40 Minutes with Heather Anderson

By Jimena Martinez Gerhard

February 12, 2016

Photo of Heather Anderson by Justin Wonnacott

Photo of Heather Anderson by Justin Wonnacott

It is amazing what a student can learn from even a short conversation with an arts professional. Meeting with the Carleton University Art Gallery’s curator, Heather Anderson, gave me a more detailed example of what a path towards a curatorial career might look like (something many Art History students wonder about).

Anderson began her career with the intention to be an artist, studying for her BFA at Emily Carr. She went on to acquire an MA in Women’s Studies with a thesis on feminist performance art in Canada. Over the course of her education and volunteering in artist-run centres, Anderson became interested in the curatorial field. Obtaining an apprenticeship at the Mount Saint Vincent University Art gallery, reflects Anderson, “was really what made me realize that there was another path [beyond that of an artist] that I could pursue.”

Anderson continued to pursue the parallel careers of curator and artist. “I do remember feeling this conflict within me of how can I reconcile this, how can I do both well,” said Anderson. While working as the first female art handler/preparator at the National Portrait Gallery in London, a job that gave her hands on experience working in a large institution, she even recalls being a little envious of her roommates who were pursuing their MA in Fine Art.

Ultimately, Anderson found satisfaction in the curatorial path laid out for her. To this day, Anderson doesn’t paint anymore. Instead she says that “working with artists through creating exhibitions and presenting their work is also a very fulfilling creative practice and very stimulating in terms of having the opportunity to engage with a whole spectrum of different ideas.”

Later on, through a professional curatorial training program in the École du Magasin in Grenoble, France, Anderson gained more of hands-on experience. This program, established as the first of its kind in 1987, is structured around seminars, research, and travel, and the development and presentation of a collaborative curatorial project.

Anderson recalls how she obtained an internship by approaching Kitty Scott, then Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada. She had a desire to learn about how the institution builds a collection of contemporary Canadian art. This led to several short-term contracts and eventually, when a job opened up, a full-time position as an Assistant Curator. “I recognize that chain of events and circumstances is not how it typically unfolds for people so I feel very fortunate,” says Anderson, who worked in the National Gallery of Canada’s Contemporary Art department for six years.

Having worked in both large and small art institutions Anderson recognizes the advantages and challenges of both. While working in a large institution generally affords more resources and much more specialized work, she reflects that when “when working in a smaller structure you get to perform more roles. Things can also happen more immediately. If you have an idea you talk to colleagues and make it happen, as opposed to submitting a proposal and having to wait for a decision to be made behind the scenes. Being a part of a university there is also more focus on intellectual engagement, interdisciplinary research, and one is freer to experiment.”

When I asked about the most valuable skill a student can learn, Anderson stated that it is really hard to pinpoint what skill is the most valuable. Among the skills that she highlighted in an Art History program such as Carleton’s were research and writing; however she said that learning how to look at artworks spatially and how they relate to each other, different artists, other time periods and larger questions about the world is also a core skill.

There are, however, many skills that can only really be learned on the job¾ for instance, administrative tasks and operational structures of the gallery. Anderson emphasizes that it is creative vision and passion that must motivate you: “There is an idea nowadays that being curator is a glamorous job, and yes, it is exciting to work with artists, but I would say that 95% of being a curator seems to be spent at the computer, mostly answering emails and feeling tied to a desk. One has to keep in mind that what are often mundane tasks are an integral part of the job and realizing exhibitions.”

The current exhibition at CUAG demonstrates Anderson’s interest in artist-centered approaches to curating. Anderson met Carol Sawyer during a Banff residency program in 2012 and invited her to develop an exhibition as part of CUAG’s Collection Invitational series. This is a recent initiative “inviting artists for a weeklong residency to conduct research on some aspect of the collection that will lead to an exhibition. The goal is to activate the collection in new and artist-led ways, particularly as much of the collection is underutilized.”

Sawyer’s work was a logical fit for the Collection Invitational series because wherever Sawyer presents the Natalie Brettschneider Archive, she conducts research to connect Brettschneider (a fictional figure) with local historical figures, particularly women artists who are not very well known. “I had a hunch that there would be many intersections between Natalie Brettschneider and CUAG’s co-founder Frances Barwick,” says Anderson as she lists all the different documents about Barwick from CUAG, Library and Archives Canada and the National Gallery of Canada that are part of the exhibition.

“I think it’s important to get out and see lots of exhibitions if one wants to be a curator. In Art History one can became very consumed by the coursework and the school life. It’s really important to get out and meet artists…to really engage with the art community,” advises Anderson to students that want to gain experience in the field.

I personally encourage students to get out and see the exhibition Carol Sawyer: The Natalie Brettschneider Archive at CUAG, on until 19 April of this year.

About the Author: Jimena Martinez Gerhard is Render’s first undergraduate guest blogger. She will be writing monthly posts for the blog. Jimena is a second year undergraduate student at Carleton University completing a double major in Communication Studies and Art History. Originally born in Mexico, she also lived many years in Costa Rica before coming to Canada.