AGGV Week 1: Climbing the Stairs of the Art World

I’m climbing the steps of the art world.  No, this is not a dream of artistic grandeur; this is me on my first day of work at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, home to over 17,000 works of art (the largest public collection in BC), the second best collection of Asian art in Canada, and my office.  On the second floor of a century-old mansion.  With messed up stairs.

You know that feeling of a “first day?”  Maybe it was your first day at school, or your first high school dance, or your first big game.  Those are moments that you prepare for, you anticipate, and you’d hate to mess up.

On my first trip up the stairs, all proud and excited and raring to go…I tripped.

The problem with new work places (and old buildings) is you are not familiar with the peculiarities of your environment.  What I had forgotten in the two to three weeks since my interview at the Gallery was that the second to last step of the staircase has sunken over the past century and slopes downwards towards the inside handrail.  When you step off it and reach for the next step, it is just a big enough change to make you miss your mark, catch your toe, and land flat on your face.

The Spencer Mansion, located at the top of Moss St. in the historic Rockland neighbourhood of Victoria, is a sight to behold in itself.  Painted green with bright red trim – what is known as Queen Anne style colours – the house holds two small galleries in rooms that have been conserved in their turn-of-the-century style, an Art Rental & Sales department, and the offices of both administration and the gift shop.

The Spencer Mansion staircase

The Spencer Mansion staircase, where I always trip….

The main staircase is in a similar style to Craigdarroch Castle, my former workplace and another 1890’s mansion in the Rockland Area.  With a sweeping vista of what was once the main Spencer Mansion lobby and with a large stained glass window now permanently back-lit after gallery additions, the staircase looks down at some large works of art that are on permanent display in the Gallery.  The stairs are carpeted in blue and the walls lined with dark wood panelling.  And, like any old building, there are plenty of squeaks and groans from the floorboards, pipes, windows, etc.

One of the charms of this gallery is the combination of world-class gallery space with the historic Victorian house.  When in the house, where I spend most of my days, the offices can fill with stifling heat even with the windows open.  At the other end of a hallway there are priceless pieces of art displayed in perfectly temperature controlled exhibition spaces.  With recent renovations, the Gallery now boasts one of the best climate control systems in Canada.  This allows the gallery to host some of the best touring exhibitions (the largest William Kurelek show in 30 years opening this Friday) from Canada and around the world as well as show a wider variety of the in-house Asian collection and the one of the best and most complete exhibitions of Emily Carr work on permanent display.

For me, working at the Art Gallery, while being something new and out of my normal museum tour guide comfort zone, is nonetheless like coming home.  I grew up just below Rockland, in the Fairfield neighbourhood, and visited the Gallery many times as a child.  My middle school was across the road, and I’ve flown down the Moss Street hill on my bike more times that I can count (or my mom would care to think about).  One Saturday every July was devoted to walking from the water to the Gallery looking at artists and their works during the annual Moss St. Paint-In (now the TD Gallery Paint-In, July 21, 2012).  My summers as a young boy were spent in this historic, culturally rich area of Victoria and it seems only fitting to return and help coordinate the expansion of this Paint-In into downtown Victoria as part of the 150th anniversary of the City.

Uncrating the Kurelek exhibition

Uncrating the Kurelek exhibition, part of my exploration of the Art Gallery includes peering through windows as new exhibitions arrive.

So as I start my second full week at the Gallery and get more comfortable with the amount of learning, the old keyboard, the noisy ventilation outside my office, and the art-speak that reverberates around the old mansion from the offices of some of the best curators and gallery staff in BC, I can still look out my office door, down the staircase, to places dear to my childhood.  I was lucky to get such a challenging yet familiar co-op posting and I’m excited to see how it all pans out.

I still need to watch out for that staircase though.  On my way out of the office on my first day, the same day the stair almost laid me out on my way up, I forgot about the sunken stair again.  I jammed my knee and almost catapulted myself down the flight of stairs as my feet searched for a footing that wasn’t there.  It’s hard to believe the most challenging and dangerous part of my job, the thing which is sure to sneak up from behind (or rather, below) and threaten to ruin my day, is the last step I take as I climb the steps of the art world.


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