Sherry Phillips, Conservator, Contemporary Art, reveals the behind-the-scenes process of getting artwork out of the vaults and into the gallery.
How does it all begin?
It usually starts with a wish list. A curator will develop an idea for an exhibition and choose artwork or documents they think best explore and explain their concept. That list is then sent to conservators, who evaluate the condition and installation details of each object by heading downstairs… to the vaults!
Descending into “the vaults” sounds incredibly mysterious (and a bit frightening). What’s it like down there?
Well, I’ve been asked on many occasions if the AGO vaults resemble the final scene of the film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In some ways, yes they do! We have large rooms filled with racks or shelves that are hung with paintings or stacked with boxes. One of my favourite things about working at the Gallery is spending quiet time in the vaults, just looking at and thinking about the artwork. The layers of concepts and expectations about an artist or artwork are almost absent here. Simply by rolling out screens of paintings, I find myself enjoying the works and making unexpected associations with those works nearby — which offer an interesting blend of themes, colours, eras. We also have vaults filled with large wooden crates, stacked almost ceiling high, containing artwork in various stages of assembly. As the contemporary art conservator, many of the objects I look after are stored as separated component parts. And many of the objects haven’t been assessed in several years.
When assessing if an artwork is ready for display, what sorts of questions are you asking?
There are a range of questions, each of which can easily fit into a typical flow chart. Is it ready to install? If yes, then there is a relatively short path to the gallery space; minor treatment, mount or frame, if any, and scheduling an installation date. If it’s not ready to install, the path of processing the artwork to the gallery space becomes much more complicated, and may not happen at all. Does it need treatment to repair or restore? Is the treatment complicated? Do we have the resources and can it be done in a reasonable amount of time, and in time for the exhibition?
Sometimes the original wish list becomes a much more complicated document, with more questions added than answers. One of the interesting features of contemporary art objects is an artists’ exploration of non-standard materials, like plastics or electrical components. These materials may be the primary material or used in combination with other traditional materials, like wood or paint. Electrical components for example may need careful evaluation to ensure they meet parameters laid out by the Ontario Electrical Safety Association. Part of my job is to devise how to meet safety standards while honouring the artist’s original intention.
Sherry Phillips at work
And what about object research — do you have to check out its history?
Absolutely; and the best way to start is with the object’s record. Every object in the collection has an associated permanent record. Some files are surprisingly scant, maybe a page or two, handwritten or typed several decades ago. (Interestingly, the paper files can be fascinating artifacts containing carbon copies and other types of early copying technologies, old letterheads and charismatic signatures.) There may be a brief note about the object’s condition when acquired or nothing at all. The internet has proven to be a powerful tool to begin the search for more information , but our library and archives, the artist or estate and even oral history gathered from people who knew the artist or artwork when originally installed, are essential to piece together the history of an undocumented artwork.
In conversation over coffee one day, Greg Humeniuk, Curatorial Assistant, recounted a recent visit with the daughter and granddaughter of a prominent Canadian artist about some artworks that were offered to the AGO from an estate. By speaking with the family, Greg learned about the artist’s practice and gained insight into his life and personality — things that aren’t generally discussed in existing literature. Oral history is an invaluable source of information that reinforces the complexity and nuanced nature in all of us. Curatorial and conservation practice in turn benefits from greater insight and new avenues of consideration and presentation.
What are some difficulties you’ve come across when readying artwork for display?
Ensuing conversations with the curators and others members of the installation team may lead to difficult choices — like if we have to substitute one artwork for another already in “exhibition ready” condition. But, at the centre of the discussion is a desire to showcase the best of an artist’s career and the AGO collection. Inclusion on the list may be the first opportunity in a long time to schedule conservation treatment. If one or more artwork must be removed from the wish list however, at the very least we have a much better idea of the current condition, and one or more artworks are added to my long term to-do list.
Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program
They are some of the first people you see when you visit the Gallery. They spend their days surrounded by centuries of art, in rooms that can fill with swarms of visitors and empty at a moment’s notice. They offer insight, directions, warnings, and anecdotes — with warmth, wit and knowledge. But just how much do you know about our Protection Services team?
If you’re curious about our guards and their perspectives on our art collection, then take in “Singing Softly When No One’s Around,” the newest project created by the AGO Youth Council project in collaboration with artist Abbas Akhavan. In 2015, the Youth Council interviewed eight security guards about their lives, their roles at the AGO, and their favourite works of art. The project’s title is taken from one of their interviews.
On June 2, we’re kicking off Toronto’s first ever Pride Month with a special AGO First Thursday curated by Toronto-based artist, filmmaker, writer, photographer Bruce LaBruce. (Tickets are going fast, so if you haven’t got yours yet, click here!) To get you in the mood to Ride with Pride, the legendary provocateur has compiled a top 10 list of his favourite jams that explore themes of gender identity, expression and celebration.
