Housing Art, Housing People, Housing Passions
Alexandra Wilson at the Agency for Cooperative Housing, in Ottawa.
Artwork: Elephant & Neon (from Night Sea Journey) (1990) by Michael Schreier
Over the years, Alexandra Wilson, the past CEO and founder of the Agency for Cooperative Housing and a staunch supporter and patron of Canadian art, has developed a discerning eye for art and design. We interviewed Ms. Wilson to find out how she integrates Art Bank pieces into the Agency’s workspaces and why she believes other Canadian organizations should do the same.
Founding the Agency for Cooperative Housing
Alexandra Wilson has been involved in cooperative housing for 47 years. It all started when she was living in an old apartment development in Toronto that was being sold as condominiums. Having been evicted a few times due to gentrification efforts in the city’s centre, she and a group of friends decided that enough was enough and they created a housing cooperative and bought the property themselves.
The Agency specializes in managing agreements between housing cooperatives and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, providing risk and compliance management services to the government as a non-governmental and not-for-profit organization.
Discovering the Art Bank’s rental program
Wilson told us that she discovered the Art Bank when she and her sister attended an event some 20 years ago where she was seated next to Amy Jenkins, who was working as an Art Bank consultant. “She told me about the rental service and I was eager to participate in it,” she related. “The Agency has displayed Art Bank works since it opened.”
Sparking meaningful conversations through art
While Wilson credits her elder sister for introducing her to the visual arts, it is clear that she has invested significant time in educating herself so that she could promote the works of Canadian artists in her own right. Wilson will often use art as a tool to connect with the people around her on a deeper level. Curious about the impact the art in her offices has on visitors, Wilson is always happy to share information about it and point out that a piece is from the Art Bank.
Selecting pieces from the Art Bank
“What’s great about the Art Bank is that you can be as little or as much involved as you want to be,” Wilson enthused. “The Art Bank offers a full turnkey service for people who don’t know exactly what they want. An Art Bank consultant ensures that your selections stay within budget, are delivered to your office and are installed and insured—all you need to do is sign a contract! Alternatively, if you’re someone who is enthusiastic about art, you can visit the warehouse and walk through the Art Bank’s collection.”
She specified that for the Agency, it’s usually a mix. The consultant proposes a number of pieces in a Web gallery. Once they’ve been discussed, all of the works are brought into a common area. “That’s when you can truly see if they work together or not. The consultant will then suggest alternatives—the consultants are very knowledgeable and attuned to their clients’ tastes and needs.”
No interest in playing it safe
Always on the lookout for unique pieces, Wilson does not shy away from renting artwork that others may deem outside of the norm for an office setting. And there have only been a handful of instances where staff members have raised eyebrows at her selections and Wilson has conceded, replacing a disliked piece with something more universally appealing.
Sitting area at the Agency for Cooperative Housing.
Artwork: Estime (1998) by Alexandre Castonguay
A small sculpture cubby built into the wall of the Agency’s Ottawa office.
Artwork: Para Highway Section (1976) by Lorne Beug
Tailoring each office’s environment
Wilson admitted that the Agency picks works by local artists whenever possible, but that it’s also important to consider the location and employees. “At one point,” she recalls, “we rented a beautiful piece for the meeting room in the Toronto office, but someone found it too sombre for the space. When another person said they loved it, we moved it to another spot closer to that person’s desk.”
Reception area at the Agency in Ottawa.
Artwork: Série Moussem: présence d'un fiancé V (1979) and Série Moussem: fiancé III (1979) by Denis Demers
The Agency’s Toronto office.
Artwork: The Arctic Owl (1977) by Saila Pitaloosie
Supporting the arts as a not-for-profit organization
Asked if her decision to support the arts has ever been challenged, Wilson stated that it hadn’t. “The rental program is incredibly inexpensive. The whole process is frictionless and it’s worth the cost of rental to be able to see the warehouse—it’s one of Canada’s best art collections, yet very few people know about it. Ultimately, the sheer amount of options and the level of service and expertise that the Art Bank provide are unmatched and should be made good use of,” she advocated.
About the Author: Eleanore Mackie
Eleanore Mackie is a former Young Canada Works intern who worked with the Art Bank team during the summer of 2019. A graduate of the master's program in Art History at Queen’s University, she is passionate about creating digital content for arts organizations that is accessible, inclusive, and playful.