MacLaren Art Centre


The MacLaren Art Centre is the regional public art gallery serving the residents of Barrie, the County of Simcoe and the surrounding area. The Gallery has a permanent collection of 27,408 works of art held in trust for the public and presents a year-round programme of world-class exhibitions, education activities and special events.

The MacLaren is housed in an award-winning building in downtown Barrie. This architectural landmark combines a renovated Carnegie library with a contemporary addition designed by Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini Architects. The complex includes multiple galleries, an education centre, a sculpture courtyard, café, gift shop and framing department. As a cornerstone of culture for Barrie, the MacLaren is a visual arts centre that adds to the social, intellectual, creative and economic fabric of this community; it is a central meeting place, a destination for visitors from across the province, and a catalyst for downtown revitalization contributing to the success and vitality of this city.

The MacLaren is committed to building a vibrant, healthy and creative community. Exhibitions, workshops, special events and community activities nurture artistic talent, inspire creativity and stimulate intellectual curiosity. Our award-winning education department offers art appreciation and hands-on programmes for all ages, interests and abilities including lectures, panels, artist talks, publications and gallery tours; art classes and camps; after-school youth workshops; artist-led programmes in the schools; and Sunday art-making activities for families. In 2015, we reached 46,162 people through our programmes at the Gallery, in the schools and in the community, including 20,057 children and youth. Last year, we presented 28 exhibitions and offered 538 arts education activities. Through VanGo we delivered 255 studio programmes to 6,006 students from Kindergarten to Grade 8 in Simcoe County.

The MacLaren is a not-for-profit charitable organization governed by a volunteer board of community leaders and maintained by ten full-time staff plus part-time/contract staff and artist instructors and 266 active volunteers. The Gallery receives annual culture grants from the City of Barrie, the Ontario Art Council and the Canada Council for the Arts. The support from these and other government agencies represents 23% of the MacLaren’s annual revenues, while 35% of revenues come from self-generated sources. The balance, 42%, comes through the private sector: corporate sponsorships, proceeds from fundraising events and the generous support of individuals, service clubs and local businesses (based on 2015 outcomes). Despite the economic challenges in recent years, the MacLaren has maintained a balanced budget.


The MacLaren offers a warm, welcoming environment. The Gallery is open to the public seven days week, excluding statutory holidays. Admission is by voluntary donation. The building is wheelchair accessible. Adjacent parking is available. Our facility also accommodates meetings, information sessions, corporate receptions and social events, such as weddings, memorial services and birthday parties. These activities-as well as our street-side café, our gift shop and our framing services-regularly welcome new visitors.

The City of Barrie owns the building in which the MacLaren Art Centre operates. The building is defined by the elegant juxtaposition of a renovated 1917 Carnegie Public Library and a dynamic contemporary space for the presentation and animation of the visual arts. Openness, accessibility and transparency are key design features. Built to meet professional museum standards, this 24,000 square foot facility includes: the Janice Laking Gallery (environmentally-controlled exhibition space): 1400 square feet; Gallery 3 (environmentally-controlled exhibition space): 1120 square feet; The Carnegie Room (multi-purpose/event space): 2380 square feet; Molson Community Gallery (collection, education and community exhibitions): 240 square feet; Prints and Drawings Room (environmentally-controlled collection space): 600 square feet; Joan Lehman Gallery (environmentally-controlled visible collection storage): 580 square feet; Rotary Education Centre (workshops, lectures, school tours): 1500 square feet; Massie Family Sculpture Courtyard (exterior exhibition space, controlled access): 1000 square feet; and the Gallery Café, Gallery Shop, Framing Department, offices and meeting rooms. The building capacity is 350.

The Collection

The MacLaren’s Permanent Collection comprises 27, 408 works of art, most of which are designated as Cultural Property through the Department of Canadian Heritage and held in trust for the public. As part of our Permanent Collection, we house 23,116 vintage Soviet press photographs (Sovfoto Archive). The balance of the collection represents visual culture in Canada with an emphasis on contemporary art. Our Permanent Collection continues to evolve as a major asset for the immediate and larger community. The Collection mandate is: to represent the practice of significant regional artists in depth; to contextualize this work within the history of Canadian art practices through the acquisition of complementary works by other Canadian artists; to collect work by contemporary Aboriginal artists, especially artists from our region; to collect documentary photography, particularly works by Canadian artists influenced by the history of documentary photography; and to collect works of art from our exhibition programme so that the Collection reflects our ongoing research activities. In shaping the artistic programme, the curators regularly present exhibitions using artwork from the Collection and develop exhibitions that support, reflect and animate the Permanent Collection, making it an accessible and relevant resource for the public. The Joan Lehman Gallery offers a dedicated exhibition space for the Permanent Collection. Artworks from our Collection are accessible for loan to other public art galleries.


The curatorial and collection mandates bring attention to emerging, mid-career and senior members of the regional artistic community and artwork of regional interest. Local, regional, national and international exhibitions of contemporary art are complemented by occasional exhibitions of historical and modern and presented within a balanced schedule of originated and touring shows; however, programming emphasizes innovative artistic production in Canada, while highlighting works from our Permanent Collection and issues of relevance for our constituency. The exhibition programme reflects a wide range of influences and media, from the more traditional to multifaceted installations, and diverse cultural, material and aesthetic orientations. Concurrent exhibitions are presented in both main gallery spaces (Janice Laking Gallery and Gallery 3), with artworks integrated into the hallways, community event and education spaces, the courtyard, the green spaces surrounding the facility and the building façade. With every changing round of exhibitions, critical aspects of contemporary visual art practice are foregrounded. To mold the pace and intensity of the programme, issues introduced in one or more bodies of work are consciously interrelated with works in other exhibitions, and more fully developed in larger projects. By presenting thematically-linked projects, meaning is produced in context. This approach supports a coherent curatorial direction, establishing the logic and purpose of a scenario of shows while generating points of reference for our audiences. This practice also fosters confidence in the viewer; it builds an experiential foundation for visitors new to contemporary art and supports a graduated understanding of increasingly more challenging artwork.

