Agnes Etherington expansion moves into design phase

Exterior Composition for Agnes Reimagined, showing the new curvilinear addition (left) in conversation with the heritage Etherington House (right). Rendering by Studio Sang courtesy of KPMB Architects.

More than two years after the launch of the Agnes Reimagined campaign, construction is now on the horizon for the renovation and restructuring of historic Etherington House at Queen’s University.

While the over 17,000 objects in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre’s collection are being packed and moved off site, the university has shared two architectural renderings of how the art centre will appear when the project is complete.

The Agnes Etherington Art Centre has been an important part of the Queen’s campus since it opened its doors in 1957, the university stated. Agnes Etherington, the museum’s namesake, was a longstanding patron of the arts in Kingston, who bequeathed her home to Queen’s “in order to further the cause of art in community.”

The university said that the Agnes’s Director and Curator Emelie Chhangur applauded Queen’s for supporting Agnes’s commitment to a community-engaged design process, including a close collaboration with the architectural team comprised of the internationally renowned Toronto-based firm KPMB Architects, led by architects Bruce Kuwabara and Indigenous Affairs consultant Georgina Riel.

“By enacting the values of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Indigenization and Accessibility (EDIIA) in the very making of Agnes Reimagined, we ensure that we truly transform Agnes, from the ground up, and demonstrate Queen’s commitments to honouring the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Calls to Action,” Chhangur said.

In June 2020, Bader Philanthropies Inc. announced a donation of $54 million to Queen’s University for the revitalization and expansion of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. The university noted that Agnes Reimagined would not be possible without the leadership and philanthropic support of the late Alfred Bader, BSc’45, BA’46, MSc’47, LLD’86, Isabel Bader, LLD’07, and Bader Philanthropies, Inc.

“Alfred Bader envisioned Queen’s having the finest art museum of any university in Canada,” said Vice-Principal (Advancement) Karen Bertrand, Artsci’94. “The transformative gift from the Baders will build on the initial vision of Dr. Bader and position Queen’s as a premier destination for education and research in the visual arts. Once complete, this world-class art museum will be a tremendous gift to Queen’s, Kingston, and art lovers everywhere.” 

Agnes Reimagined will transform the current art centre into a “live-in artist residency and community-facing cultural hub,” the university said, noting that in 2026, the Agnes will emerge as the largest public university-affiliated museum in Canada, and “a champion of museological change where Indigenous and Western world views sit side by side as equals.”

When complete, the new three-floor art centre will be a 200 per cent increase in exhibition and alternative programming spaces. The university said the space will support “curatorial experimentation” and public programming and engagement, new art study spaces, and technical art history and art conservation labs. The plans also include the first-ever Indigenous self-determination spaces for the appropriate care, ceremony, and access by Indigenous communities of their ancestors’ and cultural belongings currently residing at Agnes. All of these spaces will help “reimagine the entangled civic, social and pedagogical role of a 21st century university museum,” Queen’s said.

“Agnes’s Living Room.” Ground floor concept for Agnes Reimagined. Rendering by Studio Sang courtesy of KPMB Architects.

“Agnes Reimagined is slowly inching toward other museum temporalities, atmospheres, and attitudes to help us erode systems of categorization and separation, transform institutional limitations that hold onto the past and gatekeep the future, and take seriously what really is at stake to ensure the museums of the future are alive, nimble, and poised to inhabit the world as it is rightfully changing,” Director Chhangur said. “To change museum culture, we must first change its architectures! I believe it is only within the experimental milieu of the university museum that this kind of radical transformation can take hold.”

In the new building, the advanced art teaching and research labs for the art conservation program and enhanced object-based learning for the Department of Art History & Art Conservation will lead to greater collaboration between the department and museum. The university said that it will create new opportunities for “groundbreaking technical art research and experiential art-based learning” for art students, as well as a range of other academic disciplines, including engineering, business, health sciences, humanities, and physical sciences.

Art History and Art Conservation Department Head Norman Vorano said that the new Agnes will enhance education as students spend more time in the gallery doing hands-on learning, thanks to access to more study spaces and labs in close proximity to the art centre’s vast collections.

“The building is going to fundamentally change the way we study art and art conservation in this country,” Vorano said. “It gives our professors an opportunity to work with some of the best undergraduate and graduate students using the most advanced equipment in the most innovative teaching lab in North America – with the best university art collection within arm’s reach.”  

According to Queen’s, Agnes’s community-engaged design process will continue through talking and sharing circles throughout 2023 as the team enters the design phase of the project. Construction is set to begin in spring 2024 and the new building is set to open in 2026.

Visit the Agnes Reimagined website for more information. 

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