When I applied to work at the Acadia University Art Gallery in August of 2016, I was under the impression I knew a lot about art – I worked in a museum for two years during which time I learned how to handle and document artifacts, I had several favourite internationally-known artists, and could tell the difference between oil, watercolour, acrylic, and pencil works. When I started my job in September, however, I realized there was much more to running a gallery.
Working in galleries and museums is extremely interesting and exciting when you get to work directly with art and artifacts, and for someone like myself who loves researching, this is a dream job. Working behind the scenes with the collection creates a different feeling of appreciation for the works – it is one thing to view artwork on the walls in a gallery, but another to comb through numerous pieces by hand, finding hidden treasures you never imagined would be in your presence. Working in this setting allows for the development of a special relationship with artwork, as you learn about the mindset of the artist and the context in which the piece was produced.
When a show is being designed/planned, part of the process is choosing artwork to put on display – Dr. Laurie Dalton chose many works to exhibit in our current show, The Boundless and the Framed, but had to eliminate a few. Once the final works were chosen, it was my job to research the artists and find as much information I could about symbolism in their work – this task allowed me to develop an appreciation for their pasts, and understand how their experiences influenced their work. A great example is the life and work of Kenojuak Ashevak, an Inuit artist from Cape Dorset. Ashevak’s piece, “Grand Entrance” is one of my favourite works in the collection because I can clearly see how her life influenced her work – Ashevak lived off the land for most of her young life and moved to Cape Dorset with her husband and children in 1966. Living the traditional life off the land required learning how to hunt, craft her own clothing and weapons, build igloos and sod houses, and many more techniques. Specifically, hunting allowed her to develop a close relationship with wildlife in Northern Canada, which she depicted in her work. When Ashevak produced works, she was more interested in depicting her own feelings than accurate representations of her subjects. When I learned this mindset of hers, I could see it in the work, and every time I look at it I see a Ptarmigan bird that was viewed by Ashevak as a significant being, more than just an animal you hunt and eat. (If you would like to know more about Kenojuak Ashevak, check out our blog post “Artist Spotlight: Kenojuak Ashevak”.
Another example from a previous exhibition is the work of Robert Pope. After conducting extensive research on Pope and his work, my appreciation for the artist has grown quite extensively. In his works, especially from the collection “Illness and Healing”, I can almost feel the moments of pain, sadness, and few happy moments he depicts. In his work “High” (Acadia University Art Gallery Collection), I can feel the hardships, danger, and pain the relationship has caused, but I also see something beyond this: hope for a new beginning. Pope’s works are meant to be interpreted by the viewer, so in his works I have encountered I see an element of hope and destiny; everything happens for a reason, and there are always multiple sides to every story.
An element of working in a gallery that I didn’t expect was how closely we are connected to and work with the rest of the buildings and departments on campus – Dr. Laurie Dalton and I have spent many hours this summer hunting down and retrieving artwork from the construction zone that is currently the Huggins Science Hall, and spent some time exploring, handling, and loaning bird specimen from the Acadia University Wildlife museum in the Biology building. These elements not only built up my excitement for my job over the summer, but contributed to my understanding and appreciation of the art world.
There are many more aspects to working in an art gallery that make the job exciting, however, the relationship you build with works in the collection (including the works displayed around campus) is the one closest to home. The only downfall to working with the collection is you can’t take your favourite works home with you!
If you have any comments or work in a gallery/museum and want to share your thoughts, join the conversation below!
Alexandra (Collections and Outreach Assistant, Summer 2017)