High-end shop on legislature grounds featuring works by Alberta artists set to close next year

Artist Karen Bishop says she is hurt and angry that the Alberta government has decided the Alberta Branded gift shop is too costly to keep running.

'It's such an insult to Alberta artists that we can be replaced by a made in China pen'

Karen Bishop says she has to hustle to make a living and closing a prime venue to show and sell local work comes at a bad time. (Kim Trynacity/CBC)

Artist Karen Bishop was excited five years ago when she was approached to showcase and sell her landscape watercolour paintings at a flagship store in the newly refurbished Federal Building.

Now she says she is hurt and angry that the Alberta government has decided the Alberta Branded gift shop is too costly to keep running.

"It's disrespectful," said Bishop from her eclectic home studio in Edmonton.

Alberta Branded, the government-run gift shop on the legislature grounds, will close at the end of March. The shop was devoted to promoting the work of Alberta artists.

Bishop, who makes her living as an artist ,says artists weren't consulted or considered when the decision was made to close the shop. 

"It's such an insult to Alberta artists that we can be replaced by a made-in-China pen," said Bishop, wiping away tears.

"We're saying the arts, it's not that important."

The closure will put five employees out of work, and leave 80 artists and designers without a showcase venue on the grounds of the legislature to sell their pieces. 

Alberta Branded opened in 2015, and highlighted the works of about 80 Alberta artists (Craig Ryan/CBC)

The decision was made Nov. 27 by the Special Standing Committee on Members ́ Services. 

The all-party legislative committee sets the budget for the legislative assembly offices and MLA compensation. 

Legislature Speaker Nathan Cooper says he understands the disappointment of closing the gift shop, but Alberta Branded was losing money year after year.

Cooper says taxpayers subsidized the shop each year by about $300,000. Over the years, the subsidy added up to about $1.2 million.

Cost cutting

Cooper says keeping the shop open would go against what taxpayers are asking the UCP government to do during a time of fiscal restraint.

"It would be irresponsible for us to continue with the operations of Alberta Branded as is," Cooper said.

Besides, he said, very few pieces of art were actually sold at the shop.

"So I think a case could be made that artists could be equally as well served by having their art displayed in other locations."

Cooper said a kiosk space may be opened to sell less expensive items such as souvenir pins or mugs.

But Bishop said the benefits to artists and Alberta far outweigh the amount needed to keep the shop open.

One of her favourite memories was selling one of her small watercolours to a Belgian princess, shortly after the shop first opened. Bishop said it was a thrill to be part of such a high-profile venue.

"Now what's she going to get? A pen?"

Cooper said employees who have been told their jobs are ending are encouraged to apply for other opportunities that may come open at the legislative assembly office.

If they choose to leave early, he understands entirely.

Speaker Nathan Cooper says the Alberta Branded shop was losing money year after year. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC )

"We are leading up to Christmas time, and so hopefully there will be other good retail opportunities for those folks," said Cooper. 

Bishop has written letters to the Speaker, and her to MLA, Opposition leader Rachel Notley. 

In the meantime, Bishop is getting ready to show more of her pieces at the annual Alberta Branded Christmas market.

She's also joined another Edmonton artist, Jill Thomson, and formed a Facebook group opposing the shop's closure and other government cuts.

Bishop says in 24 hours the group added 300 members.