Print Edition: January 15, 2014
Perching precariously on the top rung of a ladder in something resembling a yoga pose while clutching a hefty national art treasure isn’t exactly what we envisioned as a course assignment when we signed up to be art majors.
As the first UFV fine arts majors to undertake an independent study internship course (AH330 Museum Principles and Practices) at the Reach in Abbotsford, we were both experimental guinea pigs.
The Reach is a professional space that has presented a stellar line-up of local, national, and internationally acclaimed art and cultural exhibitions since its doors first opened five years ago. We were pretty excited to get into the gritty back-end of the arts scene.
According to the outline, the course explores “the ways museums negotiate aesthetic, cultural, and political interests,” and examines “how exhibitions construct meaning alongside issues such as taste, ownership, stakeholder interests, community needs, and curatorial objectives.”
But what does that mean?
We’ve learned that, in part, it means determining what type of work to display is tricky. What stimulates one visitor’s artistic cravings assaults the conservative sensibilities of another. Some people want to see only traditional shows that relate to the local community, while art geeks like us hunger for outrageous contemporary interdisciplinary feasts. Others in the community might prefer not to have an arts and cultural centre in the city at all.
Such are the delicate considerations of curator Scott Marsden and executive director Suzanne Greening. Behind the polished veneer of the stunning exhibitions are a lot of politics that must be carefully navigated if the Reach wants to retain its municipal and public support without watering down curatorial objectives of producing inspiring and provocative shows.
The show we were most involved in was the travelling exhibition from the Canadian War Museum called The Navy: A Century in Art. It looks at 100 years of Canadian Navy history through artist documentation. We had the opportunity to work with Marsden on the exhibition changeover. This included some of the less glamorous tasks such as moving the tall walls, removing vinyl lettering from walls, patching holes, and moving crates.
We were also given the task of condition reporting. As works came in we had to document their states and take photos of any previous damages. When it came time to hang the pieces we were given the opportunity to work with someone from the Canadian War Museum. It was a great opportunity to learn how professional institutions create installations.
But the challenge is how to construct meaning through interpretive programming and material that resonates with visitors. As Marsden says, it’s all about the story behind the artwork.
Tara, an intern from Trinity Western University, helped us put together a script and narrate a video about the stories of the artwork from the show. After filming, we spent countless hours editing and tying everything together.
We also developed a children’s activity book that helps younger visitors and school groups experience the artwork through fun, hands-on activities.
The internship experience has been a valuable lesson in learning the workings of a professional gallery and museum environment — the stuff they don’t teach you at university.
Our time at the Reach will end with the installation of the next group of shows, which will mean working alongside a preparatory team from the National Gallery of Canada, as well as several regional contemporary artists.
The upcoming travelling photographic collection titled Clash: Conflict and Its Consequences is an exhibition of national and international photographers who investigate the personal legacy of war and trauma, as well as the effects of mass media on depictions of conflict. The show runs January 23 to March 30.