How I Got My Job As The Director Of A Popular Toronto Art Gallery
For our career series “How I Got My Job,” we’ll be talking to real people, working real jobs across a variety of industries. These people are pushing boundaries and have made their mark. They’ve found success on their own terms, and now we’re extracting their advice on how to carve out your own career path.
For art enthusiasts around the world, becoming a gallery director is a dream come true. And for our next feature, it’s a reality — but not without years of hard work.
Gaëtane Verna has been the Director of the popular Toronto establishment The Power Plant at Harbourfront Centre Contemporary Art Gallery since 2012. Working with a team of 20 people, she is able to present the very best in contemporary Canadian and international art, all free of admission thanks to a sponsorship with BMO.
For her, art is more than something to look at — she works hard to help artists she believes in gain recognition and provide joy, inspiration, and unique experiences to those who visit the gallery.
We had the opportunity to talk to Gaëtane Verna about her love for art, why the Power Plant’s annual fundraiser — Power Ball — is important to her, and more.
When did you fall in love with art?
I’ve always been in love with art! Being interested and involved in the arts has been a big part of my life. I first played cello in an orchestra and was also part of the corps de ballet of Ballet Ouest in Montréal many many years ago now! When I first began working with visual art, I was interested in working in an auction house, but soon realized that the study of art history, and then later curation and exhibition making, was my true calling. I was drawn to opportunities where I could enable artists to present their art to different audiences. Curation requires research, planning, and working closely with the artist to present their work to the public. Art history is key – by understanding the history and the socio-political context in which art is produced, viewed, and experienced, it enables us to deconstruct the visual codes imbedded in artworks, creating entry points into the artists’ vision and shining a light on the human condition — both past and present — in the process.
How did you land your position at the Power Plant?
Before taking up the post at The Power Plant, I was the Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Musée d’art de Joliette in Lanaudière, Quebec for six years. And from 1998 to 2006, I was the curator of the Foreman Art Gallery at Bishop’s University, while also teaching in the Art History department of both Bishop’s University and the Université du Québec à Montréal.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned in your career?
Be true to yourself no matter the circumstances, and as Michelle Obama says, “When they go LOW, we go HIGH!” I always do what I say and say what I do. As such, honesty and empathy are paramount to me and they are at the core of my values and the values of the institutions that I have had the honour to lead. We never achieve anything alone, and
I always surround myself with colleagues and collaborators that share the same values and passion for life and work that I have. Lastly, work hard even if you think that no one is watching! The challenges are part of the learning and the journey.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into your line of work?
If you want to curate exhibitions, see exhibitions, visit artist studios, study in Art History, read books, see movies, go to the theatre, read the newspaper, and listen to the news. Be a current citizen interested in all human issues. Having a knowledge of the issues of our current world is as important as understanding the work of artists from the middle age to our contemporary world. Forge your own ideas and determine the works of art that you are interested in defending and presenting. Find an institution that shares the same ideals that you hold true and work with people that are like-minded. Be bold and be passionate about your work, and be self-motivated to share the work of artists with the audience regardless of its composition.
Who are some artists at the gallery that you’re excited about right now?
Just after our annual fundraiser Power Ball, taking place June 6, we will have our Summer Exhibition Opening Party on June 21 from 8 – 11 p.m. to celebrate our Summer Season. We’re thrilled to have Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige present their landmark series On Scams alongside the first solo exhibitions in Canada for German artist Mario Pfeifer and British artist Thomas J Price. All summer long we will present free public programming that encourages the public to engage with the exhibitions, including artist talks, tours, film screenings, and our Sunday Scene series, which provides guest speakers from the world of contemporary art and beyond the opportunity to offer responses to our current exhibitions. Regardless of whether they choose to focus on a single work/artist or on multiple exhibitions, presenters nonetheless highlight intriguing connections between our programs and broader cultural and intellectual debates.
What is the Power Ball and why is it important to you?
Since its inception in 1999, Power Ball has thrived as a major fundraising event and evolved into Toronto’s most notorious art party, setting the standard as one of the most highly anticipated and influential art galas in Toronto.
