Fonds RBSC-ARC-1856 - Or Gallery fonds

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Or Gallery fonds

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  • Multiple media

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  • Source of title proper: Title based on contents of the fonds

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Physical description

4.06 m of textual records and other material

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Administrative history

Founded in April 1983 and registered as a non-profit charitable organization in 1987, the Or Gallery is an artist-run centre located in Vancouver, B.C. The Or Gallery Society set its constitutional purpose to establish and maintain a non-profit art gallery for the benefit of the community as a whole; to hold exhibitions of paintings, etchings, statues, photographs, sculptures and other works of art; to do everything incidental to the above. This mandate has evolved to also: provide a space for experimental art practices; make art accessible to a wide and varied audience by organizing artistic projects as sites other than the Or Gallery; and place an emphasis on works that privilege ideas and an interrelation between curatorial and artistic practices. The Or Gallery supports emerging, conceptual, and experimental art practices via: exhibitions of local, national, and international artists; assorted outreach activities, including professional and general-interest lectures, workshops, and community-initiated programming; and collaborative work with formal educational institutions and community-based organizations. It also publishes artist books, editions, and anthologies, and since 2010 has operated the Or Bookstore which specializes in artists’ publishing.

The Or Gallery was founded in April 1983 at 1729 Franklin St. as a personal gallery space of Vancouver-based artist Laiwan. Laiwan had been living in a former deli on the ground floor of the Hillington, an apartment building whose residents were primarily artists and musicians. She opened the storefront as gallery space, inviting artists to exhibit and perform for a small fee to support rent payments. The Or Gallery’s name is derived from that of the former deli, “Food for Thought”—Laiwan altered an awning above the storefront’s window by whiting out most of the letters to leave only “or.” Laiwan operated the Or Gallery until October 1983, at which point Ken Lum moved into the space. Running the gallery as a personal curatorial project, Lum ran exhibitions purported to be financed primarily by his own funds and exhibition openings’ beer sales. In 1984, a small group of artists including Arni Runar Haraldsson, Petra Watson, Lori Hinton, Michelle Normoyle, and Ken Lum officially incorporated the gallery as the Or Gallery Society. After Ken Lum’s tenure, the Or Gallery’s Director/Curator would change over approximately once a year. The Director/Curator would use the space as both a gallery and living space, splitting rent and advertising costs with exhibiting artists. In its first few years, the Or Gallery hosted short exhibitions by emerging artists and programming related to larger collections and more established artists. By 1987, the gallery was incorporated as a non-profit organization to fund payment of artists’ and curatorial fees. As the Or Gallery’s organizational structure became more formalized, the tenure of Director/Curator was lengthened from one year to more indefinite terms. Although the approach has varied between Director/Curators, the Or Gallery’s exhibitions and programming have come to be associated with a critical, experimental, and socially responsive lens.

Since its founding in 1983, the Or Gallery has held early exhibitions, performances, publications, film screenings, and projects by well-recognized names in contemporary Canadian art, including: Dana Claxton, Stan Douglas, Geoffrey Farmer, Rodney Graham, Brian Jungen, Garry Neill Kennedy, Roy Kiyooka, Tim Lee, Myfanwy MacLeod, Luanne Martineau, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Marianne Nicolson, and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. The Or Gallery has also hosted exhibitions by internationally renowned contemporary artists including Francis Alÿs, Martin Creed, Tacita Dean, Matthew Higgs, Barbara Kruger, Martha Rosler, and Krzysztof Wodiczko. Many works exhibited at the Or Gallery have contributed to intersectional conversations about race, class, sexual orientation, and identity in the art scene.

The Or Gallery collaborates with art galleries locally, nationally, and internationally. As a member of the Pacific Association of Artist-Run Centres (1988), the Or shares advocacy principles with and participates in initiatives with other B.C. artist-run centres. Based on its gallery location, the Or has also collaborated with neighboring galleries in Vancouver. In 1987, when a fire destroyed the Or Gallery’s space and records at 1729 Franklin St, the gallery was relocated to the studio of contemporary Director/Curator Phillip McCrum on the third floor of 505 Hamilton St. The Or was subsequently located at 314 W. Hastings St. (1988-1993); 112 W. Hastings St (1993-1999); 103-400 and 103-480 Smithe St. (1999-2008); 555 Hamilton St. (2008-2019), a building that has also housed the Bau Xi Gallery, Contemporary Art Gallery, and Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery’s Satellite Gallery; and 236 E. Pender St. (2019-present), which had formerly housed the Unit Pitt Gallery. In 2010, the Or Gallery opened the first international satellite space operate by a Canadian artist-run centre, the Or Gallery Berlin. The Or Gallery Berlin operated at 37 Oranienstrasse until July 2014, at which point it moved and became the Or Gallery Berlin Project and Residency Space. Although this space closed in 2015, the Or Gallery has maintained involvement in Berlin’s contemporary art scene.

The Or Gallery is currently run by a volunteer, artist-member Board of Directors and a paid Director/Curator. The Board of Directors contracts practicing artists as Director/Curator, who determines the focus of programming. Director/Curators have included: Laiwan (1983), Ken Lum (1983-1984), Arni Runar Haraldsson (1984-1985), James Graham (1986), Ellen Ramsey (1986-1987), Phillip McCrum (1987-1989), Nancy Shaw (1989-1991), Susan Schuppli (1991-1993), Janice Bowley (1994-1996), Reid Shier (1996-2002), Sydney Hermant (2002-2005), Michèle Faguet (2005-2007), Jonathan Middleton (2007-2017), Denise Ryner (2017-2022), and Jenn Jackson (2023-present).

Custodial history

Scope and content

Fonds documents the Or Gallery’s work supporting contemporary and experimental art practices via exhibitions, projects, and publications. Represented exhibitions are listed under Exhibition records series and the relevant Curator files subseries.

Fonds also reflects the Or Gallery’s administration and operation as an organization and as a physical gallery space. Records consist of photographic materials, correspondence, ephemera, proofs, mock-ups, and other material documenting: the curation, installation, and display of exhibitions; the administration and operation of the Or Gallery; and the design process of Or Gallery publications and ephemera.

The fonds is arranged into five series: Exhibition records; Curator files; Administration; Vancouver Anthology; and Publications and ephemera.

Notes area

Physical condition

Immediate source of acquisition

The fonds was donated directly to UBC RBSC by Or Gallery Director/Curator Denise Ryner in 2021.


The creator organized materials related to the final installation and display of exhibitions in Exhibition records, and materials related to the curation and installation processes in Curator files. This order has been preserved by the archivist and is reflected in the fonds and series descriptions.

The fonds arrived with materials related to the Vancouver Anthology and to Publications and ephemera arranged separately from other records. Within these series, there was no apparent physical order. The archivist created and arranged files to reflect series and approximate chronological order. Where present, the archivist maintained original file titles and the original order of records within files.

Language of material

  • English

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Further accruals are expected.

Physical description

Fonds includes: 4.06 m of textual textual records, 4101 slides, 552 photographs, 512 negatives, 26 contact sheets, 15 film transparencies, 2 artworks, 2 video cassettes, 1 photographic collage, and 1 swatch of fabric.

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The fonds was processed, arranged, and described by Gabriella J. Cigarroa in Spring 2024.

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