Q&A with Shannon Parker, Curator of Collections
Shannon Parker is the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s Curator of Collections, and joined the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia from the School for Advanced Research (Indian Arts Research Centre) and the Smithsonian Institution (National Museum of the American Indian). We grabbed a few minutes out of her busy schedule to learn more about her views on Gallery and the importance of art in society.
What’s your role within the Gallery?
My title is Curator of Collections. That means I am in charge of the collections department (which consists of just myself and one other person!), which deals with any artwork that comes in or leaves the building. It’s a fairly all-encompassing role and is the foundation on which the Gallery is built. When a work is offered for acquisition, if it is brought in on a loan for an exhibition, if we are lending pieces for another institution’s exhibition, image requests, research requests… Basically all of it is handled by the collections department. We document all the works, catalogue and photograph them, enter them into our collections database, create condition reports, coordinate where things are stored and how they are stored, how they need to be exhibited and handled, and managing the overall storage - both onsite and offsite - among other things.
What continues to surprise you about the art world and, specifically, the art you come across in the province?
I think one of the most surprising and interesting things—and perhaps because I’m a bit of a collections geek—are the materials that are getting used and the long-term variants in their survival. One of the things we are very concerned with is the long-term preservation of something and how to mitigate that preservation through environment standards (temperature, relative humidity, light). There are materials that we know very well how they are going to react over time. For example, prints: we know how long paper will last and we know what we can do to maximize its life.
For contemporary art, it’s often completely unknown because they are using materials that have only existed for a year or two - we have no idea what their long-term effects will be. For instance, a recent acquisition is a work by Evan Lee; it is a 3D printed ship and is wonderful, but we have no idea what that’s going to look like in five year, ten years, fifteen years - we don’t know what the expected lifespan of this will be. How we will preserve it long-term is to keep it in a stable environment, which is your baseline for preservation, but there may be other factors that we don’t know about. Old nitrate film can spontaneously combust; we don’t know if we have something that will degrade like that in the new materials, and if that’s going to be a problem. So I find it very interesting!
What role does art play in our everyday lives?
I don’t think a lot of people realize how central art is in their lives. When I did my master’s dissertation, it was about how artists use art to create creative spaces, and I think all people do that. Part of how you create your space is how you incorporate art—whether fine art or souvenirs, or a knickknack with memories associated with it; it is integral in creating an environment. It can change how your environment feels and how you relate to that environment, emotionally and mentally. What do you chose to put in your living room? How are you presenting yourself and changing your emotional state through art? It’s so personal that visitors to your space don’t necessarily get it - they can appreciate something about it, but they never have the same appreciation.
Art isn’t a passive thing. It’s often interactive, physical, musical, multi-sensory. Not only do I spend my professional day with artists and managing the Gallery’s art collection, in my personal life I’m involved in dance and music. I’m a member of Mahari Tribal, a professional tribal fusion bellydance group led by Monique Ryan of Serpentine Studios. Dance is one of the best creative outlets for me: it’s challenging but so rewarding. The combination of the mental, physical and social outlet it provides improves everything else I do and allows me to bring a fresh perspective and energy to everything I work on.
After a twenty-year hiatus since I’ve seriously practiced music, I’ve also recently joined the Halifax Music Co-op Wind Ensemble where I have been re-learning how to play mallet percussion and keyboard for the upcoming performance of Johan de Meij’s Lord of the Rings symphony. It’s inspiring me to start playing music for the sheer enjoyment of it.
People are busy. Why should they make the time to visit the Gallery?
I think a lot of people get nervous because they have this very Victorian idea of what an art gallery is, where you come in, you’re quiet and very reserved. Having been here when school groups are visiting and arguing over the art, and grasping at the abstract art, then connecting with it—it’s a lot more engaging. Art is such an integral part of our mental health. Whether it’s music, movement or visual art, people come away from an interaction with art a little healthier, invigorated or inspired.
Coming to the Gallery, it’s not just looking at the exhibitions, it’s about engaging with different activities. Coming and hearing our curators talking with the artists, that’s a great way to really get into art. It can be tricky when you’re looking at some of the more contemporary pieces, and it’s not until you start hearing the story behind it that you get that connection and you start to be able to grasp what is going on. It can be scary to walk through the doors, but it’s not. [That’s] because there is something here that everyone will find appealing, even if it’s simply looking at Maud Lewis’s house and thinking, ‘How did someone live in a ten-by-twelve-foot house and create art that is still impacting people fifty years later?’. [watch a video of the house's restoration]
What's something the public can do within the Gallery that they can't do or find anywhere else in the province?
The simple answer is, getting to see some of the artists that you hear about, and know about, and study, and never otherwise would get a chance to see, except maybe in reproductions. We have, as part of our Northwest Arms exhibition, blown up several ridiculously-detailed prints that show maps of Halifax and streets. You can identify names of places, and you get a great sense of connection that isn’t always there.
For me, it is very much about the visceral seeing and appreciating art that way. The first time I physically encountered Paul-Émile Borduas’ paintings, it was a revelation because I had seen pictures, but when you get to see them in person and you get to see the thickness of the paint, there’s a very visceral appreciation. You can see the density of it, the texture, and the thickness and you realize you’ve been missing a whole other element by looking at a picture, than when you look at the reality. This is true of every artwork. I have yet to see a reproduction that creates the details and the color perfectly. The environment that you get when you come into the Gallery and get to explore, wander at will and just spend your entire time examining one painting in great detail. It’s kind of awesome.
What is your favourite piece on view in the Gallery?
One of my favorites would be Borduas’ Composition. It speaks to me on a lot of levels. It’s black and it’s white, with great dense palate knife strokes all over the place and I just love it.
Another is one of the newer acquisitions, Grace Nickel’s Devastatus Rememorari, a ceramic installation that explores the idea of the devastation of Hurricane Juan and other local disasters. The ceramic trees are very bare and un-colorful, placed in a bed of salt. It’s one of the ones that I like on a lot of levels, and it speaks a lot to this province as well. Those are two of my wide-ranging favourites. In the Laufer Gallery, there is a lovely late Renaissance Salvator Mundi painting attributed to Francesco Solimena - a very dramatic image of Christ - and it’s quite beautiful.
Grace Nickel's Devastatus Rememorari, 2008, porcelain with terra sigillata, oxide, glaze, and salt, 2 m x 3.5 m x 7.5 m. Photo by Steve Farmer. Courtesy of Mary E. Black Gallery