On July 7, the Art Gallery of Hamilton opened the Design Annex on James Street North. Located in the same building as CBC Hamilton, the Design Annex is thoroughly slick, with warm lighting, exposed brick walls and restored ceiling tiles from the 1920s.

The Design Annex sells art, furniture and other home-related items from Canadian artists and designers.

“We found that we were losing a lot of social, cultural and economic impact of the design industry from people who were interested in these products having to go out of Hamilton,” said Mark Stewart, the AGH’s Director of Commercial Activities.

The back of the Design Annex can be rented and will also be used for music performances, and the space allows the AGH to be more diverse in its featured artists.

“At the AGH, we’re what’s considered a category ‘A’ gallery, which means that we can host and show exhibitions from any gallery in the world. In order to do that, we have to meet very strict international requirements related to security, humidity and temperature. But we don’t have those qualifications in place at the Annex,” said Stewart.

The diversity of the art at the Design Annex makes it seem like a place that would appeal to many different kinds of people, and this diversity is important for the kind of vibrant street that Jane Jacobs imagined.

She writes in the seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities that city districts must serve multiple purposes so that people are drawn to a street at all times, and ideally the afternoon furniture shoppers at the Design Annex would be replaced by evening restaurant customers, then followed by the late-night bar crowd.

It’s clear that James Street North is changing, but what is less certain is how these changes can benefit everyone.

“Instead of initiating an operation that emphasizes the social and economic disparity that exists in Hamilton, the AGH could have given thought to programs that help people to understand and appreciate the value of art and what artists do,” said Bryce Kanbara, who helped found Hamilton Artists Inc. in 1975 and owns of the You Me gallery on James North.

“The on-the-street location could have created possibilities for on-the-street involvement”.

Given that one third of the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s annual budget comes from federal, provincial and municipal public funds, it seems reasonable to think that the AGH could reach out to more of the community.

“I have often thought that AGH could designate itself a cooling centre in the summer,” said Kanbara. “It has terrific AC. Folks at Jackson Square need only to cross King Street”.

“For us, there was certainly a conversation of how to best integrate into the street, respect what’s going on here and help do things that are for the benefit of everybody involved,” said Mark Stewart.

While the AGH and the Design Annex have good intentions with their involvement in James North, it will be important that the conversation between the James North community and the AGH continues so that by telling one story about the street, another isn’t overlooked.

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