Transforming the downtown core

Gail Carlson poses inside her private gallery. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

New gallery proprietor sees P.A.’s downtown on its way to a renaissance

Gail Carlson thinks artists are among the best people to help revitalize a city’s downtown, and she sees Prince Albert’s downtown, and her new shop, as a step in that direction.

Carlson opened her shop and private gallery Saturday, with a small, all-day open house that saw about 60 people stroll through over the course of the day. It’s located in the old Adams By Design building, the oldest downtown building in Prince Albert.

The building alone tells of the history of the city.

It started in 1905 as a drugstore, with no buildings on other side. From there, it was purchased by a jeweller, and, eventually, by the Adams family.

“There have been 15 land titles on this building,” Carlson said.

“As it moved and changed, you can actually see the history of P.A. just in the land titles.”

The Adams family bought the building to have a bigger space for their bookstore. That was about 70 to 80 years ago, Carlson said. The building stayed in the family up until September of this year, where Carlson and her business partner, Laurent Lalonde, purchased it.

“I actually worked for Lana and Ron (Adams) at one time,” Carlson said. ‘They’ve been friends for — my goodness, Ron was a back door neighbour when I was in Grade 3 and he was in Grade 4. I’ve known them growing up in P.A. off and on, and also buying art supplies and working with them.”

The building held a special place in the Adams family’s heart. They wouldn’t sell it to just anyone. They needed to know it would be in good hands.

“This was their home,” Carlson said. There is a love for this building.

“They know Laurent and I are very handy. He’s a carpenter, and we could bring it back and have that artistic energy in it.”

While Carlson is helping bring the historic building into a new chapter, the business also represents a new chapter in her life. She has spent years driving around the province to craft sales, lugging her pottery and spending days getting set up.

“It’s a six-day job with a lot of work for people to see two or three days,” she said.

This business represents her retirement plan.

“I will work to the day I die,” Carlson said.

“I’m an artist. There is no retirement plan. And besides that, I’d be bored. So I’m going to be painting and making things until I can’t, and then surrounding myself in the studio in the back (with other artists).”

The gallery will be artist-run. Artists will take turns running the front of the shop while working in the back. It’s more of a lifestyle than a livelihood. Most of the other artists have full time jobs. Few, like Carlson, make art work as a fulltime gig.

While no artists are currently working at the shop, Carlson thinks more will be interested in the slower times of year, especially when the winter festival show rolls through.

She’s also not worried about the large number of galleries and other shops with art in the downtown core. Cafés such as Rock Trout, the Bison, Funky Fresh and the Rusty Owl all display art in their shops. Add in the Grace Campbell, John V. Hicks, Mann and On the Avenue Art Galleries, and it starts to get crowded. If anything, Carlson says, more art makes for a bigger draw.

“The more you have the more you’re going to sell,” she said.

“It’s a positive competition.”

She compared it to what happened when Shananigan’s opened in P.A. There weren’t an abundance of coffee shops. But as more coffee shops opened, more people went for coffee, and business at many of the coffee shops improved as competition increased.

That influx of art downtown is the first sign, in Carlson’s mind, that the downtown core is headed for a major revitalization.

“We have a beautiful, old downtown. If you look down from the courthouse, it’s spectacular. It’s a really pretty little city,” she said.

“Creative people can fix up these old buildings because we can do it with our own hands. We don’t have to pay somebody to do it.”

Even though Carlson’s building is old, the windows are in great shape, as is the original tin ceiling.

“It has good bones,” she said.

Carlson thinks Prince Albert’s art renaissance could help transform the downtown district into something like Broadway in Saskatoon.

“Artists go in first to fix up studio spaces and galleries. Then the little funky restaurants come in, because they can afford a building. Once they’re set up, the businesses come back, and then the other shops, and it revives the downtown,” she said.

“Prince Albert is the perfect place and the perfect downtown. We have all these musicians, drama (companies) and artists. We all think Prince Albert is a hockey town, but we almost have a bigger art community than we have a sports community, and we could have a downtown artistic district that could draw people from Waskesiu who come through who have cabins.

“You could have a cultural evening, with good food, good music, a play and art. We could easily develop this into a cultural draw. I’m going to compare it to Saint-Paul, a couple hours out of Quebec City. It’s a small little town. It’s an artistic draw. Yes, they still play hockey there too. We can do both.”