Ideas from the Vault: An Introduction to the Collections Manager and the SFU Art Collection

Christina Hedlund | September 8, 2017

Did you know that SFU has an art collection? Sure, you've probably seen paintings and sculptures around the Burnaby and Harbour Centre campuses, but did you ever think about where those works of art came from? Or who takes care of them?

My name is Christina Hedlund and I'm the Collections Manager at SFU Galleries. I'm in charge of maintaining the SFU Art Collection, keeping it safe and accounted for so the university community and the general public can enjoy it for generations to come. 

My path to working with art collections wasn't straightforward. I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Emily Carr University, but took a few years to decide what I really wanted to do after which point I chose to take a Museums Studies program in Ottawa. At the time, I was leaning towards becoming a conservator. While doing the Museum Studies program, I focused on conservation and interned at a private conservation studio where I was later hired after I finished the program.

Eventually, I moved to Toronto. While in Toronto I worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) which provided me with a lot of experience in various departments such as exhibition services, framing, conservation, and collections. It was also at the AGO where I decided that working with collections was what I wanted to do and to move forward in my career I needed a Master's degree.

I completed a Master of Arts, with Distinction, in Preventive Conservation from Northumbria University. While doing my Masters I was hired as the registrar at the Kelowna Art Gallery (KAG). After three years at the KAG I accepted the position of Collections Manager at SFU Galleries. I am the first Collections Manager that has been hired here. In the past, it was either the Director of the gallery who looked after the collection or temporary workers were hired to deal with inventories and acquisitions. Dealing with a collection takes a lot of work and is certainly not something that can be dealt with on part-time basis.   

SFU opened its doors in 1965 and during its construction the first works installed on campus were two murals, Mosaic Mural by Gordon Smith and Theatres of the World by Buell Mullen. At the beginning, there wasn't an official art collection nor a position at SFU that was responsible for the long-term care of these works of art. The two murals would become the first works to enter the art collection. In 1966 a Works of Art committee was formed to advise the SFU Board of Governors on gifts of art, to develop an art collection and to arrange the borrowing or renting of art around the campus. The committee issued a report in 1967 recommending funds to begin collecting young Canadian artists and they received $3,000 from the Faculty of Education. The Simon Fraser Collection, as it was then called, was officially established by 1970 with an inventory of 103 works of art all purchased from the initial funds. The collection currently has over 5,500 works of art with around 1,000 installed around various campus buildings. 

Buell Mullen, Theatres of the World, 1964-65, stainless steel, nickel, gem stones, paint. SFU Art Collection. Gift of International Nickel Company of Canada Ltd., 1965

This collection is heterogeneous, meaning that it is varied and doesn't follow a specific collecting focus. It is composed of modern and contemporary works that were created primarily by 20th century Canadian artists with diverse practices, and more specifically, created in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. In developing the SFU Art Collection, it is SFU Galleries' objective to acquire significant works by artists who have ties to SFU, the history of British Columbia and Canadian art history and who are not represented in the collection. SFU Galleries is focused on expanding its holdings of women artists, SFU alumni, SFU faculty, video, and photography that relate to SFU history.

The majority of the collection is composed of works of art on paper. Works on paper are prints (silkscreen, lithograph, serigraph, etc.), drawings, photographs, collages, and watercolours. The collection also includes paintings, sculptures, wall hangings, installations, and videos. 

In 2015, SFU Galleries published a Public Art Guide, which highlights a small selection of the works installed around the SFU Burnaby campus. The guide is comprised of three self-guided walks. While we have only included certain works in the guide many more works of art can be seen around the Burnaby campus.

Being the primary staff member taking care of over 5,500 works and all aspects of collections care comes with many challenges and opportunities both expected and unexpected. It is the challenges that keep my job exciting and me busy every day.

A recent event that was completely unexpected was a loan request from another cultural institution. SFU Galleries loans works from the collection to exhibitions organized by other institutions. The majority of galleries have policies and procedures on collections management, and outgoing loans are part of those policies. Most cultural institutions expect loan requests to be sent at least six months in advance of the loan date, however, a recent request was sent to us just three weeks before the requested loan date. This gave me just a short time to pull the works and arrange for the curator to come and look at the works to make a final decision. SFU Galleries Director and I then went over the loan agreement to make sure we agreed to all of conditions. Once the Director signed the agreement I had to type up all the information and credit lines for the works, do condition reports and wrap the works up safely to be picked up and delivered to the other gallery. Having to do all of this in a short period of time means that other tasks are pushed aside. This is just one of many unexpected things that occur on a weekly basis. It certainly keeps me on my toes!

Stay tuned for more behind the scenes stories in this blog series, Ideas from the Vault!