kind of a dual meaning: for one, it’s a term for contemporary art (“art actuel”), and two, it’s a little bit cheeky – as in it’s one of Winnipeg’s rare, actually commercial galleries.
Its young director, Lisa Kehler, is as dedicated to showcasing critical contemporary art as she is to supporting the artists and selling their works.
“My commitment to them is marketing,” says Kehler. “To work with them and market them – and to watch them grow.”
Since opening in late July, Kehler has been busily trying to get her artists’ work featured in other exhibitions, collections and books.
“You don’t just sit back and wait for walk-ins,” she explains.
One of her main focuses is to pair “emerging collectors with these emerging artists.”
Many of her artists are already critically acclaimed in the art world, but locals don’t always get the chance to experience their art, and thus, a rare few collect their pieces.
“There’s very few collectors that live in Winnipeg,” says Kehler. “A lot of people’s focus is on taking local artists and positioning them internationally. A lot of people here have had no idea what they were doing and no opportunity to engage with it.”
That’s exactly what Kehler hopes to change.
Her gallery, located at 300 Ross Ave., is unrelentingly local.
Artists she features have to have deep roots in Winnipeg. “They all have to have some connection to Winnipeg, whether they call it home or were born here,” says Kehler. “All of my artists still identify as Winnipeg artists.”
The initial response to the new gallery has been overwhelmingly positive, proving the demand for it.
Opening night saw more than 400 visitors. “I’ve been told it was one of the biggest art openings ever in Winnipeg,” says Kehler. “We sold a lot of work. The general reaction I think was, ‘This doesn’t look like Winnipeg, this doesn’t feel like Winnipeg.’
That’s what we want to change.”
The price range for the art at Actual is also reflective of the local market.
Works from the inaugural exhibition range from $200 to $8,000.
Of course, sales are open to other countries, so there’s always the chance that another collector could snag the deal first.
Kehler says she would be naïve to think that she could make the majority of her sales in Winnipeg to start out, but she’s hopeful that Winnipeggers’ appetite will continue to grow with the gallery.
She will also advocate for local artists at art events like Art Toronto and Papier in Montreal.
The gallery director has a background in sales plus plenty of formal training in the arts.
She received a bachelor of arts in art history from the University of Winnipeg, and after finding her niche in commercial contemporary art on South Granville’s gallery row in Vancouver, she went on to a master in curatorial practices.
As is so often the case for Winnipeg business people, Kehler managed to know the right people and be in the right place at the right time when her friend from HutK, the furniture retailer, mentioned his parents were looking to support an art project like she’d been dreaming up.
HutK will soon be moving its store into the space next door to Actual, and in between the two is a shared space Kehler hopes will one day be filled with a bookstore, café, or other fitting vendor.
The gallery is already appropriately situated next to Frame Arts Warehouse, a five-storey building with gallery and studio space for up-and-coming artists that Actual hopes to collaborate with. (Perhaps the beginnings of a new gallery row?)
An aspiring artist herself in another life (“If I could’ve been anything, I would’ve been an artist,” she says), Kehler believes emerging artists can make a living for themselves right here in Winnipeg – and she plans to help them get there.
“There’s money in the city,” she says. “It’s just giving them the opportunity… to support the creative producers in the city.”