Presented in partnership with Pride Toronto & Inside Out LGBT Film Festival.
Ever dream of visiting the gallery without the crowds? This morning, we’ve invited 20 Torontonians — art fans, Instagram photographers, social media influencers — for an early-bird, behind-the-scenes tour, all before we opened to the public. This surreal experience is our pilot event, the first of its kind at the AGO. Follow the #emptyAGO experience below, and stay tuned for updates about future tours.
April slipped right by us, but we’ve finally caught up with our incredible visitor submissions and compiled another edition of AGOxInstagram. We’re lucky: Our visitors are some of the best photographers in the city, and we are constantly marveling at your views of the AGO. Inspired by you, we’ve created a monthly round-up of favourite AGOxInstagram shots. Want to take part? Keep sharing your Instagram and Twitter photos with us by tagging @agotoronto or #agotoronto.
Photos (by row, left to right): @jesssymw, @tulipslalaland, @siungtjia, @therealskipmccoy, @tassellate, @lyndsaygutsch, @sysneye, @brain.vision, @artmoi
Before the crowds
Ever dream of visiting the gallery without the crowds? Our first #emptyAGO tour is your chance to experience the AGO before we open to the public.
On Thursday, May 26, 9am–10:30am, we’re asking 20 Torontonians — art fans, Instagram photographers, social media influencers — to roam the empty gallery, snap photos, and hear behind-the-scenes stories from the AGO’s Social Media Officer. This surreal experience is our pilot event, the first of its kind at the AGO.
Access to an entirely empty AGO
Breakfast mingle in the Grange House
Same-day admission to the AGO (which opens at 10:30am)
To join, fill out the form below by Friday, May 20, 11:59pm. Questions? Email email@example.com or send us a message on Twitter/Instagram @agotoronto. Can’t make it? Follow the action on Instagram/Twitter by checking out #emptyAGO.
We’re renovating to serve you better! While the Dr. Mariano Elia Hands On Centre is closed for improvements til mid-May, we’re offering facilitated Hands-On Centre activities and materials throughout the Gallery spaces. Check out what’s happening today!
Hands-On Centre On Wheels
Hands-On Fun on the Move! Check in with our Family Program Facilitators in the galleries today. Each day, we will be here to offer fun activities such as building challenges, games, story time, and pretend play using the art in our collections and exhibitions as inspiration!
Here’s where we’ll be: Tuesdays: 10:30 am – 2 pm
Bennett Gallery (Level 2; Gallery 229 on your map)
Wednesdays: 10:30 am – 2 pm
Thomson Collection of Canadian Art
(Level 2; Galleries 209/210 on your map)
Thursdays: 10:30 am – 2 pm
Reuben Wells Leonard Memorial Gallery
(Level 1; Gallery 117 on your map)
Fridays: 10:30 am – 2 pm
David Milne Centre (Level 1; Gallery 145 on your map)
Saturdays: 10:30 am – 4 pm
Weston Family Learning Centre – Young Education
Commons (Concourse Level)
Sundays: 10:30 am – 4 pm
Weston Family Learning Centre – Young Education
Commons (Concourse Level)
AGO Kids’ Gallery
(Level 1: Gallery 140 on your map).
Visit The Kids’ Gallery at the AGO, a space created especially for children and you. Together you can experience art first-hand, learn and have fun. Enjoy our current exhibition, Pets & Me, with a fun interactive game, touchable activities, and kids talking about art! Kids can draw a picture of their favourite pet, and hang it up on The Kids’ Gallery wall, read a book, or put on a costume and Instagram their silly look!
Today marks Frank Stella’s 80th birthday, and we couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than with our very own tribute! Stella Ella Ola is the AGO Youth Council‘s playful response to the Frank Stella painting York Factory (Sketch) VI, on display in Room 126. (Due to copyright restrictions, we’re unable to share the original piece in this post or link to it.)
Inspired by Stella’s colour blocking, kids’ TV shows and 1970s modern dance, the Youth Council members gave York Factory (Sketch) VI a youthful makeover in which their bodies replace the artist’s sweeping blocks of colour. Placing themselves within this work creates a dialogue between the original Stella and their photograph, making the original work relevant for a new generation of visitors to the gallery. As Stella would say about this work: “What you see is what you see.”
Sunbeams falling in through paned windows, women in quiet rooms, and empty streets with façades executed in melancholy greys. The great Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi is often described as “the painter of quiet rooms”—a name that aptly describes his unique, poetic style. Can you capture a sense of Hammershøian serenity on your smartphone?
(Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor, 1901, Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 52 cm, National Gallery of Denmark)
(Vilhelm Hammershøi, Near Fortunen, Jagersborg Deer Park, North of Copenhagen, 1901, Oil on canvas, 55 x 66.5 cm, National Gallery of Denmark)
Currently on view and free with general admission, the exhibition Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershøi features twenty-four masterpieces from the SMK – The National Gallery of Denmark. And together with the SMK, we’re launching a photo competition that invites you — and your smartphone — to take pictures of grey-hued, atmospheric interiors in true Hammershøi fashion.
How can I take part?
Take photos inspired by Hammershøi’s aesthetic and share them on Instagram using the hashtag #HammershoiAGO. Or, visit the exhibition in person and take a seat at our very own Hammershøi “selfie spot”: set recreation of Strandgade 25, where the artist lived with his wife Ida for four very productive years between 1912 and 1916.
Many photographers have already been inspired by Hammershøi in various ways, and this competition isn’t about copying a specific work, but rather about capturing the distinctive look and feel of his art. Many of Hammershøi’s own works are reminiscent of photography and have obvious parallels to Instagram filters and aesthetics.
Characteristic elements of Hammershøi’s work that you might find inspirational:
• Light falling in through windows
• A play of light and shadow
• Restricted colour palette and saturation
• Female figure with her back turned to the viewer
• Solitary female figure
• Figures absorbed in quiet pursuits
• Rooms arranged in a sequential layout
• Empty rooms
The writer Poul Vad studied Hammershøi in great detail, and he describes the relationship between the Danish painter and photography as follows:
Photography is one of the phenomena that defines modernity. The ‘photographic’ aspect of Hammershøi’s paintings is undoubtedly part of the reason why this painter’s art falls within the heading of ‘modernity’ in spite of his traditional approach to his craft. They still seem modern to us today.
You can take your photographs anywhere at all, including at our Hammershøi selfie wall. And remember: a friend’s livingroom can be every bit as Hammershøian as a deserted street in downtown Toronto. So grab your smartphone and start capturing scenes full of greys, light, and tranquillity.
Mother’s Day is coming up soon (May 8 — just putting that out there) and we’ve got some thoughtful suggestions on how to spoil her this weekend:
(Helen Galloway McNicoll, White Sunshade #2, oil on canvas, 99.5 x 81.9 cm. Gift of the Estate of Budd Sugarman, 2006, Art Gallery of Ontario)
Take the Mother’s Day Tour
May 8, 2016, 11am–5:30pm
Artful discussion and themed tours of the AGO’s collection — what’s not to like? In the company of a knowledgeable and engaging AGO Gallery Guide, you’ll visit masterworks by empowering female artists, and works that explore themes of family and motherly love. Highlights include works by Kathleen Munn, Christi Belcourt, Bonnie Devine, Paraskeva Clark, Daphne Odjig, Helen Galloway McNicoll, and more.
1-Hour Highlights Tours (every one is different!): 11am, 12pm, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm. Meet in Walker Court, Level 1 (If you need directions, head to the Info Kiosk at the entrance.)
On the Dot Tours: Quick, 10-minute art chats. Meet in front of the work On the Dot:
11:30am “Time Dissolve” by Carl Beam, Room 227
11:30am “Mother and Child” by Kenojuak Ashevak, Room 140
1:30pm “Mother and Child” by Frances Loring, Room 227
2:30pm “The Wisdom of the Universe” by Christi Belcourt, Room 225
Give her the gift of 5,000+ years of art. Free admission, Member Preview Days, Gallery-wide discounts, complimentary coat check, access to the Grange Members’ Lounge (including Afternoon Tea), and too many perks to name!
If nothing but the finest recreation of a Downton Abbey high tea will satisfy, then treat her to la crème de la crème at the Norma Ridley Members’ Lounge, Grange House and Atrium (Level 1). Saturday & Sunday, May 7 & 8 (Seatings at Noon, 12:30, 2:30 and 3pm), by reservation only; A Members’ exclusive. ($50 per person plus tax and 15% gratuity)
Unique, affordable and stylish gifts she’s sure to adore, from the crafty (colour-your-way-to-calm books!) to designer decor to beautiful jewellery. Plus: Members’ enjoy a 10% discount.
Family Tree & Drop-in Play in the Weston Family Learning Centre
Little ones can also celebrate Mother’s Day during our artmaking and play activities. Create your own family drawing or message to add to our collective AGO Family Tree. Included with general admission (Members visit free!).Where: Weston Family Learning Centre, Concourse Level, 10:30am–4pm.
Enjoy a delicious brunch buffet at FRANK, where art, food and talk meet. Choose from continental, carving and seafood stations including an oyster bar, as well as salads, an assortment of sweets, and a selection of housemade pastries. Plus: We also have a special menu for your little ones.