Conversations

Sarah Fillmore Q&A

Sarah Fillmore joined the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia over 10 years ago from the Portland Museum of Art. As Chief Curator, Sarah wears many hats within the Gallery. She has curated group and solo exhibitions of many artists, including Jacques Hurtubise, Canadian Pioneers, Lisa Lipton: STOP @ FOREVER, Emily Falencki and Marion Wagschal, among others. Art is her true passion, and she surrounds herself with it every day of her life.

We were lucky to spend some time (she’s busy!) with Sarah recently to learn more about her role and her thoughts on art in the community and the role it plays in all of our lives.

What’s your role within the Gallery?

I am the Chief Curator, so I oversee all the things that touch the art. I work on education and with the exhibitions, conservation, and registration and collections. We have a killer team that works to put on shows, acquire work, and oversee all of the art related activities.

What continues to surprise you about the art world and, specifically, the art you come across in the province?

I am surprised and gratified that people continue to be interested in, and support the art world. I am surprised by how eternally resourceful the artists that live here are. How they learn to live in a meager environment, with limited resources, and limited exhibition opportunities. A fairly strong community exists, without a strong economic centre, like Montreal, Toronto, or New York has to offer, maybe despite that it is one of the most interesting and vibrant communities of artists that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. It’s diverse, and capable of making things happen with a lot of different partners, so artists here tend to be really able, musically, visually. They make sets, they are chefs, they raise families, they find ways of working on the Internet, they work collaboratively with people in Iceland, Berlin or Australia, and I think it comes from being a place that has that ‘can-do’ attitude, without regularly being able to go to the MoMA - so that surprises me too. It also makes me want to work for them.

For me, it’s a guiding star. It’s the thing that makes life worth living, it makes it human, it makes it hard, and it makes it alive.

What role does art play in our every day lives?

That’s a question for everyone. I don’t know what role it plays in your life, but certainly in my life it plays a huge role. I can’t answer that for anyone else. For me, it’s a guiding star. It’s the thing that makes life worth living, it makes it human, it makes it hard, and it makes it alive. How you define art is going to be extremely individual. I tend to see it everywhere, I see the value, and the moment it creates. There is a moment in the film American Beauty where the kid is videotaping a plastic bag in the wind and it’s so beautiful. Those little moments that are not strictly art. But those are the magic of everyday. If you’re in tune to looking at things, I think art helps us to calm our minds and look, which is not an easy skill, but if you are used to looking, then you become much more aware of what’s around you. I think it helps make sense of good, bad, ugly, wonderful, things you’re encountering. To me it’s just the bread and butter of life. It’s not the icing, it’s not the sugar, it’s not the thing that happens twice a year while you’re on vacation, it’s the way of looking at everything you do and it’s why you chose your aesthetics, and why we want certain things around us. It’s why we make the judgements that we make. I think it’s so central that we’ve forgotten. It’s such a common element that we’ve put it in this box and we hope it will somehow surprise us and delight us, but in reality it is just all around us.

People are busy. Why should they make the time to visit the Gallery?

We have to find a reason that compels people. There is no reason, people shouldn’t have to do anything, and they don’t have to come to the gallery. It’s our job to make it something they ‘can’t not do’. So, we have been trying to offer experiences that connect with the things that people are trying to make sense of.

If you have little children, and you find yourself struggling on a rainy Sunday, and you know that you can go to the Discovery Centre, you could go to a movie, and you could go to the trampoline park. You could also have in your portfolio to come to the Gallery with your kids and make arts and crafts. You could listen to the symphony when they do their Pop Goes the Easel, and have a great experience. If you happen to have a child with autism, we have a program that offers to make a safe community for both the families and the child.

If you happen to be working with your elderly aunt who has Alzheimer’s, we also have a program that helps you connect with your aunt through Artful Afternoons. So we are trying to find more and more ways for you to connect through the things you are already going to be doing. We have programs with the IWK and Child Life that helps people who are dealing with whatever horrible thing they have to deal with in the hospital.

