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Curating the Hess Collection

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

One of the best parts of my job is getting to learn more about the artists represented in the UofL Art Gallery’s collection of more than 15,000 artworks from all over the world. With so many possibilities to choose from, it can be a challenge focussing in on one particular artist or idea to build an exhibition. One strategy that has been helpful for me has been to work in series. Over the last couple of years my exhibitions have been focused on showing works from the recently gifted collection of Marmie Hess whose bequest was the subject of my last post.

David Smith installing ‘Recent Acquisitions: Highlights from the Collection of Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Perkins Hess’ (June 14 – September 7, 2018) Hess Gallery.

You may be wondering why I’ve chosen to curate shows from the Hess collection and the answer is threefold. The first part is that there has been a great deal of interest from the public in seeing the works from Marmie’s collection. The first exhibition from the bequest saw over three thousand visitors during the summer of 2018. The excitement around these artworks is partly due to the fact that many of them have never been seen in public before. Marmie purchased many of them directly from artists and rarely loaned works from her personal collection for exhibition.

The second layer of this curatorial choice is that there is a focus on artists from Western Canada and especially Alberta in this collection. In my art history degree, there was not a lot of emphasis placed on artists working in Alberta and so presenting these works in context has allowed me to expand my knowledge and continue learning. As a born and raised Albertan who is now working in the arts in this province, I’ll admit that I also feel a degree of kinship with these artists and have enjoyed presenting their achievements to our audience. Lastly, the nature of my position as Preparator / Assistant Curator provides me a unique perspective. My time is divided between my curatorial work (planning, researching, writing) and my preparatorial tasks (matting, framing, hanging, lighting, etc), and this allows me to be more aware of the work required when planning exhibitions.

One of the things that I have found both challenging and rewarding about curating shows from the Hess collection is that every piece has needed some level of work completed before being ready to be displayed. The paintings on canvas all needed to have wire removed, hanging hardware installed and backing boards created. Works on paper all needed unframing, matting and hinging before getting popped into our gallery frames or back into their original frames. Breaking up the Hess collection into smaller more manageable groupings has allowed me to improve the storage situation for each piece. Ultimately, this is better for long-term preservation and makes them more easily exhibited in the future. So far I’ve been able to exhibit about a third of the Hess collection and it is quite satisfying to know that the work I've done on the Hess pieces will save others time in the future.

Installation view‘Recent Acquisitions: highlights from the collection of Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Perkins Hess’ (June 14 – September 7, 2018) Hess Gallery.

Looking back at the exhibitions that I’ve curated so far, I’d have to say the first one was the most challenging. Recent Acquisitions: highlights from the collection of Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Perkins Hess (June 14 – September 7, 2018) was an exciting show to work on because this gift had been kept a secret until the show opened following the official public announcement. For more information about this first exhibition, click here: What made it particularly challenging for me was that I hadn’t had a lot of time to learn about who Marmie was at that point. Sure, there was some information available online, but the whole gallery staff was so preoccupied with processing the gift that I didn’t have a lot of time to dig deeper. I also had to make some decisions early on about what not to show in the first exhibition. There were pieces that I held back that were definitely highlights but presented opportunities for future exhibitions (some of which are still to come). Initially I could see that there were a significant number of works by Roloff Beny, Maxwell Bates, John Snow and Walter Phillips and I was later able to use Marmie’s bequest to build exhibitions around each of these artists. Before the Hess bequest, the ULAG collection didn’t have enough artworks by Bates, Snow or Phillips to allow for an entire exhibition devoted to their work.

Installation view ‘Collected by Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Hess: John Snow’ (June 13 – September 6, 2019).

As I write this from my kitchen table during a worldwide pandemic, I now have the opportunity to pause and reflect on my work thus far and begin to imagine the possibilities for the future. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately has been Anne Dymond’s Art Now talk that I had the opportunity to attend at the University of Lethbridge back in early March 2020. The talk presented some of her research and data around gender representation in art galleries over the last decade, which was recently published in her book Diversity Counts: Gender, Race and Representation in Canadian Art Galleries. One of the takeaways for me was that exhibitions of historical works generally have fewer female artists represented than exhibitions of contemporary artists. This is partly, though not entirely, because gender biases are baked into the collections that the shows are drawn from. This has got me thinking about my personal track record for showing female artists. If I continue to plan my exhibitions primarily focused on showing the artists that feature prominently in the Hess collection, I’d be perpetuating the existing ratio of male and female artists in that collection. Looking at gender breakdown in the Hess bequest, it’s clear that there are considerably more male than female artists (the exception is perhaps the prints by Inuit artists where there are many female artists). Some of these prints were included in an exhibition titled From the Collection (March 1 – June 7, 2019) curated by Museum Studies Intern Kirstan Schamuhn in the Helen Christou Gallery. To read more about her exhibition of prints by female Inuit artists, click here: To address this going forward, I’m excited to begin working on a series of exhibitions of work by female artists. While there probably aren’t enough pieces in the Hess bequest by any one female artist to fill an entire exhibition, if I change my focus slightly, I can supplement the shows with preexisting works in the UofL collection. I’m particularly interested in building exhibitions around works by Margaret Shelton, Janet Mitchell and Marion Nicoll.

Margaret Shelton, Stolen Church Windermere, 1977, Ink on paper, From the University of Lethbridge Art Collection; gift of Dr. Margaret “Marmie” Perkins Hess, 2017.

The Hess bequest has really been the gift that keeps on giving. There are continually new things for me to learn, and I’m excited to continue this work.

David Smith

Preparator / Assistant Curator

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