Power Ball is vital to The Power Plant. As our annual fundraiser, it the engine that makes it possible for us to commission new works by artists, provide programming that empowers and encourages creative expression, publish catalogues on the exhibiting artists and circulate our exhibitions around the world. Admission to the gallery is free, so visitors may engage with the exhibitions as often as they wish and also take in exhibition tours, artist talks, or other such events. We offer a range of programming that engages with visitors of all ages: from Power Kids as part of our family programs and Power Youth to film screenings and Master Classes with exhibiting artists and portfolio nights for our local artists.
We approach this event like we approach everything at The Power Plant: with presenting local and international artists as our priority. Keeping artists at the centre of it all means including their voice at every level of the institution: on our board, as members, as part of our educational programming, and as guests of Power Ball. We welcome artists to this event in part through our artist package initiative, which includes 2 pre-party tickets and a donation enabling us to invite ten artists to partake in Power Ball and celebrate with other artists and guests from the vibrant arts and culture scene in Toronto and beyond.
What can guests expect from this year’s event?
For Power Ball: 21 Club, presented by Holt Renfrew, the entire gallery space will become an illicit speakeasy, where guests come into the shadows with us for a night of revelry by way of an immersive art experience. For the 21st edition of the event, we were inspired by how people find creative ways to do things we’re told we’re not allowed to do, and took as our starting point prohibition in the 1920s. 21 Club, therefore, makes reference to the most infamous speakeasy from 1920s New York, but with our signature contemporary spin.
During the Pre-Party/VIP, local artist-designer-restaurateur Sarah Keenlyside will take partygoers on a spectacular journey that combines food and performance. Keenlyside will present her work Centrepiece (2019), a reimagining of the dining experience where the background becomes the foreground. Performances in collaboration with Ace Dance Theatre will transport guests into a space that celebrates the glorious dance of service, all while they indulge in exquisite cuisine by Man Ray Bar à vin, restaurant La Banane, and CXBO Chocolates.
We will also be presenting the work of a diverse group of local and international artists at Power Ball. This year, Toronto-based artist Bruno Billio will present an enlarged, immersive version of his Tron209 room, a work that engages with bygone visions of the future, specifically the 1980s movie Tron, by manipulating everyday objects and spaces with tape and black light. I’m also very much looking forward to seeing Mexican artist Chelsea Culprit’s commanding installation Tru Bruja (2018). In this work, Culprit plays around with the meaning of the word “witch,” critiquing its negative connotations while pointing to the powerful ways witchy women continue to disrupt social norms.
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And though it might seem paradoxical, prohibition in the early 1920s was a rich time in history for drag culture — both drag kings and queens performed regularly. In fact, until the repeal of prohibition in 1933, when speakeasies were forced to close and Nazism and Hollywood homophobia drove gay subcultures even further underground, so-called “pansy clubs” flourished in major cities across the United States. To acknowledge and honour this history, we are engaging Toronto’s diverse LGBTQ community through a series of drag and burlesque performances curated by Tobaron Waxman of the Intergenerational LGBT Artist Residency. Carlotta Carlisle, Tynomi Banks, Drag King Flare, Gay Jesus, and Dainty Smith and Imogen Quest of Les Femmes Fatales Burlesque will strut, sashay, and strip their way across the stage.
Guests will also experience a special, site-specific installation by Two-Spirit, Métis, disabled artist Michel Dumont, an alum of the Residency. It is our way of remembering that in 2019 we pay homage to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and riots, which saw members of the LGBTQ community rise up against harassment from the police in Greenwich Village in New York City. These riots are widely known as the birth of the modern LGBTQ movement in the United States.
There will be many other surprises at Power Ball, and guests should always expect the unexpected with the art, the food, the drinks, the music and a true Toronto celebration. Join us on June 6 when all will be finally revealed!
Featured image: Gaëtane Verna, Director, The Power Plant. Winter 2019 Exhibitions Opening Party. Courtesy The Power Plant. Photo: Henry Chan
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