We have to work to make the Gallery have a place in your busy life, and the nice thing about it is that, where it might be hard to go to dinner by yourself, you can come to the Gallery by yourself. If you’ve lost your partner, or you just moved to the city, and you’re trying to make sense of what’s going on around you, this is a place that is judgement free, and has a universal language - you don’t have to speak English, and you don’t have to know too much about what you’re going to see. People go to the movies and don’t know about what they are about to see, and we offer the same kind of thing. People feel a little bit nervous about how we fit in this, and we need to make sure people feel confident when they walk through our doors, and feel like they are going to get something that isn’t going to hurt you, and it won’t make you uncomfortable. If you’re working hard to make a beautiful life for yourself, why wouldn’t you want to be around something that will enrich it, and provide you with greater feeling?

I think there is space for conversation that there isn’t in other spaces. There is room for self-exploration here...

What’s something the public can do within the gallery that they can’t do or find anywhere else in the province?

We hold the province’s collection, and that sets us aside. We have the opportunity for a variety of art exhibitions all at the same time, and I don’t think there is anywhere else that you can have that.

I think there is space for conversation that there isn’t in other spaces. There is room for self-exploration here, and I think kids are such a good because of their fearlessness. We set things up so that they feel alienated sometimes, but when it’s done right, they lead the conversation. Kids aren’t scared of what they are looking at, and they know how to ask questions. You don’t get that so much at other activities. This is a place where you can find a place to connect to people. This is why galleries have always been a favorite date spot. This is our shared legacy, it helps us to understand history and emotion.

This is a very special place and a rare find experience, and we acknowledge that. 

Sarah Fillmore and Jacques Hurtubise in the exhibition Hurtubise (2011). Photo: Steve Farmer.

What is your favorite piece on view in the Gallery?

This is an hour by hour changing thing for me, it’s never the same thing, and this is for a million different reasons. It’s who I’m working with right now, why do I want to share their story, and why does this speak to me?

When I look at it, it reminds me that he’s not dead, and that work will always sit with me.

The first is the Jacques Hurtubise piece (Faux Dragon) on the third floor. He and I worked together for eight years and produced an exhibition and a book. The exhibition (Hurtubise, 2011) was a retrospective of 40 years of work. I hadn’t even been alive for 40 years! Sadly, Jacques passed away last December (2014). When I went to school I studied his work and I couldn’t believe that I was going to work with this man, and he was a beast, in the best way. When I look at Faux Dragon, it looks like a folded dragon. I’ve watched people walk by the Hurtubise in awe, and it’s that, sometimes a visual is bigger than life. When I look at it, it reminds me that he’s not dead, and that work will always sit with me.

There is a work of art in Italy that does the same for me: Bellini's Frari Triptych at the Frari church in Venice. It moves me to tears, and it is really a boring old church scene, but it is so beautiful. I don’t know Bellini, he died hundreds of years ago, and I’m not overly religious, and still, the work just speaks to me.

There was a video that we don’t own, but we showed for a long time, and it was a hockey video by Annika Larsson. It had to be shown at a certain volume, and it was a bunch of teenage kids playing hockey, and it was a high level, like our Junior National team, but in Sweden. She had cut the video with this extraordinary base, so we had to source a specific sub-woofer, and the sound was really very specific. I would sit in that room and the noise - the sound, was so powerful and the kids were so earnest, it felt like the power of their moment on the ice, she got it. She got the anxiety and all the good stuff. That piece I also think about all the time.

There are a lot of things that grow with people, and they stay with you, we have these feelings when we keep certain things on display. People come back and want to see that - whatever that is.

We have a painting by Alex Colville called Dog and Car, and it is haunting and beautiful, and the conversations I have heard around that piece are awesome. So things you know you are going to come back to, they’re still always going to have something you want to unlock.