Programming is not just confined to the MacLaren. Through public art activities we place permanent and temporary works in Barrie’s public spaces. Projects range from subtle, temporal installations to large-scale permanent sculptures, such as the Spirit Catcher by Ron Baird, the first artwork accessioned into the MacLaren’s Permanent Collection and a symbol for Barrie. These initiatives enhance, enliven and enrich city spaces and public experiences, while fostering the growth of a culturally-informed public. Projects presented in our own public spaces engage general audiences at the Gallery, such as café patrons and attendees at community events, and foster increased exposure to visual art. They also create opportunities for artists to produce innovative sited-work using different modes of public address. By introducing art into the fabric of everyday life, we make art accessible to the larger community. Accessibility, physical and intellectual, is central to the conceptualization and presentation of our programmes at the MacLaren and at other venues.


Public programmes are developed to enhance the understanding of exhibitions. They are designed to inform and enlighten audiences, while challenging preconceived notions of art, allowing viewers to broaden their own definitions. Artist talks, lectures, panel discussions, publications, film screenings, interpretive panels, guided tours and hands-on activities nurture visitor appreciation and create various entryways into the artwork on view. MacLaren programming not only emphasizes artistic excellence, it emphasizes communication with audiences, highlighting the relevance of contemporary visual art while eliciting community involvement.

The MacLaren is committed to advancing the knowledge and enjoyment of contemporary visual art using a variety of publication formats, which range from interpretive brochures for general audiences to comprehensive catalogues for more specialized audiences. Our goal is to have a publication for every exhibition we present, providing artists and audiences with a considered perspective of the artwork on view. We often work in partnership with other public galleries, sharing resources to produce more substantial publications with contributions from a variety of curators, arts writers and academics. Multiple essays in catalogues offer audiences different approaches to the interpretation of a given body of work. Publications are essential for communication with our audiences. By elucidating concerns raised in each exhibition, they create a more meaningful exchange and enrich visitor experience.

The pursuit of quality educational programming is the primary function of our Education Department, which serves both traditional and non-traditional audiences. Programmes are developed to broaden our audience base, to make the arts accessible to a diverse population and to meet the needs of specific community members: children, youth, adults, seniors, families, students, teachers, artists, tourists and the casual visitor, as well as specialized audiences such as members of the Francophone community, the Aboriginal community and culturally diverse audiences. With these audiences in mind, the Education Department develops a wide range of interpretive and hands-on activities that provide an enriched environment for learning. These programmes are shaped in consultation with our partners the City of Barrie, social service agencies, service clubs, Georgian College, Simcoe County District School Board, and the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Boardand reflect continuous dialogue with our community.


The Gallery was incorporated in 1986 as the Barrie Gallery Project, a not-for-profit, charitable organization, and opened a storefront gallery in 1988 at 17c Mulcaster. In 1989, local businessman Maurice MacLaren left his collection and residence at 147 Toronto Street to the City of Barrie and the Barrie Gallery Project, giving the Gallery a permanent home. In honour of his bequest, the Gallery was named the MacLaren Art Centre in 1990.

During the 1990s, under director William Moore, the MacLaren gained recognition for its innovative approach to programming. In 1997, the MacLaren attracted 100,000 visitors for Joe Fafard’s Field Project. The design by this Saskatchewan artist was planted with crops in a 50-acre site to produce the image of a horse, assisted by local farmers and 200 volunteers. Responding to the new Ontario public school curriculum, VanGo was introduced in 1997, employing regional artists to deliver in-class studio programmes across Simcoe County. In 1997, 1998 and 1999 the Gallery was awarded the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for its exceptional private sector and community support. In 1999, the City of Barrie designated its public spaces in support of the MacLaren’s public art initiative ArtCity™. Ron Baird’s public sculpture, Spirit Catcher, was the first work accessioned into the MacLaren’s collection; it has since become a symbol for the City of Barrie. In 2003, 2005 and 2007, the MacLaren mounted its ambitious Shorelines series featuring public sculptures by Canadian and international artists installed along the ancient shore of Lake Algonquin and Barrie’s downtown.

The MacLaren moved to a new, state-of-the-art facility in 2001. The building, designed by Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini Archirects, garnered significant critical acclaim, including the 2003 Ontario Architects Association Award of Excellence for Best Building (under $10 million) and the National Post Design Exchange Award of Merit. Years of success, however, were overshadowed in 2003 with the failure of the MacLaren’s negotiations to secure long-term revenue through the purchase and subsequent sale of posthumous castings of bronze statues from plasters attributed to Auguste Rodin. A serious deficit resulted, leading to reduced staffing, programming and hours of operation. In 2006, however, the MacLaren entered into a financial restructuring and, with new support with from the City of Barrie, has since consolidated its resources, building a strong and stable operating foundation.

In the summer of 2007, Carolyn Bell Farrell joined the MacLaren as Executive Director. Since then the Gallery has focused on building programmes and community partnerships, and strengthening operations and funding support for the Gallery. Support from members, benefactors, media partners and business sponsors continues to increase. The MacLaren now has over 250 active volunteers, the VanGo programme reaches over 6,000 regional schoolchildren each year, and annual attendance for programmes at the Gallery, in the schools and in the community exceeds 46,000.